(Originally published on Facebook, 01/30/2015)
“Painting is dead.” That’s a saying that’s been going around for some time now—since the first daguerreotype in the early 1800’s actually. But the claim really got some teeth late this past century. And why shouldn’t it? By then, what hadn’t been explored on a canvas?
I’m speaking of the Avant-garde of course; that ‘front line of Art’ bent on finding truth via color, shape, metaphor etc…. The only problem is, once a new way of seeing the world is defined, it’s easily copied. And what was at one time fresh and honest, quickly becomes counterfeit. This is why High Art must always be on the go. It will never land. It can’t. Because fad and fashion are quick on it’s heels ready to turn any recent headway for authenticity into a sham. —Nutshell.
So what’s this got to do with Architecture? Architecture, in the most contemporary sense of the word, has been following a similar path to that of Art—always on the go; always requiring fresh new interpretations of the form in order to be successful, as if Art and Architecture are synonymous.
Here’s the rub: The canvas has no practical purpose. It’s purely aesthetic. Without the constraint of pragmatics, the range of expression is vast. Now consider, if painting, with all it’s possibility and seemingly infinite opportunity for uniqueness, can be argued ‘dead,’ how reasonably can it be proposed that Modern Architecture, in it’s relentless pursuit for uniqueness (while being shackled to functionality) is clearly exhausted. It is after all, quite limited by actually having to do something.
The consequence of holding on to the idea, that Art and Architecture are the same thing, is an expensive one. Pervertedly so. All of the frugal options that once brought a degree of balance to the duties of both purpose and expression are gone. What remains, simply put, are gigantic abstract sculptures with doors attached; flat-pack reenactments of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ plus some cabled railings. There’s a special kind of hubris required to justify the cost of building in distortion; it’s a hubris that requires a hubris cape, with an exposé of special hubris sized, ego inflated hubris gonads in hubris tights.
And I’m not even saying there’s not a place for this. After all, I love to paint. Shouldn’t it be spare though; especially when it comes to forward thinking, higher education? This said, 9 out of 10 Departments of Architecture at the University level are strictly Modern. That’s conservative—it’s probably more like 98%. And let’s face it, I’ve been on the juries, students are required to create models that only a fraction of a fraction of graduates will ever have the opportunity or resources to bring to the table much less see to fruition.
Meanwhile, on a smaller scale; that scale we all interact with everyday; that ‘human scale,’ our built environment dilapidates. Structure is defeated in advance. And who’s been on watch while ‘building’ as we know it has been economized to nothingness? Is the Academia not the gate keeper; are the Architects not the holders of the keys? What has been your purpose? What has motivated you? The cape? What will be said of the vacancy in the timeline, when historians come to our place, our moment?: “Here, they appear to have built themselves tents?!”
Because, in short order, some 80% of all our structures will need to be rebuilt, and when the time comes for our grandchildren or their grandchildren to do it, there will be a lot fewer resources to work with in a world that is much more complicated.
We have a shelter problem.
So rather than squandering away most of our young talent on the myth of Howard Rourk, .. a suggestion: Change the way you define uniqueness. Find uniqueness in developing not only universal designs but the way those designs are implemented so our buildings will last longer. Then find a way to make them last longer than that. And after that, find a way to make them last a bit longer.
Then find something else to do.
Because after a century of enjoying plenty of food, water and clothing, the shelter problem will also be solved, our natural resources will have a chance to recover, and (being freed from the concerns of our most basic needs) we can get down to the business of being better at being human.
All this to say, there is an enclave of Architects and other professionals that have taken on the mantle of New Urbanism. They have shifted their focus away from individual buildings as the dominant form of architectural expression to the architecture of community. In essence, rather than building subdivisions, they strive to build self sustaining neighborhoods and ‘towns’ from scratch. New Urbanism is not perfect. It’s especially not perfect if the barometer for success is based on a pristine centuries old village comparison. Is it pretending to be that? Maybe. What’s a strip-mall pretending to be? You might say it’s a pretty damn authentic stack of crap. So when defining what’s wanted and not wanted based on pretense and authenticity, it may be worth noting, “mighty few people think what they think they think.”
The point is some folks are trying; with degrees of success they’re tacking towards something better than where things were going.