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Something Is Missing

2011 April 20
by Rob Harrison

. . . wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families, wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves . . .

CONFUCIUS, The Great Digest

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< A quintessential and conspicuous example of "something missing:" the 700 Broadway Apartments, located at the prominent northern terminus of Broadway on Capitol Hill; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Something is missing.

Something is missing from our new houses, apartment buildings, and condominiums.

Something is missing from our new city halls, parks, schools, and libraries; from our farms, offices, factories and stores; from our towns, cities and all the countryside.

Design “solutions” for these places derived from (or rationalized by) the “input” of demographic parameters, productivity analyses, behavioral studies, zoning and site constraints, physical plant inventories, and/or cost/benefit ratios have not provided it. Buildings inspired solely by the possibilities inherent in new materials or techniques of building—no matter how “energy-efficient” or “resource-efficient”—have not provided it.

Buildings and communities are not equations. And by definition, the “specialists” who provide this data know a tremendous amount about very little. “Sustainable design” does include the conservation of energy and resources. But it is not a set of brand-new products which—if we just buy and use enough of them—will enable our culture to continue business as usual.

On the other hand, architecture composed purely of Platonic solids, generated from typologies, deconstructed by shifting grids and skewing axes, or informed by semiotics obfuscates even the question. Architects of this order tend to sequester themselves in their studios. If they emerge, to socialize perhaps, they do so only in the company of other architects. If they read, it is PA, or Record, or Assemblages. If they travel, it is a pilgrimage to a “great building”. This self-referential life leads to a monkish concern with the iconology of fasteners.

Some architects work sixty hours a week not because of a particular passion for the projects they are working on, but because they fear for their jobs. They are under constant pressure to “produce”. The “best” employees in these offices are thought to be the ones who produce the most, the fastest, for the least money. If you have any doubt these principles operate in the field of architecture, read the January 1994 issue of Memo, the national newsletter of the American Institute of Architects. Mark C. Zweig, an “specialist” in the management of architecture and engineering firms, is quoted in Practice Pointers. His suggestions for employee “tough love” include:

  • Single out those who always put their own needs above the firms and make it clear you aren’t happy about it. Of course, this doesn’t apply to any person making reasonable requests, such as a day off to attend the funeral of a loved one. …
  • Get rid of comp time policies. … People who want to work 40 hours a week should get into another line of business. …
  • Adopt a new company motto: “Ask not what your company can do for you; ask what you can do for your company.” Encourage the idea that performance comes first and privileges come after.

Are you feeling strip-mined yet? As Wendel Berry says, “There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.” The values of industrial culture that allow exploitation of natural resources encourage a similar and equally destructive exploitation of “human resources.”

Architecture created within the conceptual framework of empirical science or self-referential art, or produced or judged by the standards of industrial efficiency, cannot hope to break free of those incomplete, if not inhumane, systems. Both the processes and the “products” are sterile, academic, and alarmingly abstract. It is this abstraction that allows the deft, surgical separation of theory from practice, means from ends, cause from effect, men from women, and body from soul that characterizes contemporary culture, and within it, much of the current practice of architecture.

Alberto Perez-Gomez, in Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, says:

Truth – demonstrable through the laws of science – constitutes the fundamental basis upon which human decisions are made over and above “reality,” which is always ambiguous and accessible only through the realm of “poetics.” … Modern man … has forgotten his fragility and his capacity for wonder, generally assuming that all the phenomena of his world, from water or fire to perception or human behavior have been “explained.” … Art can be beautiful of course, but only seldom is it understood as a profound form of knowledge.

Like the ecological crisis, at its core, the crisis in architecture is a crisis of character. It is a failure of conscience, imagination, will and spirit. “I was just following orders,” is an excuse that has often been used in the past to justify participation in the design of atrocious buildings. “I needed the money,” is also popular. “If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have,” is another favorite, usually followed by the unspoken “and I thought I could do a better job.” These excuses will not be overcome by more products, more efficient technologies, more powerful computers, or higher fees or salaries for architects.

What it will take is a change of heart. In his essay “Cities of Passion”, Nehalem, Oregon architect Tom Bender suggests:

How we shape our surroundings demonstrates our values, and can be a tool for healing ourselves and our relations to others. In a sacred society our surroundings are a source of meaning, power and strength which we lack today. To make our surroundings better, our hearts need to be in a better place.

Architecture is about life—life is its subject. It is about the way the things we build can gracefully support our lives. Truly poetic architecture has the ability to reconcile humanity with the essential nature of existence. It can transcend mere functionalized “shelter” to become embodied knowledge of “dwelling”, of well-being. Or, as Aldo Van Eyck put it simply: “What you should try to accomplish is built meaning. So get close to the meaning and build!”

A small way to begin might be for each of us to become aware of and articulate our attitudes about the world, and to the greatest extent possible live, design and work in a way which is consistent with those deeply held values and ideals. By working where we live, within reach of our affection, we will be better able to recognize personal responsibility, and hold ourselves accountable, for the diverse implications of our design decisions. We could then design with our hearts in a better place, with poetic dreams and memories of lived experiences and ideal places, rather than with abstractions of art, science or technology, or justifications of pure economy.

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Rob Harrison, AIA, is a Seattle architect and Certified Passive House™ Consultant. This essay was originally published in the Spring 1994 issue of ARCADE magazine. (And nothing much has changed since then.)

One Response leave one →
  1. Jane Jacobs permalink
    April 23, 2011

    That’s one of the nicer and more lively new buildings on Capital Hill. Its amazing how packed the new Starbucks there is throughout the day.

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