15 July 2008

How did we lose the public's trust?

how did we lose the public's trust?
What’s it going to be? Count Dracula’s castle? A chateau on the Loire? We don’t know until the make-up is on. Right now it is a pile of sticks and plywood and shows how the great versatility of wood is at the same time its great weakness: you can do anything with it. Stone, concrete and steel are not so forgiving and buildings made of them tend to have greater continuity of form and content.

Florian Maurer

I am an immigrant architect. Finally I get to have the good things I was barred from in Europe: Baroque castles and Tudor mansions; I get to stay in hotels that make Gothic cathedrals look like social housing; my court appearance is in a Greek temple with Corinthian columns; even WalMart finds a gable and a diamond window here and there to give its mega-boxes some pizzazz, something ‘traditional’ to make them fit in. Walking through my neighbourhood I see cascading rooflets, gables and flying buttresses from eons of European, Asian and even extraterrestrial history, some of them on the same building. So full of fantasy, and so economical — wood frame construction allows this exuberance, it can be covered with anything. Mickey Mouse has broken our chains and set us free. Yet I humbly confess: I am overwhelmed by the boundless possibilities Mickey has given me, and more often than not I default to designing rather plain boxes.

Enough sarcasm — do we attach our-selves to things and forms that are symbols of a glorious past not our own because we are like cannibals eating the flesh of powerful adversaries? Why do we call our neighbourhoods Shaughnessy and Gleneagles in reference to countries we’ve never even visited? Gated communities called Deer Run forget the environmental degradation around them. When we’re young we want to look older, and when older we want to look younger. We greet each other with ‘How are you?’ but rarely hear an honest answer to threaten the world of smoke and mirrors maintained with so much effort. If we are afraid of What Is, our wealth allows us to worry about a future which rarely comes as planned. Between an obsession with the past and worrying about the future, it is easy to forget how to really live.

Celebrity worship is a vicarious way to experience a bit of the culture and the creativity denied us. Between the the extremes of signature public buildings (with star architects vying for originality and visual noise at all, and often frivolous, cost) and badly designed, overbuilt, unsustainably-sited boxes with bits of ‘style’ glued on, we miss the opportunity to express ourselves in an architecture of our own time and place. The fact that there is a tiny minority who still produces work that inspires without resorting to hyperbole does not change this general picture.

Where has our profession lost the connection to a real culture? Here is what Stephanie White has to say:
‘I think in Canada we’ve always assumed that architects will tell us what we need, and in general trust that they will...Developers deal in fashion, and architects are not trained in fashion, but in basic principles, and never taught how to link fashion to principles, thus they hit the market as naïfs. When someone goes out to buy a house, they are limited by budget and by geography. In Calgary, and in Kelowna, and in Nanaimo, they could get a lovely little old house within their budget but they’d have to work day and night to fix it up, and most people only have time to move in, get the kids settled at school and go back to work, thus new developer neighbourhoods. Style, in this situation isn’t as important as ease’.
I guess it would be a valuable marketing tool if we knew how to press the right buttons, if we were not ‘naïfs’, but let’s concentrate on those basic principles, Commodity and Firmness: I believe that when they show up convincingly in our work, our case for Delight is strong. If not, Style will fill the void.

‘Canadians firmly believe that good examples happen elsewhere, in Europe, in the States, in Australia. We do not feel that we require beauty, or elegance, or loveliness in our lives. The minimum will always do. Developers give us the minimum, and the bits of decoration attached are really about competition between developers. The buyers are irrelevant here.’
I can see here the dour world of self-denial Ingmar Bergman portrayed so graphically in his films. We need to break this armour! In a culture dominated by economics it means that beauty, elegance and loveliness (and sustainability) will have to come at no extra cost. In fact, to convince developers they may have to cost less! The public needs a low-cost chance to realise that they need beauty and sustainability before they know to demand them.

We have to learn to design extremely simple, practical and economical buildings, and forgo the temptation to make them unique at all costs for the sake of our egos. We have to say No to star architecture and concentrate on the average Joe. We have to be certain to include ‘supporting a life of joy’ in our clients’ catalogue of functions. In fact, it is a building’s most important function. What would be the point of a life without joy? It is a prerequisite of sustainability: buildings that don’t make us happy are fundamentally unsustainable. Compassion for the less privileged, responsible use of resources, return from hubris to humility, commonsense sustainability not hi-tech gizmos, our love for the planet, those are the things the public has to see in our designs. Once they trust us again they just might be willing to spend a little extra for ‘beauty, elegance and loveliness’ and to demand it from developers. Our designs have to be ingenious. We will have to do some hard homework on Firmness and Commodity to package our Delight in.

Still, this doesn’t address the cultural crux of the matter: living culture is about doing, not buying vicarious experiences. To really enjoy music, for instance, and realise its artistry, we must try sometime to play it ourselves, no matter how badly. I am speaking from my own experience. With the deluge of recorded music we have perfectly executed music available 24 hours a day. We measure ourselves against this perfection and get discouraged. This goes for all aspects of cultural life and I believe it is a major cause for a kind of cultural inferiority complex. As architects we must not only involve our clients more, we must work them hard. This will make their building their own; they will see the artistry behind it and we will be more certain that we have really understood what they needed.

Yes I am an immigrant architect and there IS a distinct Canadian culture, one I cherish very much or I wouldn’t be here. I want this culture to carry its head high and proudly in our architecture, not hiding it behind symbols of another time and place.

Maurer, Florian. 'Caring about architecture'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Florian Maurer and On Site review

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