Thursday, November 4, 2010

_ good intentions

I started my career in Chicago.  I moved there as an young architect just out of school, and I was confronted by buildings of a sort that I had never known other than through the whirring slide projectors of freshman architectural history.  I felt had to come to terms with this, in one way or another.  I went on the AIA's architectural river cruise, and listened as the tour guide drafted Chicago buildings into a completely fabricated history of architectural style, ending in "deconstruction".  I went to networking happy-hours with the Young Architects Forum, where product reps with fake tans and double my salary bought us beers and chicken fingers with their expense accounts, and we gossiped about good buildings and good firms, and tried to outdo each other in what projects we had worked on, or which architects we knew in Chicago (whether they knew us was an unasked question).  It was important to us to know all the new buildings and the rumors, and it was important to somehow insinuate ourselves into some lineage. 

I went to lectures.  I went to one with Frank Gehry and Stanley Tigerman, mostly because I hoped that Tigerman would try to pick a fight with Gehry.  During questions, someone on the far side of the auditorium asked Gehry what advice he would give to young architects.  I'm sure Gehry gets asked that question at every lecture, and he gave an earnest shot at an answer.  He explained what had been most valuable to himself, when he had been a young architect in Toronto designing spec office interiors, was that he always knew what his aesthetic was and he worked all the time with that aesthetic in his head, even if he wasn’t able to execute it.  He explained that in the face of everything pulling you somewhere else, you have to maintain a design intent and follow through with it. 

My favorite book when I was a kid was a blue cloth-bound copy of Davy Crockett, from the Disney-ized fad in the '50s that I would re-read monthly in the dead of night.  Davy’s motto in the book, given to him by his uncle before Davy shot his first bear was, "Be sure you’re right, then go ahead."  So Frank and Davy agree.

But how do we know we're right?  So much of our training in school, and so many of the hours that get burned early in a building's design are somehow supposed to make it easier to see what a finished building will look like before the concrete is poured.  Even today, with all our computers, virtual reality is hard – harder than I think many of us want to admit, and the only thing that simulates reality well is actual reality (a tautology, I know).  At some point, it seems like there was this shift where so much contemporary work went the other way – trying to make real buildings resemble the virtual (I understand that Perez-Gomez  and Dalibor Vesely traced a turn like this around the invention of perspective), which is usually justified not as a response to the technical problems of representation, but as an aesthetic mirror to our pluralistic, indeterminate, digital society. 

I think that there’s a large gulf between saying that we, as people, should celebrate twenty-first century multi-vocalism (who would deny this?), and then saying in consequence that we, as architects, must insert out buildings into that conversation to stay relevant.  Can there be no more dumb architecture?

And what about the image of the architect-genius?  People sometimes seem surprised when I say that not only do I not always know how something will look when built, often times small decisions are made as a sort of hypothesis…

      "Why does this room have pink carpet and that one lime green?" the client asks.
      "I wanted to find out which one might look better," is the secret reply.

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