Should we and would we exist?

Disclaimer: This post is my take on the issue at hand. In no way does it represent the take of the architectural fraternity. Naive, outrageous and downright stupid are terms that I am quite used to.

I came across two articles an ad campaign on the internet today:

1. http://www.forbes.com/sites/justinshubow/2015/03/17/the-american-institute-of-architects-outreach-campaign-is-doomed-to-failure/

2. http://www.architectural-review.com/essays/empty-gestures-starchitectures-swan-song/8679010.article

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLhbTGzE6MA

I feel compelled to write my possibly shortsighted rant after going through the three. The profession of architecture just like many other things in the world, is being faced with existential questions. The entire human race has faced questions on existence since time immemorial. Going off the track I often joke that Christopher Nolan and his movies are widely applauded for the ingeniousness. But in no movie so far does the human race come to end despite being pitted against all odds. Wouldn’t he be better off by portraying the end of the human race? Wouldn’t that make him the remarkable genius in the true sense? Survival is the thing that the human species is best at.

I do believe that architecture is a profession which is not really required in most cases, civil engineers, contractors and people themselves are capable enough of designing spaces for themselves. Isn’t the same true for all art and design profession at large? Painters, sculptors, furniture designers, graphic artists and many more would fall on the list. They do not really need to exist but, (un)fortunately they do and to the best I know, would continue to do. The question of need is often a perplexing one. People questioning the needs of things have mostly been on the wrong side of history. Much of the progress that we have made so far has been dependent on doing what we didn’t need to, creating what wasn’t there before. Steve Jobs shameless admitted that “Customers do not know what they want”. Was he wrong? I don’t think so, he was being brutally honest. And to your amusement, astonishment or rage the company that he led, sits on a $170 billion cash pile. He wasn’t doomed to fail. Or even if he was, he didn’t. Rather he changed the course of history not just for the computer industry but for things that we would generally fail to notice, packaging and advertising being the most important ones on that list.

Much of the criticism of architecture of today is based on the lost sense of place. I find this not just to be inappropriate but also an oversimplification without taking any reality into account. What is the sense of place? I live in India, I wear trousers and shirts which weren’t here, do not belong here but like it or not are here, I love pizza, I am typing this on a computer which was perhaps designed in the USA, manufactured in China and assembled here in India and in a language that wasn’t mine till 200 years ago. Perhaps the only thing that would distinguish me from an American is the color of my skin. Is color of the skin the thing that should give the sense of a place to me or to the buildings in my surroundings? I am a citizen of the world and shouldn’t my buildings be a reflection of that fact? How much longer can we dwell in the past? I am not an advocate of parametric design but, I do believe in the principles of Voltaire. Galileo was ridiculed for his firm belief in heliocentrism and we all know the rest of history. Evolution is a continuous process and each step is a landmark in itself, so are the works of Gehry and Hadid. What the future might be like is only a guess at best, to say that future architects would be astounded by the nature of our choices today is an overreach of a one-sided imagination.

The wise also raise a question of here and now or highlight the sense of urgency that there is. I find this one related to the previous one to an extent. The disregard for here and now is what directly constitutes the more than 40% of the economy of Dubai today. The number is much more when indirect benefactors are taken into account. The truth of the world is that millions are starving or deprived of drinking water while we are doing what we are such as putting and getting back billions of dollars on a social networking platform, or buying a $1000 suit. At this point I do agree that the future might be terrified on our gullibility and inability to exercise critical judgment and not learning from our own history. Historically, the consume less approach of sustainability has failed and from my observations of humanity might as well continue to fail. The right question for me isn’t that can a building consume less energy but, can we produce more energy? As I have observed earlier architecture isn’t merely about designing for the needs but, designing the needs too.

The works of many architects have been criticized for generating momentary awe. The reason for the ephemeral nature of the awe isn’t the flaw in design but another phenomenon called information overload, there is so much that is happening everyday and every second of which we want to be a part of but are limited to a virtual rendezvous. Are you in awe of the Monalisa at this moment, most likely not, does that make it any less a masterpiece? In times when stress and depression is widespread, momentary awes, icons and monuments are the things that we seek. Here and now is a question of dilemma. Parametricism is a fearless statement of possibility in that sense.

Viewing architecture in isolation from the society is an unjust and sinful act. Star architects aren’t doomed either. The ego is here to stay. Democracy was supposed to be a doom on the idea of individual faces in power but the reality is that we have always craved for faces and leaders, leaders who are bold, charismatic and unrelenting for most of their life. We look for heroes, we look for personal greatness and star architects are only the architectural manifestation of that thought. I do believe that everybody isn’t equipped to do everything, you don’t invite Gehry or Zaha Hadid to build a peace memorial, you just don’t. If you do then the flaw is in your discretion.

The two articles are full of architectural examples and pin the doom of architecture mostly on two architects. I don’t have any examples here, because the answers are fundamental and related to the way society functions.

Personally, I am a fan of Apocalypse, if it comes it wouldn’t strike architects alone, and it wouldn’t be because of architects alone. The entire humanity would be doomed. Apocalypse is only wishful thinking. We would pretty much survive.

Pulkit

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