Ceci n’est pas un duck: Contemplations on Criticism and Constraint

The FountainheadFor about a week now, I’ve been chewing on a few thoughts, and I think it’s time to spit them out. I’ve been trying to write a manifesto, as per Kai’s suggestion, but haven’t actually come up with anything, due in part to the fact that I feel underqualified and inexperienced, but then, maybe it’s better that way.

Anyway, the “manifesto” I planned to write was suppose to be about architecture as a paradox. About how it is everything we want to to be and everything we stand for, and yet it cannot possibly ever be, in reality, the design we imagine. And so, you might ask, is it worth it? We’ll never know, because we can’t stop architecture. It is what it is and what it isn’t, whether we are the architects or not. And so we choose to be the architects because we can’t deny ourselves the chance to be involved in something that is great, is always great, in its attempt, even if not in its execution.

It is not a manifesto to contemporary architecture; it is a rationalization for architecture’s very existence, something that obviously does not require rationalization. It would be as if I tried to explain why people inhale.

Because they exhale.I am a House

So what is architecture?

Can a (decorated) bicycle shed be architecture? And is a cathedral always architecture? How do we classify it as a cathedral? Whatever you do, don’t ask Howard Roark.

The imposition of constraints does not have to relate in any way to any sort of “norms” – Wiscombe‘s constraints are certainly very different from, say, Romero‘s, and both apply a different set of constraints to their projects along with “standard” constraints of site, money, etc. Constraints are not just an influence on what we design; they are designed as well.

One might even say that architecture IS the rules. Architects are designing rules, and designing how these rules make up the structure. The structure is the embodiment of the rules.

Detroit Public Schools Book DepositoryFor the most part, architecture has become all about that embodiment. It has become just the building – we know the rules are there, but we critique the building. It works, or it doesn’t. It fits the site, or it doesn’t. The client is happy, or he isn’t. The neighbors are happy, or they aren’t.

The architect is happy, or he isn’t?

Forget about asking what makes architecture – what makes good architecture? Does it have to be beautiful? Does it have to last?

I guess my point is, none of these questions can be “correctly” answered. As objective as some people want to make architecture, some of the “rules” architects make are subjective by nature.

And so, for better or for worse, we have criticism.

Criticism has rules of its own, so hardly bothers to get right what the original rules of a building were.  Today, more so than ever before, everybody is a critic.  Ellsworth Toohey (villain or victim of circumstance?) never had any competition, but today, we have the citizen journalist.  We have Twitter and Facebook and blogs.  We have instant access to almost anything.  And the ability to tell the world (or at least the world wide web) what we think.  And we don’t even have to think about it.Critics

We have Starchitects.

Part of me wants to say things haven’t changed all that much since Rand wrote her book.  Check out your local dose of suburbia if you doubt that at all.  There is a “modern” house about ten miles away from my neighborhood – everyone who has mentioned it to me says it is out of place, and either they see this as a negative attribute or they praise it for being different.

Because today, everyone wants to be different.  Different is cool.  It is in.  It is modern.

Different allows us to comment, and boy, do we like to comment.  It gives us something to talk about.  We might not be able to define beauty, or even understand whether or not something serves it function, but we are fairly confident that we can pick which one of these things is not like the other.

It is mostly garbage.  But you see what garbage can make?

I’m running out of steam in this meta-manifesto and want to get back to reading Mitchell, so I’ll wrap this up with some thoughts on pedagogy.

Before his impending graduation, a fifth year passed on an interesting bit of advice. To paraphrase, he said it didn’t matter what your professors or studio coordinator wanted you to do, because as long as you worked, really worked, and believed in what you were doing, they couldn’t fail you. Sure, your grades would suffer, but ultimately, grades don’t matter all that much.

Limitations in our assignments are necessary.  I’m tempted to write that it doesn’t matter what those limitations are; students will inevitably break them, and write in their own.  But the fact that they need to be there is inarguable.

Limiting the conversation, though, can only be detrimental to our education.  Maybe between the hours of 1:30-4:30, when time constraints dictate a level of importance to topics of discussion, but not “after hours”, and never here.


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