What is the one of the most disturbing aspects of the contemporary built environment? What is it that architects in practice and students in the academy do which result in a more unwhole environment? How can we unlearn these practices and build a more whole world?
Below is Morphosis' response to these questions. It cost $144 million to build.
This is the Federal Building in San Francisco; it was completed in 2007. There is no doubt in my mind that the firm attempted to make genuinely good architecture, to make something whole. What they were after was probably not called 'wholeness'. But having personally toured the building, it is becomes clear, in a matter of seconds, that it is a completely un-whole structure. It is one of a myriad of false visions of wholeness that pervade the contemporary canon. Magazine after magazine, blog after blog, website after website, award after award, architects and gullible students have been praising this kind of stuff. I was once one of them.
The reason for its unwholeness lies beyond the building's form language (its geometries, materials, proportions, ect.). Its unwholeness stems from an approach to building, to "design", that is fundamentally at odds with real, objective human situations at stake. It goes against itself while, at the same time, tries to redefine an entire typology. It says I am a concept of a federal building, get used to me. This kind of egotistical attitude that underscores the deeper bifurcation of human life - the split between Architecture and architecture, concept and reality, order and randomness, fact and opinion, spirit and flesh.
It is really no wonder as to why the public has difficulty in respecting the architectural profession. It is because firms like Morphosis design for the sake of their own conceptual wordplay. The reality of this is all too disturbing. Day in and day out, government workers must endure the garish and cold interior space within: a jagged mishmash of concrete that forms an empty, depressing atrium on the ground floor accompanied by a strange clump of wide steps (supposedly echoing the Spanish Steps) and an uncomfortable, windy 'skyroom' (that hole in the middle).
I was then, and still am, quite angry at what they built here. The building sits right at the cross between Civic Center and the Tenderloin. There was a great opportunity to make something of that area, to try and build a community in that public space with something far less pretentious.
Unwholeness is the antithesis of wholeness. It occurs when people begin "designing" - which in today's schools and firms often means do whatever is in your head. Of course, they slap on a few fancy words like typological, parametric, urban mixity, sustainability, computational possibilities to get the motors running. It is, in essence, a ruse.
So what does true wholeness look like then?
Take a look at the two examples below, each made by architects from different generations.
The Amsterdam Stock Exchange Building | 1896 -1903 | Hendrik Petrus Berlage
Image Credit: A composite of images I made. Sources varied.
The Kimball Art Museum | 1972 | Louis I. Khan
Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kimbell_Art_Museum.jpg
Both of these buildings are whole. Both put a feeling into me such that, when I encounter the building or an image of it, I experience the wholeness of the place and of the building itself - its rooms, corridors, outdoor spaces, details. But it goes even further. Wholeness is not conceptual or abstract. It is not presented in such a way that makes it possible for only architects to understand. The reason for this is because wholeness is a real, present, and visible condition in the world.
Why must the profession and the academy insist that doing what Berlage and, to an extent, what Khan did is not possible in the 21st century? We have built like this before - both architects and non-architects. This method is not new; it must be adapted for our time. Alexander has written about this many times over, but there is still a great pushback from builders, professors, critics, and others. Wholeness is embedded in human feeling he argues. It is, therefore, personal. This means that, in a profound way, all architecture is personal. This is not the same as massaging one's ego. It means that every decision we make about a building has lasting consequences.
A true vision of the whole takes seriously every single decision that is made, at every scale, so that in the end, we have made something which people can genuinely care about.
This document is a collection of thoughts, ideas, sketches, and observations of a young architecture student living in the 21st century. It is intended to serve as a resource and vehicle for personal connections that extend beyond virtual domains. The main subject of this blog is an inquiry into the elusive nature of wholeness. The purpose is to identify wholeness-making building methodologies and examples of 'whole architecture' throughout history.