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    The Naked Architect

    Joe DeBenny
    Feb 20, '12 1:28 AM EST

    No, still not dead. Not yet at least. I have been working on a few entries, but they all didn't seem fitting to post. They were either too personal or too frivolous. Neither has a place here really.

    However, a good friend, Jake Seliger, recently shared with me an article that I think I would be remiss in not sharing with more people-- especially architects. Titled The Architect Has No Clothes, Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros have composed a brilliant and scathing critique of modernism and the myopia that plagues many current architects.

    The authors are relentless. They propose that the profession has rooted itself in an industrial esotericism far removed from the programmatically functional and culturally sensitive design that architecture should aspire to be. Instead, the idiosyncratic "starchitect" is lauded over the quiet, thoughtful architects who strive to provide comfortable and responsible projects for their inhabitants.

    In many ways, the article embodies the thoughts that have occupied me over the last several months. Specifically that idea that aesthetic ideology breeds a highly dangerous sort of architectural cognitive inertia and lifelong case of confirmation bias. The authors place the responsibility to correct this directly on the universities. As they put it:

    "Most important of all, we must reform the architecture schools without further delay, and place a new emphasis on design that is evidence-based, that pays attention to post-occupancy evaluations, and that, in short, values the outcome for human beings and takes their needs seriously. It is a democratic society’s duty to teach students to see and interpret the world without ideological blinders."

    As a side note, I can thankfully report my experience at CALA has been exactly that. Never have I had a professor proclaim one ideology over another. The emphasis is on the process and performance of the project, not the visual product. CALA, like all all schools, has its flaws. But never has it been ideological for me personally.

    Whereas I praise the piece's overall call for reform and admonishing tone, I can't agree with it all. Removing myself from my previous modern alignments, I still criticize the authors for unfairly singling out modernism for this architectural myopia. The postmodern movement is just as, if not more, responsible. It treated architecture as a purely sculptural object in an attempt to distance itself from modernism. Like a rebellious teenager letting his hair grow out to piss off daddy. We must criticize ineffective architecture on the scale of individual architects themselves, not the label applied to them. To not do so is just as misguided as these quixotic designers.

    (Edit: I have been contacted by the author of the piece, Mr Salingaros, and we had a delightful chat about this point. I was unaware that he had written a book on the topic which you can take a look at here: Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. He has been very critical of the postmodern movement, so much in fact that he has dedicated a large body of his work to it. So as you read further, please take note that my foot has been firmly locked in my mouth. Thanks!)

    Beyond their diagnosis of the problem, I have an issue with one of their proposed solutions:

    "The promising new field of biophilia suggests that human beings have evolved with certain basic aesthetic and physiological needs: the presence of vegetation, water, sunlight, animals, and also the geometric relationships that have accompanied our evolutionary experiences with these structures. By tapping into this rich vocabulary of biophilic design elements, we can have an extremely rich variety of design possibilities—a rich range of artistic expression—while still meeting the needs of human beings. And within the same life-affirming process, we can meet the ecological needs of the environment too."

    I argue that architecture could be interpreted as violent, defiant act against nature. The construction of shelter as a barrier from nature, formed of the very earth itself, is hostility personified. As gravity pulls its perpetual temper tantrum, we find new ways to mock it and push the boundaries of our built environment. 

    It has become vogue within the design community, and the greater public to an extent, to hold the belief that 'natural' is synonymous with 'good' and that which is natural is desirable. Yet we willfully ignore the constant suffering inherent in natural systems and processes. In River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins wrote a passage that has fascinated me for quite some time:

    "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

    It suggests that, more often than not, the cosmic macrocosm as a whole should be resisted and we should seek a new standard view of design that simultaneously acknowledges the hostility of our given environment towards our our very existence and recognizes the need for a harmonious, not strictly derivative, relationship between the inhabitant and his habitat. I am not, by any means, advocating a position of ecological irresponsibility. On the contrary, it is an approach that builds upon a foundation of ecological stewardship while rejecting the romanticism of Gaia. Environmental sensitivity does not necessarily presuppose biophilia.

    It may seem radical, but I argue the opposite. Any ideological stubbornness should be met with questioning the merits of the inverse, in this case the rejection of what I call the architectural naturalistic fallacy.

    The writers refer to a classic fable to illustrate their main point:

    "This effect echoes the old fable of “the emperor’s new clothes.” No one wants to be the one to say the emperor has no clothes, for fear of being laughed at. Only the little child has the nerve to do so, shaming all the adults around him."

    They argue that the current generation of misguided architects should recognize he has no clothes. His false sense of "clothing" being the product of cultural elitism. I agree. But I also contend we take it one step further. We shouldn't merely recognize it, but embrace it as dogmatic nudity, designing free from the confines of traditional or pedantic thought. The new architect-- the naked architect-- would reject style, value evidence-based design, and work to please the needs of his inhabitants, not his own selfish artistic needs.

    If we don't, the authors warn "we risk the slow loss from attrition of all of humankind’s most emotionally-nourishing creations." Perhaps that's a bit alarmist. But I think I'll be shedding my own clothes just to be safe.

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About this Blog

Design is a field rooted in the marriage of the objective and subjective. The line between the two is often blurred and obscured to the point that there is little to distinguish them apart. A student can offer a unique perspective on the tenets of architecture with thoughts and musings unadulterated by the dogmas of traditional theories of practice. This is a blog about ideas. It's not a diary or a means to vent my personal frustrations. My aim is to stimulate architects and students alike.

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