Wednesday, June 11, 2008

EP4 -- All Brains and No Heart

So here's the paradox of the day. I've written a lot about the ways in which buildings have deep responsibilities to their clients, inhabitants and neighbors. And I've also written about the ways in which we have loads of social, economic, and material research that can help us be more fully successful in our work. So it would be easy to conclude that I'm a strict rationalist, that I'm fully invested in quantification and objectivity and emotionless evaluation.

But that's not the case. I've spent my research career trying to understand why people love some places and feel oppressed by others and are neutral toward still others. That's one of my deepest goals -- that everyday folks (not particularly architects, but the other 99.7% of the population) love the places they find themselves in, that they feel fondness and affection for their homes and streetscapes and workplaces, and feel themselves to be greater because of the everyday places in their lives.

But that goal is not an art impulse, especially not for the art of the 20th Century. Art (visual art, musical art, literary art, performance art, you name it) is now seen as an intellectual challenge, an opportunity to encounter something unsettling with which we must come to terms. And being unsettled, being challenged, is quite counter to the nature of place, which is all about the narrative emotional relationships we build with our settings. We imagine that design needs to have a "concept," a term I still remain fuzzy about but the outcomes of which I see regularly. Why do buildings need to have a concept? My clothes don't have a concept. My pool cue doesn't have a concept. My cat doesn't have a concept. And they all make me happy.

One of my greatest problems with the past century of architecture is that it's all brain and no heart, all "challenge" and no love. I mean, I've got a busy job and a 14-year-old car and gas is $4.20 a gallon. I've got enough challenges in my life without my buildings pitching in with another one. So knock it off, 'kay? Can you build me a home that will offer me comfort? Can you create a workplace that makes us more collegial? Can you create a subway station that makes my commute more pleasant? Can you build a streetscape that people want to hang out on? Those are the questions I want us to solve together, not some concept that distracts us from the real work. And oddly enough, I think there is a body of research that can help us build beloved places (rather than interesting buildings), because there are beloved places (rather than interesting buildings) in the world that we can study.

Today's quote is from the musician Brian Eno, on discovering the music of Harold Budd: "I was handed this tape by Gavin Bryars in the mid-Seventies; it struck something very personal in me. It was music that could seduce. If there's only a conceptual underpinning and no seduction, that doesn't make it for me." We imagine that reaction is unique to each of us, which absolves us of the need to take responsibility for how others encounter our designs. But although there are likely no absolutes (Chris Alexander would differ and insist strongly that there are), there are both central tendencies and understandings of culture that will help us be able to predict emotional outcomes.

One of them, by the way, is allowing people to make decisions about their places. There are a jillion stories, some true and some apocryphal, about architects returning to a house they've designed and going bat-crazy because the owner brought in some piece of furniture or a throw pillow that didn't "fit the design." Architects have often taken pretty tight control over the furnishings of their spaces -- that kind of intellectual unity photographs well, but it doesn't live comfortably, because it denies the choices of the people who live with it.

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