“We believe in a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, doesn’t cost the earth or cost us the earth.”
This has been at the top of this blog for five years now. It’s a statement of priorities – about getting the physical things about our environment right so that our physiologies are taken care of. It stands for daylighting and not tuberculosis, for ventilation and not respiratory problems, for warmth and cooling instead of pneumonia and fever. It stands for buildings constructed out of things and processes that don’t poison us or our environment directly or indirectly. It stands for protecting us from all sorts of harm. All these are things that buildings do. The perception is that Architecture is above all this, that it deals with higher-level needs, that it’s Food for The Soul.
Most of what’s wrong with the world of contemporary architecture can be traced back to Philip Johnson, winner of the first Pritzker Prize. I’ve written about the building vs. architecture divide before so I’ll quote only this from Albert Barr’s preface to The International Style.
The wider the opportunity for the architect within the limitations of structure and function to make judgments determined by his taste and not merely by economics, the more fully architectural will be the resultant construction. There is no rigid classification, building, quite devoid of the possibility of æsthetic organization. Yet buildings built at minimal cost with practical considerations dominant throughout may be held to be less fully architectural than those on which the architect has more freedom of choice in the use of materials and the distribution of the parts.
Whatever can’t be blamed on Philip Johnson can usually be blamed on Charles Jencks who presented Post Modernism as an architecture in contrast to Modernism being mere and nasty building.
It seems every semi-century someone feels the need to re-remind people architecture is not building. Patrik Schumacher devotes a whole chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture (Vol.I) to this. It’s time to stop this pointless cycle and ask: If Architecture as nourishment for the soul is distinct from building that merely nourishes our bodies, then on what level does it do so? The distinction might turn out to be like that of optometrists who deal with the health of the human eye, and opticians who deal with its functioning for vision. Buildings might just deal with the functional aspects of existence whilst Architecture deals with needs that are somehow more ‘spiritual.’ Many believe this anyway.
Architecture as a System Of Belief is a good topic for a post, but not now. Here, I want to take this next diagram, courtesy of Mr. Maslow, as my starting point.
Keeping us alive and well is the very lowest level of human need that can be satisfied. A nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well etc. is at the bottom of this hierarchy of human needs, but is fundamental – it must be satisfied. All buildings can do this, albeit some better than others.
The next level up is the need for physical safety. According to Maslow, this is what we look for when physiological needs are satisfied. Most buildings do this – they don’t have to be architecture.
If we go up another level we move out of the realm of physical needs and into that of psychological ones. I can’t think of any architecture noted for generating feelings of love and belonging but houses, for example, symbolise it as well as facilitate it. We start to have ideas of “home”, “place” and “community” – none of which requires a concept of architecture btw.
In the next level up, the level of Esteem, it becomes possible for the first time to identify Architecture as something fulfilling a need that cannot be met by a building. Esteem is a higher-level need but who’s to say esteem claimed by overt displays of wealth is any different than esteem claimed by covert displays of a supposedly refined sensibility? Certainly not architects when accepting clients. Both are equal, especially when compared with esteem earned through one’s noble character or deeds. To summarise, architecture functions on the level of Esteem.
Mr. Smith continued to say “… which, in their eye, is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.” Next, I’m going to take some characteristics generally attributed to architecture, and link them back to the need for esteem, not belonging, safety or well-being. [If you like, you can skip this bit and go straight to the heading Aravena, further down.]
Lighting effects are often taken to indicate architectural quality, as opposed to daylighting that merely illuminates buildings. The split happened a while back. Le Corbusier showed up at the 1930 CIAM conference dealing with issues such as daylighting for the prevention of tuberculosis but in 1924 had already stopped calling his rooftops solariums and offered his definition of architecture as shapes existing for light to show them off to our grateful eyes. The buildings of Tadao Ando, particularly the early wedding chapels, perpetrate this perception.
Architecture does deal in quantities of light, but only beyond the minimum.
Excess light has come to mean large and unobstructed windows facing big property or big views from mountains or over large bodies of water.
I remember a sentence from Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness not many pages in. It went something like “what could be more pleasant than the early morning sunlight hitting the honey-coloured stone of your kitchen floor?” Not much, it seems. Every word in this sentence is laden with pretence.
- Your kitchen has a window. You do not live in some squalid communal dwelling.
- Your kitchen has a stone floor. You have a house.
- Your kitchen has honey-coloured stone as its floor. It is probably York Stone and you are probably rich.
- It’s not just sunlight, it is early morning sunlight. The sun is low and not blocked by trees or other buildings. You have a big garden. You are rich.
I almost forgot. Light coming from directly above means you either live in a detached house or a penthouse.
The decoupling of space from the units that quantify it is the other great invention of 20th century architecture. Like the delusional lady three images up, we’ve learned to value a ‘sense of space’ instead of actual space. White painted walls don’t indicate where the floor ends but where infinity begins.
Not having to use every square metre of one’s real estate is as important as it ever was. Space and light, contemporary indicators of architecture’s soul food both turn out to be new manifestations of old-paradigm indicators of wealth and property.
The indication of wealth is in the details. Securing a carpet without skirting is neither easy nor cheap. It takes a lot of money to make a building look like it is not a simple aggregate of materials joined, fitted and layered together.
The Indoor-Outdoor Thing
Anything to do with the indoor-outdoor relationships or views assumes an outdoor to relate to. This is not always the case.
Building are not Swiss watches or Bugattis. Precision construction is necessary for spaceship-like buildings such as Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. However, if global weather is getting more extreme we’re going to have to think again if entire populations are to benefit from a similar approach. Precision construction does not downmarket.
Art, Complex Geometries
The possession and appreciation of art is a traditional mark of opulence, and the one architecture likes to be associated with rather than performance art or public art with which it might better claim an affinity. The market for architecture as art is those persons wanting to possess it as art and they hook up with architects who purvey it as art.
There’s also the class of asset known as cultural assets, well represented by architecture. Historically, cultural assets indicate the possession of the wealth as well as the political power to make them happen. Historically, architecture has existed to satisfy the high-level needs of high-level people.
• • •
On the right-hand side of the diagram is Clayton’s Erg. Clayton combines Maslow’s lower two levels and calls them Existence, and also combines Belonging and Esteem and calls them Relatedness but the same boundary between building and architecture remains. Maslow insisted lower level needs must be satisfied before higher level ones, but Clayton says satisfaction at a lower level leads to progression upwards, and frustration at being unable to satisfy higher level needs leads to regression downwards.
Belonging and Esteem
Post Modernism claimed to give people meaning and significance at the level of Belonging – a level of need it said Modern architecture had ignored. Architecture rushed to embrace Post Modernism. It took people’s need for belonging and, by representing it, made it into a new and expensive indicator of esteem. It was the way forward for architecture.
It worked for a while. Caught out, architecture went back to catering to the high-level needs of high-level individuals, corporations, cities and nations. The market shrank to two main players – the rich and powerful requiring cultural baubles attesting their status, and property developers creating destinations for flight capital.
Since the demise of Deconstructivism, starchitects and big names whatever their persuasion have bent over to accommodate both.
For a rapidly increasing percentage of the world’s population, simply living in a building is all that’s required to satisfy their need for esteem. The percentage of people who expect or demand architecture to satisfy this need is becoming close to zero.
This is making it difficult to sustain a notion of architecture as distinct from building.
On the one hand is the ongoing process of buildings satisfying the need for esteem without recourse to architecture and, on the other is the artificial process of architecture having to follow the money by becoming more like buildings.
As a concept, architecture has historically survived by redefining itself downwards to access new local demographics such as Nouveau Riche, Suburbanites, Baby Boomers and, most recently, Urban Singles. Simultaneous with these downward moves are high-profile glamour projects in overseas markets less squeezed. The two combine to produce our two-tier architecture of bread and circuses. It’s angsty.
Architecture reveals its existential relief by its rush to reward the architect responsible for adding the exotic and urban poor to its catchment area. Architects get to be seen as agents of social good instead of front-men for the bad guys.
It’ll be interesting to see how long the discreet pause between elemental and monumental. Remember sustainability? Actual environmental response was quickly relegated to being an aspect of building whilst architecture busied itself with representations of environmental response.
If social change is now the name of the game, it’ll hopefully be easier for people to spot the difference between actual social change and the representation of it.
Hopefully. For now, we need to be clear about what need this new architecture is satisfying and, before that, we need to know if it is actually architecture as distinct from building. Or do we? Does it being architecture really matter? If needs for health, safety, belonging and esteem are all satisfied then maybe it’s time to dump the meaningless notion and simply concentrate on making buildings more healthy, durable, available and available in that order.
Architecture could of course try to satisfy the highest-level need for self-actualisation directly but if this were possible we’d know by now as it’d be A VERY HOT PRODUCT. But self-actualisation doesn’t work like that. Architecture can’t satisfy the need for it any more than building can. Providing people with a place and a better possibility of fulfilling their potential is probably going to be the best that can ever be done.
I just wish it wasn’t necessary to repeatedly point out and report how much the value of those properties has increased!
If the value of these buildings appreciates to the extent people can afford to move out and do, then the endgame will still be a humanitarian one but one more accurately described as bottom-feeding people into an economic system – which, frankly, doesn’t sound quite so nice does it? It’s probably too early to tell although 2004-2014 data should be available. For now, let’s feel good about this new concept of architecture as buildings for people to inhabit.
• • •
By 1923, American housebuilders had developed a successful and popular product with size and construction tailored to available resources, along with generic plans and customisable signifiers satisfying human needs for belonging and esteem.
In Europe at the time, lower level needs were more pressing and architecture concentrated on the problem at hand.
People later felt the need to represent satisfaction of their higher-level need for belonging, damn well did so – and to this day continue to.
A rudimentary building with the option of some DIY PoMo is all we ever wanted.
Can we have some too please?
Great post as always. I just wondered if you had come across John Habraken’s work. I find much of what he argues for pretty much aligned with the tenets of ‘misfitism’ (maybe it’s time misfits got thier own ism, probably not this one though); I actually do personally see him as one of the great misfits!
It’d be interesting to know your thoughts on him especially on his idea of ‘open building’ and how it compares with Aravena’s approach to social housing.
Keep up the great work.
You’re welcome Abdu! No, I don’t know of John Habraken but I’ll definitely look him up. I place a lot of value on suggestions and recommendations from others. Thanks.
Here’s a good movie on him if haven’t already come across it.
there are also a couple of talks by him on youtube and plenty of written online materials. I hope you find him interesting.
And I can’t resist bringing up the name of Christopher Alexander as well. (another misfit maybe, but in a different way).
I wonder what you might think of his approach as well. I think there are a lot of similarities between Alexander, Habraken and Hassan Fathy. Like they all had this good idea but from different angles.
I’ve just placed an order for his book, “The Structure of the Ordinary“. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks.
I recently came upon this debate between Christoper Alexander and Peter Eisenman, where the discussion also touched on the aspect of architecture’s ‘nutritional value’. I remembered this post and thought I’d drop the link here. What do I find, Alexander is already mentioned here. Here’s the link http://socks-studio.com/2012/11/06/dont-you-think-there-is-enough-anxiety-at-present-the-1982-debate-between-christopher-alexander-and-peter-eisenman/
I think neither of them really shares opinion that you are trying to put forth here, but Alexander is much-much closer to that.