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Misfits’ @ JESTER

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Last December I had an e-mail from a Mr. Raphael Beaumond asking if I’d like to speak at JESTER*, a cultural café he was opening in Brussels in February. As Raphael explained, the jester was an historic court figure who could communicate to the king things no other court personage would dare. His real role was not to amuse but to provide a balancing alternative to other court figures likely to say only what the king wanted to hear. I see the sense in that. We need more.

It’s unlikely that people who don’t belong to the same university, company or organization ever get together to talk about architecture, and rarer for that setting not to be a corporate meeting room (in which case nobody outside gets to hear about it), a lecture theatre at some university (in which case the conversation spreads but never disseminates), or a biennale (in which diverse people interested in architecture get to receive calculated content spread very thin). I’d have thought a city as affluent and cosmopolitan as Brussels would have ample opportunities for people to discuss architecture but apparently not for, with JESTER, Brussels had space for one more. 

Pierre Eyban, a Belgian architect I later learned was responsible for me being invited, asked the questions and lead the talk. What follows isn’t a complete or even accurate transcript of the talk and later discussion. It’s more a general summary of the points covered – or not, as is sometimes the case.

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What was your intention in starting the blog? And how do you see your contribution to architecture culture?

Although I teach at a university, I’m here as Mr. Misfits’ Architecture – the name of my blog. The blog began with me as an instructor disillusioned with the state of architecture, and Bashar Al Shawa, a student equally disaffected. We found we shared doubts about what is regarded as architecture, what is regarded as good architecture, and about what was taught and how. Initial posts questioned what was usually presented as architectural beauty, and sought out architects that produced architecture based on more useful criteria. After eight years, this is still a part of the character of the blog. I’m not surprised many of the blog’s early followers were students but I’ve since discovered many more people disaffected with architecture are actually working in practice and in universities. There’s definitely something wrong with today’s culture of architecture when its practitioners and educators are as disaffected as students.

People you identified as misfits: who are they?

The most striking thing they have in common is that they all designed buildings according to how they thought they ought to be designed and without regard for how they were perceived by people other than their users. Their buildings thus have a different value. Misfit architects contribute to a knowledge base that is never remembered, taught, learned from, or built upon. They are not the architects today’s students are taught to aspire to emulating. So far, I’ve identified 31, most from the last century.

  • The first was Hannes Meyer [#1], the director of the Bauhaus after Walter Gropius and before Mies van der Rohe. Meyer was the one who introduced architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum. He was also the first and last person to make it turn a profit. He was a radical functionalist and a communist. He also believed the purpose of architects was to create buildings for a better society for all. Most of the misfit architects share this value, though some more explicitly than others. 
  • In the 1920s Soviet Union, Moisei Ginzburg [#17] and the team of architects he assembled devised a building for a new form of communal living they thought the new society was needing.
  • In Uruguay, Eladio Dieste [#14] created breathtakingly thin shell structures of brick for socially useful buildings like bus stations and marketplaces.
  • In the United States, Rural Studio [#24] are making intelligent yet economical buildings for the rural poor of Alabama.
  • Post-war Milanese architects Asnago & Vender [#26] had a very simple yet useful concept of history as “what’s already there” and used it to produce thoughtful and beautiful buildings that still seem fresh today.
  • In the UK, Colin Lucas [#10] designed high-rise housing with dignity.
  • Eileen Gray [#3] is relatively well known. She designed a sensual and humanist house that was the opposite of Le Corbusier’s intellectualism.
  • Few people know about Togo Murano [#21] – a Japanese architect who produced about 300 buildings in a long career spanning most of the twentieth century.  He was never part of any movement. He had no single style. He didn’t build outside Japan. He had no craving for international fame. He involved clients in the design. Some of his buildings have a beauty as breathtaking as it is inexplicable.

The blog collects these misfit architects into one place but they have little in common apart from a belief people should benefit from buildings in very real ways. Misfit architects are those that do not seek fame or publicity for its own sake. The standard history of architecture is over-populated with those that that did. Our current media is over-populated with those that do, and illustrates how showing a representation of value has come to be more important than any inherent value. It’s a construct very much tailored to our times. It rewards those that play the game, and shuns those that don’t. It is ruthless in its selection. Alvar Aalto fades into obscurity while Le Corbusier continues to be taught as the only role model for architects to aspire to. If there had been no Le Corbusier, there would have been no Rem Koolhaas and if there had been no Rem Koolhaas, there would have been no Bjarke Ingels …

You coined the terms “Performance Beauty” and “Existential Architecture” – tell us more. 

Performance beauty was, I remember, how Bashar first described what he was thinking about in the early discussions for his senior design project. He showed me photos of the Soviet AK-47 and the US M-20 assault rifles and explained how the M-20 looks the more elegant but the simplicity and reliability of the AK-47 are what seems to have made it the world’s weapon of choice. His other example was the SUKHOI S-30 fighter and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The SUKHOI looked ungainly and the Eurofighter sleek but the SUKHOI performs better in all ways you’d want a fighter aircraft to perform. It’s no accident that both these examples are military technologies because it’s a fields where aesthetics is secondary. It’s only in really extreme environments such as Antarctica where keeping people safe and comfortable becomes the primary criteria by which the worth of a building is judged. I believe that increasingly severe “weather events” will force us to reconsider the kind of beauty we want our buildings to have.

Existential architecture was an attempt to find a philosophical basis for reconstructing architecture from first principles. I’ve always thought of buildings as if they were people, and so I’m disappointed most of the time because I think they could be better than they are. Some are perhaps more attractive than others yet lack principles that shape their existence. The concept of existential architecture was an attempt to map the ethical and moral obligations of existentialism to architecture.  It’s not such a crazy idea. Buildings are artificial artefacts conceived of and built by people. Seeing buildings as organic or natural objects following pseudo-organic or pseudo-natural principles has got us nowhere. However, seeing buildings as the extension of human behaviour (that they are), means the same rules can apply. Existentialist philosophy transfers very cleanly and neatly to architecture. It’s an ethical stance.

Existence: A building should be what it is rather than what others want it to be. This denounces pretensions of all sorts.

  • all buildings whose appearance contradicts their internal configuration
  • all buildings whose structure is not what it appears
  • all buildings that present an idealized image to the world
  • all yet-to-be-built buildings with images at odds with reality
  • all buildings whose primary existence is as a vehicle for publicity.

Facticity: A building should not deny the facts of its existence.

  • Buildings are artificial objects. Any pretensions to having, or to having the appearance of any of the qualities of organic or natural objects is inauthentic. This includes implied growth and movement.
  • Buildings are static, physical objects.Any pretensions to denying their physicality is inauthentic. This includes weightlessness and transparency.
  • Buildings have a reason for existing. Any pretensions to catering to other reasons is inauthentic. 
  • Buildings are products of their time and place. This means the use of materials and technologies appropriate for a time and place, not adopting whatever stylistic fad is currently circulating (as that would be contradicting 1. Existence).
  • Buildings are for humans to use. This means that the indoor environment cannot be ignored. Energy performance and internal environment are thus core qualities of existential architecture. To be otherwise is to deny its facticity.

Authenticity: A building should not pretend to be something it isn’t. 

  • All kinds of fake surfaces, proportions, illusions and ornamentation are inauthentic, as well as being wasteful.
  • To design a building for its media impact is inauthentic and to give essence priority over existence – as well as being unethical.
  • To design a building in denial of its environmental facticity is inauthentic – as well as irresponsible.
  • Globalised design agendas and building solutions are denials of facticity.

These three very simple and straightfoward criteria are all that’s needed for us to have an authentic architecture. Most of today’s architecture is lacking in all three. [c.f. Existential Architecture: Being There

Isn’t there a risk of losing a certain poetic approach if one tends to only see and resolve the facticities? 

The blog began as a way for Bashar and I to organize our thoughts on architecture. Many of these thoughts re-stated the form vs. function argument in terms of the purposeful application of intelligence vs. random displays of inspiration. It’s an old argument that’s been around for so long we’ve grown used to it. The fact we still don’t have any solution makes me think it’s a convenient yet false opposition. I’ve nothing against the inspired application of intelligence. Think of the Periodic Table. Dmitry Mendelev didn’t sit down and work it out. The original format came to him in a dream as pure inspiration but he had the intelligence to understand its importance and how to apply it. I’ve nothing against inspiration and for me the best kind is the kind that solves a problem. If the problem is solved I don’t care how or where the solution comes from.

As it’s currently understood, inspiration can only produce solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. Most are aesthetic ones. Buildings are too large and too expensive to be used as vehicles for displays of such experimentation. That may be the primary function of certain buildings but that doesn’t make it any less irresponsible.

How do you see current architecture practice evolving? We have a pluralism of theories, justifications and tendencies but there is usually a dominant one.  In one of your previous posts you talked about the New Decency and The Old Guard with Rem Koolhaas representing the old guard. What’s this New Decency?

There a saying “One swallow does not a summer make”. Originally Aristotle I think but it’s been quoted in the architectural sense of one example of anything not necessarily being the beginning of a trend. The winning proposal for the La Tour Montparnasse competition is, I hope, the beginning of a trend. When the time is right for an idea, I’ve seen that all you have to do is give it a name for it to become “a thing”. For me, the New Decency is an attitude of architects that involves:

  • not being afraid to produce an obvious solution,
  • not feeling the need to reinvent a typology with every commission,
  • not being compelled to advertise how clever one is
  • not using a commission as a branding opportunity
  • not wanting one’s work judged by their peers but by its users and the general public. 

And what do you think is the impulse for this New Decency?

I think we’re just tired of a top-down architecture that never really permeated that far down anyway. It’s a bit sad that an architecture that people can connect with has to be presented as the next big thing but if that’s what it takes then why not? There’s nothing to lose. We might believe there’s never been a time in the history of the world where the awareness of architecture has been as great but it’s wrong to equate an awareness of architecture with§ the consumption of images disconnected from the realities of site, users, and their judgment. [c.f. The Old Guard and The New Decency]

Would you look forward to some AI program designing buildings? It would probably take into account space, building physics, cost and other performative criteria far better than human designers. 

I think I would, but I don’t think it’ll be possible anytime soon.  Look at AI translation. After thirty years it still can’t be trusted 100% with sentences and their simple function of communicating sense in a tense.

  • Programs already exist to arrange the many and varied items required of clinic and hospital rooms, in the required numbers and relationships. I’m sure they don’t overlook anything.
  • Some programs will tell you when you are trying to make two things such as a beam and a pipe occupy the same space. This is useful and can prevent much overtime and pain.
  • Parametric design has the potential to be very useful if it includes all the known and relevant parameters but choosing what they are is a subjective design decision as is linking them and assigning each of them a relative importance.
  • Parametric design coupled with building information modelling does make it very easy to redesign all or part of a project if something changes and this is very useful because things often change. I suspect the over-publicized aesthetic “possibilities” of parametric design are a smokescreen for the design and fabrication economies they enable whatever gets decided upon. [c.f. The Parametric Bottom Line]
  • The perception of parametric design is that it can generate thousands of possibilities from given parameters but choosing when to stop the process and make a choice are also subjective design decisions. We forget how amazing the brain is. One thing I try to teach my students is not to have ideas that won’t work. AI would need to be trained to do that and it would only be possible if there was a known universe of possibilities and there never is. I don’t think we’re anywhere near knowing how to train AI to creatively break the rules, or when it’s okay to do it. Trying to teach that to even gifted students is as challenging and rewarding as it gets.

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* JESTER – Avenue de la Porte de Hal 2-4, 1060 Brussels, Belgium