Ten years ago this week was misfitsarchitecture‘s first post, The Tree is Not Trying to Look Beautiful, about how some things are beautiful precisely because they’re not trying to convince us they are. Here we are, ten years and five hundred and ten posts later.
The blog’s name misfitsarchitecture was chosen to indicate a position but the word misfit rarely translates into something positive. In Russian it translates into something like outcast. In Chinese, it can translate as inhuman and in Japanese it translates into words like nonconformist or eccentric. In English, it’s never used to describe people excluded from the mainstream for being original. Maverick is praiseworthy but only because the mainstream sees itself in the maverick it helped create. Not so the misfit. When the blog began, I had no idea its defining concept would be that of the misfit architect – architects who believed in their approach to architecture strongly enough to just do it without concern for whatever culturally-sanctioned notion of architectural creativity was the current fashion.
The logo happened around 2014. It’s from a poster for the 1929 Soviet film Fragment of an Empire [Обломок империи] in which a shell-shocked soldier regains consciousness in what appears to be a new and better world. I liked the hand motif for its confident optimism suggesting buildings were a part of it. I don’t know who designed the poster or understand why it is the way it is but I like it anyway.
The niche position indicated by the blog’s name hasn’t changed but what has changed is that I’ve become more aware of just how fitting that name is. Academia and practice find their respective balances between thinking and doing but, when I was in practice, I was always known as “the academic one” yet on campus I have a reputation as “the practical one”. It’s not that I mean to be contrary. It’s just that neither’s a perfect fit. I enjoy thinking and writing about buildings and teaching allows me to do more of that even though, in academia, thinking and writing about buildings conventionally involves participating in a separate and largely reflexive ecosystem of peer reviews and publishing in ranked journals of high impact factor. Blogging is not that.
Practice is another largely closed ecosystem with little interaction with Academia other than when the personalities, ideas or buildings of Practice are a topic of study or when there are prestige appointments for mutual benefit. The Media is the third major architectural ecosystem. Its previous symbiotic relationship with Practice doesn’t exist anymore as larger practices all now either have in-house teams for media management or outsource to the shady world of architectural PR. Moreover, as a new creature, we now have the research-driven media-focussed practice that neither wants nor needs the validation of Academia or Media.
What all this means is that Practice research is presented as PR and PR is presented to Media as information. There’s a lack of variety, little choice in how to access it, no opportunity to give critical comment and no appetite to receive it. Not that it matters. The rate at which new content is generated and broadcast makes any attempt to filter and process it futile. misfitsarchitecture began as a response to this. For the first few years it carried the following mission statement.
Have you ever thought Rem Koolhaas might be just another person? Or Harvard GSD not the centre of the Universe? Are you unmoved by biennali and festivali, and don’t like or ‘like’ anything on ArchDaily? Do you sense something’s very wrong with architecture?
We do too. Welcome.
Food and shelter are both essential for human life but food is anything from a bowl of rice a day to some exquisite mouthful for a moment’s pleasure. Junk food is somewhere in-between but so too is just the right amount of nutrition our bodies need.
It’s the same with shelter. We’ve got bread buildings that fill, cake buildings that thrill, and junk buildings that make us want more.
All misfits wants is 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.
Here’s some noisy comments co-founder and original collaborator Bashar and I made in a UK construction industry magazine in September 2010, most likely in response to some building by Ken Shuttleworth and MAKE.
- We have no problem with beauty when it is the natural beauty of sunsets or trees, or the human beauty of smiling faces. But we do have an problem when the siren of visual beauty distracts us from the more pressing problem of making buildings perform better, with fewer resources and at lower cost. The ugly reality of visual beauty is that it is a waste of resources and is not leading our buildings towards any kind of perfection.
- It wouldn’t be so bad if visual beauty was no more than the concealing of efficient construction, inexpensive materials and all manner of useful things not seen as beautiful. However, what many notions of visual beauty have in common is the decadent flaunting of resources to deny architectural realities such as opacity, weight and artificiality to create fictions of transparency, weightlessness and naturalness. Such chimeras aren’t even universally attractive let alone achievable or useful, whereas tangible qualities such as stability, comfort, security and economy are.
- In the future, there’s going to be less of everything. Anyone championing reactionary visual beauty should have to prove that building performance has not been compromised and that additional resources haven’t been wasted in its pursuit.
- People obsess about visual beauty because they think achieving performance is easy. They’re wrong. It is difficult to use less resources to make buildings, it is difficult to make buildings use less energy and it is difficult to use less energy to make buildings. Disgracefully, we still don’t know what these buildings will look like. They probably won’t be ‘beautiful’ to the eye but they will have an inner beauty tangible to all our other senses.
- True, some people will feel alienated by such a built environment – but so what? Sexy shapes, clever cladding and cultural and intellectual frippery are not going to solve their existential problems.
And then there was this next comment from 10 June, 2010 in response to some article titled Architecture’s Final Frontier, calling for the International Space Station to be thought of as Architecture.
That was ten years ago. In these ten years In the UAE I’ve mostly worked in Sharjah and lived in Dubai. The photo on the left below was taken on my first visit in 2006 two years before I moved here. The photo on the right I took yesterday. Much has changed in those ten short years between one global crisis and the next.
And much hasn’t. I still write about whatever interests me and always follow up readers’ suggestions for topics, buildings and architects I would never have discovered by myself. Another constant is that I’ve never shared content or posted any sponsored content. The blog remains doggedly not-for-profit, living up to its name by refusing to acknowledge this one metric by which so much is judged. It may not have made me any money but it has made my life richer and my world larger. I’m always happy to learn that around the world there are readers and friends who share the same interests. Of these friends, I thank those in New York, Russia, Paris, Brussels, Hong Kong and Australia also for their generous hospitality.
There’s much in the UAE I still have to process but sometime in July I will be moving to the city of Wenzhou in China. It won’t be some new life or beginning but just the same me and the same misfitsarchitecture carrying on doing what they do somewhere different. And different it will be. This is Wenzhou. It’s like no place I’ve ever seen.
Some memorable collaborations.