This post is the first part of an article that appeared under the title Comfort Zone in the #1_20 issue of ADATO, Luxembourg’s only architecture journal. The issue theme was Architecture + Medicine. My working title came from Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 collage. I’m not sure why. It could be that architecture is just a placeholder for the lives led within.
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?
We take it for granted our buildings shouldn’t kill us and, to this end, we have regulations that govern structural integrity, construction standards, quality of materials, and mechanical performance for both typical and extreme conditions. Moreover, to ensure our buildings don’t poison us, things like toxic materials and finishes and coatings are heavily regulated if not banned outright.
Over and above safety, there is also an expectation that buildings should promote health and wellbeing. For example, by the mid-1920s, we still hadn‘t developed a cure for tuberculosis (TB) but the medicinal properties of sunlight and good ventilation were known. Progressive architecture of the time aimed to promote health by providing patients with sufficient sunlight and natural ventilation, as well as surfaces that were either dust-resistant or easy to clean. If penicillin hadn’t been discovered in 1928 we might have dramatically different expectations of architecture today. Instead, its discovery made architecture as medicinal a less pressing concern and solariums and roof gardens instead became symbols of affluence and leisure. Le Corbusier was not stupid.
“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.”
This mission statement welcomed people to this blog ten years ago when it began. The plan was to inspire readers to think beyond questions of style and function and towards a more holistic view of architecture emphasizing planetary and personal wellbeing. The word shelter implied physiological needs and so did the words “… makes us feel good because it is good for us.” Optimal standards exist for space, illumination, ventilation, and thermal comfort but to suggest this is all architecture needs to be isn’t a popular stance. The blog’s not called misfits’ architecture for nothing.
I do accept that people’s expectations of architecture go well beyond what we might think of as bare minimum. We expect architecture to (re)vitalize our cities and improve our lives and this is definitely true at the level of function and amenity we experience and use first-hand. Moreover, it’s also true that the people of a city can be proud of certain buildings or groups of buildings and this kind of civic pride can be generated not from in-person experience of a building but by merely knowing that it exists. It’s an association and a possession of sorts, and different from a virtual experience of a building as simulated in-person experience. This is nothing new. Well before the advent of virtual tours and online media content, architects would show clients sketches, perspectives and drawings to help them imagine the finished project and hopefully want it to exist. It’s not saying much but, if we’re talking about architecture+medicine, we can say that all buildings are proposed with the expectation of enhancing people’s lives in some way or another.
Whether they are built or not is another matter. Some buildings that weren’t built exist only in our imaginations and there’s a certain pleasure to be found in imagining what a structure would have been like or imagining a world in which a certain structure did exist.
There are many unbuilt buildings with an architectural presence that are said to have advanced this mysterious thing called The Cause of Architecture. If a citizen can be proud of a building they recognize but never use, then an architecture aficionado can certainly take pleasure in virtual additions to a virtual category. This could be why such a huge amount of architectural content is consumed online as an end in itself.
In 1963 my former professor Kazuo Shinohara floated the notion that “Houses are Art”. It proved to be an idea that, once released into the world, grew wings and flew. The modern Japanese house with pretensions to art is a media staple that continues to shock, amuse, fascinate, and delight and, perhaps because of that, the art house is a standard typology of architecture designed for an audience of architects. Shinohara was saying that houses are architecture even though this was never really in dispute. But if houses/architecture are Art and thus, by definition, capable of enhancing our well-being through mere proximity, then what is the content of that art? At what level do these arrangements of walls and openings affect our well-being? It’s all very well for misfits’ to call for a nutritious architecture, but we need to identify the nature of those nutrients as well as the mechanisms that enable them to interact with and benefit the system.
There’s a certain kind of architect who has no interest in questions of wellbeing. They’re likely to say how they’d prefer to live inside Chartres Cathedral even if the nearest bathroom is a block away, rather than spend any time in a more practical structure with middling or zero aesthetic esteem. It’s a variation of the form vs. function hobbyhorse that assumes the two are mutually exclusive. Architects of this mind wish to create the impression that well-being is dependent on criteria at the higher end of Maslow’s famous hierarchy. However, if Architecture as Art is essential to maintain one’s psyche then it’s architecture as medicine like what beta blockers do for cholesterol, insulin does for blood sugar, or antidepressants our mood.
When words begin to go around in circles, it’s usually because we don’t have the concepts or language to process the subject. The truth is, once we’re outside the objective realm of how buildings satisfy physiological needs, we can’t identify any cause-and-effect relationship between architecture and human well-being. The common belief that access to great architecture will make us better people, or at least make us believe we are, is to treat architecture as hallucinogen. We end up back at the same place. IF Architecture that satisfies physiological needs is essential for our well-being, then it’s reasonable to ask we what that architecture looks like and the mechanism by which it does so. We can’t keep forever claiming our inability to isolate and describe this mechanism is proof of its sublime existence. To do that is to treat architecture as a system of belief. We’ll jump down that particular rabbit hole some other time. For now I’ll just say that if houses by definition enable the act of habitation then any artistic quality must take this defining function into account, for without it, it wouldn’t be a house. The challenge is to design and construct a house in a way that nurtures artistic qualities along with the everyday act of habitation, and for one’s well-being to be promoted by the experience of that art. There shouldn’t be any trade-off between the experience of a house as art and how one lives in it.
The usual attempt at reconciliation is to stylize the act of living into one or more spaces along with the items required to use those spaces. This gives us houses or apartments where the living room is the space that’s the primary architectural experience. Our understanding of a house as either art or architecture is largely based on how well such spaces and items are designed into a single composition. The problem is that anything not designed as part of the original composition has the power to diminish or destroy any sense of the work as either architecture or art. This is particularly true if the elements creating the art are those vertical planar surfaces called walls, for walls are easily hidden and their appearance can be dramatically altered by cupboards, bookshelves, televisions, pictures, aquariums, cuckoo clocks, etc. With this approach, we have to conclude that houses can be art only if people don’t inhabit them and this is a paradox. [It’s true Shinohara said he had no interest in his houses once they’d been photographed and their owners had moved in, but he may have just been being provocative.]
Another approach towards reconciling living with the life-enhancing qualities of art is to assimilate all the paraphernalia of living into the design and to conceal everything else in conceptually congruent storage cupboards. Oswald Unger’s 1995 House Without Qualities is an extreme example of concealing non-architectural objects. In decades past this would have been called a Total Work Of Art. In passing, it’s remarkable how this rigid and ordered house functions just as well if not better than some more ostentatiously bespoke houses.
The far more popular approach to harmonizing art with everyday living is a suspension in which architecture and living express the same principles or values. Modernist houses, for example, tend to have Modernist furniture but the downside is the same in that one has to make one’s choices and live with them. Much art of this type goes no further than simply announcing itself as art, but only in the sense of announcing that a design effort of the most rudimentary sort has been made.
The curated environment is what much interior design aspires to. It’s our preferred method for creating a visual synthesis out of architecture and the lives led within. The act of living in the space is split between time spent appreciating it and time spent maintaining it. The occupant is an observer, not participant. The trouble with the standard representations of Architecture as Art is that they almost always involve the selection and stylization of the paraphernalia of living into elements compatible with the architectural message as Art. It’s a tradeoff, a historically accepted stylization that produces bad art and bad living.
This first half of Comfort Zone the article was built on the three mid-2017 posts below. The second half was written during Dubai’s full lockdown earlier this year and proposes a way out of the quandry this post ends with. It’ll be next week’s post Comfort Zone Part II.