Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Between the horse designed by a committee and the monster of reason

I'm very happy to have a post by architect and guest blogger Iñigo Amézola:
Between the horse designed by a committee
and the monster of reason
How to give power to the people without losing powder

Let’s start with a statement: Buildings are made for people, that is, for their users and the community that accepts them.
It seems easy to agree on that, but getting the job done is proving to be a slippery matter.

Architects begin their reflection by working with three sources of information:

·A client
·Land, a plot, or another building
·A brief

To which is important to add:
·The socio-economic and political context
·The technical means available

Not forgetting, and this is one of the main differences between construction and architecture:

·The cultural response that goes along with the act of building

In other words, the responsibility that the new “constructo” will take over in relation to its context (whether urban, industrial or rural), to Time (past, present and future) and to the codes of Architecture.

The fact that some of these variables are difficult to measure (Anything that can be measured can be improved, Peter Drucker, dixit) places Architecture closer to Art than to Science. But this condition shouldn’t be enough to forget the consideration of Architecture as service and the obligation of accountability.

Two extremes

A few decades ago, at the end of the 60’s, the man with the blue eyes was Christopher Alexander, the Austrian mathematician and architect who, from his post at Berkeley University, defended the idea of a “pattern language”, synthesis of architectural invariants, defined and purified by humans for centuries, and with which anyone could design anything, from a door handle to a city, giving back to people their decision making capacity and pushing aside professional architects, now turned into mere site supervisors.

It was a time, full of energy, when everything seemed to be possible for a little while and anyone could be a poet, a musician, an artist and, why not, an architect as well.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, this approach to Architecture was not able to produce interesting buildings, those which raise matter to its espiritual condition.
And little by little, the public debate in democratic societies, a job market with an increasing tendency towards specialization and a political class reluctant to lose their reason for being, were leading to the consensus that it was neither practical nor efficient to oblige people to face problems of a certain technical complexity, even when they were directly concerned. (1)

At the other extreme, as a result of the less naive years passed between 1985 and 2005, we have the architect as the sorcerer of the tribe, the only one in contact with the will of the gods, the only one able to transmit their desires. The architect as a self-absorbed figure with a complete (and sometimes tyrannical) control of the project that has led, more than once, to a raising of a “monster of reason”, to use Goya’s words: “The dream of reason creates monsters”. (2)

It is very true that the lack of social controls during these two decades of excessive growth has brought wasteful spending, empty buildings, and  increase of carbon emissions. But it is also true that this period of time leaves a legacy of important achievements and findings and some pieces of excellent architecture.

What will the future bring?

The pendulum of cycles follows its path impassively and now is moving to the center again. But History never repeats itself in the same way, and it will be vital to understand that architecture appears as interaction among many different players. In this new scenario, architects will hardly be playing the leading role. We have to learn from our mistakes and humbly accept that any approach to the project will be limited, temporary and perfectible; well defined characteristics of the human condition.
It will be a safe guide to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, it is for people we are working. We are not the only ones with the skills to face complex problems in an uncertain world (everybody does it today on a daily basis, let alone experts on the subject, like physicists or financial analysts), and we shouldn’t be afraid to feel, if not passion, at least affection for the virtues of the camel: highly efficient machines for their function and not merely misshapen horses.


1.- In a very recent revival, it is useful to mention the fiasco (for the political establishment) of the popular consultation about the renovation of Diagonal (Barcelona main avenue) in 2010, when people voted massively against the official proposals.

2.- The “City of Culture” in Santiago de Compostela and “The City of Arts and Science”, in Valencia, are two good examples.

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