Bike Taxi Garages, East Austin, © A. Henry Rose
In his detailed essay "Crossing Over: Sustainability, New Urbanism, and Gentrification in Austin Texas" Dr Andrew Busch (of Miami University of Ohio, PhD University of Texas, Austin) presents a social and political history that places East Austin at the local epicenter of continual injustice, beginning with deliberate, ostensibly unofficial segregation in the 1920s, through the effects of far more benign though no less significant "new urbanism" policies felt as the force of gentrification today.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Gentrification is complex, Dr Busch points out, particularly because the effect (the displacement of historic communities) is not the result of malevolence or even ignorance of the value of these communities (although this is sometimes the case), but rather the consequence of structural physical and economic realities. It is hard, for example, to understate the dilemma of density, which is both the primary vehicle of gentrifying displacement as well as arguably the only ecologically viable solution to sustain civilization on this planet. Similarly, the market incentives which drive development, both in the case of rent gaps that developers seek to exploit as well as the substantial increase in tax revenue that the city stands to enjoy, are impossible to ignore.
There are times, to me, when these displaced communities seem but one more instance in which the dispossessed and disadvantaged are fated to suffer further injustice, beatified in absentia. But I also want to believe that the political apparatus is not so callous; I want to believe that there is value to every station in life, in this life, and that the difficulty turns primarily on representing this value. How do we put it in economic terms? How can we insert the historical continuity of working class populations in urban cores into the equation? Since market capital and wealth generation drive the American machine, it will, unfortunately, not suffice to leverage an aesthetic or moral argument no matter how much we wish it to be the case.
Dr Busch, for the wealth of data he compiles, fails to account for this assumption. He concludes: "Austin's politicians, planners, and business elites must recognize that preserving and sustaining disadvantaged communities, and not just their buildings and spaces, needs to be central to any meaningful sustainability agenda." This begs the question. Nowhere does he address why displacement — sentimentality not forgotten but set aside — needs to be addressed, especially when there are so many obvious economic and ecological incentives for a municipality like Austin to promote density and development. This is a significant weakness in his argument.
To support this assumption, however, is not impossible. I am willing to venture that any society which assumes a hierarchy of wealth distribution (as opposed to a communist scheme) will function most efficiently when certain needs are met, specifically the psychological needs satisfied by a sense of community, in all quartiles of the distribution — and moreover, that the system functions most efficiently when a mixture of demographics is maintained to provide services and security (à la Jane Jacobs).
I suspect this issue will be the exigent crisis facing our generation of young architects, planners, politicians and anyone invested in building community. Whether we can resolve the simple fact that dense urban living is both ecologically imperative and inherently expensive will determine much of the fate of the planet. Will we find solutions where incentives are not perversely aligned? Or must we rely on benevolent policy to subsidize the market in support of moral positions that are unrelentingly threatened by the bottom line.
Architecture as Expression in Craft
Alhambra, Spain, Wikimedia Commons
That architects could fail to see the inherent relevance of their discipline mystifies me. The sense of loss that accompanies critical theory through the last century, the indignation at that loss as if the practice somehow fell from grace—once sublime, now evermore benign, the tired oscillation of an argument between worn dichotomies—as if it were possible that such an elemental aspect of human civilization were so fragile as to suffer at the hands, rather, minds of men caught in the caprice of philosophical fashion is astounding. To a point, Kenneth Frampton writes:
"[One] has the sense that the rich seams of our cultural heritage will soon be exhausted, burnt out, particularly when a cannibalized lexicon of eclectic historical references, freely mixed with modernist fragments and formalist banalities, serves as the superficial gilt with which to market architecture, to situate it finally as one more item within an endless field of free-floating commodities and images … [an] ever-changing gingerbread-charade."*
Whence the origins of the bleak prognosis? Is this really the position from which architecture, albeit that of the Euro-American 1980’s, must extract itself? What is more, if this is simply the formulation of a general postmodern malaise at the loss of meaning, the supposed collapse of truth, must architecture be similarly afflicted? Or is there not some resistance in its method that would allow it to thrive despite these miserable conditions.
I believe that there is and I will try to explain why. First, to be clear, this is not a critique of Frampton’s position (I think his appraisal is apt); it is a critique of the position in which he finds himself. His attempt to redeem the discipline, even in a self-consciously ‘marginalized’ way, is respectable, but he does not go far enough. Beneath the critic’s woeful lament resounds the same refrain: architecture has lost its voice, it lacks a suitable language, the forms are contrived, trite, antiquated references and empty universals. We tried minimalism but the bone-white walls were unnervingly cold in the moonlight, returning a vacant gaze so we twist the skeleton frame now and we paint its face, but the puppet caricature just laughs, and laughs. It mocks us. Beneath it all is a great metaphysical sigh. “As far as architecture is concerned, there seems to be little chance today that large-scale undertakings will yield works of cultural significance,” Frampton resigns himself.
How did the condition of architecture became so misconstrued? What could possibly have changed that we are no longer capable of building anything culturally significant? I believe there is a great distortion in play, a warp along the curve of centuries slight enough to escape notice, which, though not limited to architecture, skews the way we think about it along with everything else. I speak of the unequivocal faith in reason. Likely sparked by Descartes’ radical proposition "cogito ergo sum" in 1641 and unmistakable in Kant’s bold attempt 150 years thence to flood the last dark corners of the human psyche in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, the Western Scientific Method had come to reign. Empirical evidence is judged by the intellect. The conscious observer stands apart. Man is the thinking animal. His works express his ideas, and in the end, his cultural achievements are measured by the scope of his thought.
You may chose to reject this flash through history as inaccurate or unconvincing but this is where I begin, and when we begin here, things unravel.** The purpose of architecture, I will argue, is not to express an idea at all. Thus at no point is the lack of language a problem, for its purpose is not to speak. That there is symbolic meaning in architectural forms does not indicate that their primary function is to convey this meaning, and by extension, that this is how they attain cultural significance. Do we really think that the value of Alhambra has anything to do with an idea? Do we stand stupefied in Sainte Chapelle and say, ‘I cannot believe someone thought of that”–? No. We say “I cannot believe they made that.” It is the simple fact that these structures were built at all which makes them so impressive.
We lose much when we forget this. Architecture is building. It is inescapably the product of human activity: the use of tools and techniques honed over generations which amount to a collective knowledge that belongs as much to the human body as it does to the human mind. Architecture is not primarily an intellectual endeavor, and it is surely nothing without craft. This is the source of its wealth, the resistance to the metaphysical weariness I suggested above, its immunity to despair. Let us return to this rich heritage. Let us not forget that it is the making of things with reverence and with care which captures in itself this selfsame activity as a celebration of human life and passes that along to the next generation. We have new tools, but there is nothing to keep us from building beautiful things.
*From his essay "Ten Points on an Architecture of Regionalism: A Provisional Polemic."
**This is a curious position to defend with an argument because to do so presumes the structures it calls into question. I suggest some ways to do this here, but the point is that the subordination of the rational mind is a useful concept. Many good things follow from trusting what the body knows, as that which supports the mind, and accordingly by refining our knowledge through health rather than through the manic consumption of data processed in syllogism.
The mind is just one of many interrelated structures of the body. It is powerful, and like all power has a scalar quantity without a value-oriented direction, working for good and for ill alike, capable of extraordinary self-deceit, self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. To me, nothing is more dubious than Descartes' radical self-doubt, since he has excised from his argument the only thing that would validate it: his existence. There is another response. If my position begins to sound like faith, that is, radical self-trust, I permit this association. In both cases, towards doubt or belief, there is a structural leap that must be made beyond (rationalist) epistemological limits. The typical question is, at this famous moment, breaking on the rocky shore of the mind, faced with the howling winds of aporia—which way do you jump? I want to push this even further, and suggest that the healthy individual does not experience this crisis, does not even ask herself this question.
A Critique of Architectural Art
It is possible to argue that architecture is essentially a response to complexity, since architecture and design, generally, imply the resolution of manifold elements in a unified whole. Design can be seen as a means of economization, the process of making one thing serve two purposes through (clever) manipulation. Architecture is this project on a grand scale. From the most abstract aesthetic ideals to the most technical engineering requirements to the most mundane supply chain logistics, all the while fixed in a web of interpersonal dynamics, not to mention historical and ecological contexts, almost nothing is exempt from consideration.
If we postulate this (the resolution of complexity) as a defining characteristic of architecture, then Venturi’s rebuke of minimalism as instantiated by the likes of Mies and Philip Johnson is among the most exigent challenges to an architecture that had begun to shift toward a form of space-enclosing sculpture and away from life-enabling building. “Mies,” Venturi writes quoting Paul Rudolph, “makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent” (16). Similarly, Venturi writes of Johnson’s Wiley House, “the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplified program for living” (17). It is Johnson’s crystalline facsimile of life which is enshrined in that glass box: a fantasy. And it is Mies’ willful blindness that plagues much of "modern" architecture. Venturi’s eye is trenchant.
When the architect decides what to address, moreover what to exclude, he or she is making a judgment about what is important to those people who will interact with the building in the future. Accordingly, if what is ultimately prioritized is some form of expression (minimalist or not), especially insofar as what is expressed relates to the building (e.g. material honesty, or as Christopher Alexander says, some "literary comment"*), the structure becomes a self-referential statement about architecture, not something that exists in use and in the last measure to serve its occupants.
My argument begins with this fundamental premise: that architecture is for people.** This is the source of its complexity, as life is everything but an abstraction. Venturi reminds us that if architecture is to be valid, its success will come from the resolution of the intricate, competing demands of a purposive object embedded in the world, not from an indifference to, rejection of, or even reflection upon these conditions. This last part is my own. To put it one way: the ideal of expression in architecture stands opposite to life. Or again: architecture that is about itself, especially that which advertises this self-conscious relationship as a badge of rarified aesthetic or other ideological integrity, is paradoxically not functioning as architecture at all.
*From his infamous 1982 debate with Peter Eisenman at the GSD.
**We must also resolve the semantic argument concerning the meaning of the word ‘architecture.’
***Citations from Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, NY (2002).
A Relevant History Told in Wood
Today Japanese aesthetics have achieved an almost mythical status—if not unjustly, perhaps uncritically. In most cases when this designation (Japanese aesthetics) is used casually it refers the the quality of wabi and sabi that is found in gardens, teahouses and temples, a quality which is, behind anime and the automobile, likely the most exported element of Japanese culture. People are not mistaken when they respond so strongly to this particular quality. It is powerful. When I first wandered the historic districts of Kyoto I was altogether unprepared. Often I caught myself lost in thought, mesmerized by the cherry petals and the moss, transfixed by stonework beneath my feet. For minutes I could stand motionless.
However, it should be noted briefly but emphatically: although this quality is unique to Japan it is not ubiquitous; though endemic, it is somewhat scarce. Japan’s cities reflect the haste with which they were re-built following the war. The architectural landscape, dominated by dense monolithic structures and webs of electrical wires, far more often than not reflects the values of efficiency and practicality rather than beauty.
But this "Japanese" beauty: neither ubiquitous, nor uncommon, exists, like nothing I have known before. Down narrow alleys that seem to have escaped the electric surge of time, and in tiny walled gardens behind tea shops, like a secret, it exists. In the depth of a glaze and in its patterned cracks, or in tiny bubbles suspended in a glass, it exists. It is in the softly cupped granite stairs worn down by millions of feet, and it can even be found in the lacquer of a chopstick or the flecks of fiber in a shoji panel—but most of all, it is in the wood. In the unmistakeable patina of wood the mythic quality of “Japanese” aesthetics is showcased exquisitely.
Whether it is for the living tree or the toko-bashira, the special post in the special part of the special room in a Japanese house, there is no reverence in Japan like the reverence for wood. I am not sure why this is so, but I speculate that the reason is intrinsic to the quality of the medium: soft enough to receive the patterned imprint of time, touch and weather, while durable enough to bear these marks into the future, wood is perfectly suited to the task. It receives and stores the information of human existence in a meaningful way. Both in its first life, rooted in the earth, and in its second as part of a building, the tree captures history on a scale that is most relevant to the human being: measured in centuries, reaching into the past while promising a future beyond our own. On its surface in unscripted language it bears this cultural record, a great witness and emissary both.
And thus confronted with this record would I stand transfixed: by the extraordinary attention to detail in craft, the patience in preservation and the great restraint of expression. The embodied emotional energy was real. The values that went into the work were communicated through it and it is this integrity of transmission that characterizes the unique experience of Japanese aesthetics, to me, more than any discreet formal quality ever could. It is a reverence that emanates. One could read volumes about wabi-sabi, but if you have ever found peace in a Japanese garden — a peace and a clarity that you wished to bring with you to other aspects of your life — or gazed deeply into the soul of a board, if you have ever gotten lost in a chopstick, then I would say it has already worked its magic. You have found it.
As Camus writes, "the point is to live," and with this always in mind I forge my thought, tempered equally in the slow fire of the beautiful and the good. Rigor tends toward obsession, and truth alone is worth little.