We build what we believe to be true.
I have asked myself the following question several times whilst in the process of writing this article:
“What is the point of it all, delving into this specific topic and its relationship to architecture; does it actually matter? “
‘Meaning’ is attributed to a concept or an idea that can be defined. It has a specific end purpose, intention and/or significance. Personally, I find the process of defining ‘meaning’ within the built environment much harder to uphold as time continues. In his book How Designers Think, Bryan Lawson explains that the biggest problem as designer is found within the reality that there is no ‘real end’ to a design problem. It will never be complete. There will always be a better resolution, whether it is due to the fluctuation of design requirements, or within its inevitable decay as time progress.
An Ongoing Search
As much as I am in awe of Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, I have found that my perception of its beauty lies not in its completed state, but rather how I have romanticized the ongoing processes of construction and refinement; which up to date has been a period of 134 years. Within its current ‘incomplete’ state, it is actively being used as a cathedral, whilst also being visited and appreciated for its spatial beauty. It resonates with the way I experience life; beauty in the midst of an ever-ongoing process of change.
It makes the quest in finding transcendent meaning for our Architecture seem futile, and short lived considering the expected life span of most typical 21st century buildings.
Obsession with the Past
There is no denying the fact that we live in a museum-obsessed culture. My architectural pilgrimage through Europe, can bluntly be rephrased as museum hopping. After several museum visits, I speculatively concluded that most people will settle for anything that points to some form of meaning beyond their own mere existence.
“All human activity, and all human fate of which we have evidence or knowledge may claim historical value: In principle we consider every historical event to be irreplaceable.”– Alois Riegl.
I clearly remember standing in ancient Athens during the referendum and protests held in 2015, being confronted with the following series of questions:
What is the reason for rebuilding the acropolis?
Who is it being built for?
What is the driving force in wanting recreate the past?
How much money has already been spent on this venture?
Is it a new ‘empire’ being (re)built?
Will the Parthenon ever be used as a temple again?
Is Greek mythology actively being practiced as a religion?
Will this ‘historic site’ consist of ‘new buildings’ devoid of meaning: preserving a recreated glimpse into history, whilst completely ignoring the current reality of a younger generation suffering the economic consequence of their current ‘hedonistic’ predecessors. Is there any meaning to be found in recreating the past?
I suppose it is much easier having moral ‘high-ground‘ when reflecting on past historical events, in comparison to dealing with current circumstances. The cynic inside of me believes that the supposed ‘noble cause’ to preserve ‘history’ as mnemonic devices, ‘reminding’ us never to repeat our inhumane actions as society is often but a coping euphemism. We find ourselves within a post industrial society geared towards instant profit, and we are unwilling to admit to ourselves that more often than not, our lives, reflected in our current architecture, falls victim to being devoid of any meaning. Truth is, we valorize our historic sites and create new museum typologies with the overarching intent of economic gain. Our architecture truly reflects as a mirror, and a mirror is always harder to hold.
I would argue that beauty and meaning could be found in the tension of contradictions, embracing the uncertainties of life .I believe this to be evident when describing Notre dame du Haut in Ronchamp. It is an object within the landscape, yet it graciously forms part of the very landscape it sits within. From the outside the grandiose scale overwhelms the visitor, whilst the directly relational internal space prompts the intimate thoughts of the soul. More than just actively being used as a chapel, a prayer room and a showcase of late modernism, it is sincerely open to all; irrespective of their religion and architectural knowledge. This is truly counter-cultural. As significant as this chapel is, it is quite far from any major town in quite a remote and insignificant town. It requires intentionality, persistence and dedication to actually visit this site, and still many do. All in search of meaning, I would argue.
Jürgen Habermas stated that science, morality and art were made to be seen as separate, allegedly ranging from completely objective to subjective, and that we need to find a way to re-unite them in order to have a holistic world-view. We are comfortable when we can articulate an objective argument, and quite hesitant when we believe a topic to be subjective. Which makes it difficult to articulate deeply rooted value.
Not withstanding the responsibility we have to build or demolish, restore or reconstruct, or even to add our own contributions to cities should be founded on our best understanding of what beauty, sustainability, and justice require of us. All at equal value.
Whether it be in the spirit of continuity or contrast is quite irrelevant, as long as we value the sacredness and treasure called life, knowing that it is contingent to change.
Ironically before writing this article, I was acutely aware that this article could be rendered meaningless in itself, especially since the act of thinking leaves nothing tangible at all. Thinking without action never materializes in our world, especially when there is no succinct conclusion.
Admitting to not having all the answers, may the fear of futility not keep us from designing a society where beauty, justice and sustainability [value of life] is not only desired but required.