At the current moment, the modern movement seems unable and unwilling to address the ills plaguing current society. We are today plagued by climate change, technological disruption, rampant inequality, and now actually a plague, in the form of Covid-19. In spite of our great technological and social progress, nature seems to have found a way of fighting back at all scales of life. Stripped back from distractions and spectacles, what is revealed now is that our modern society was always built on fragile territory (and even more vulnerable just-in-time supply chains). Mass consumption and mass production cannot alone guarantee lasting prosperity, and even the luxury class will be under assault. What we need now is a concerted effort to connect with each other and build a more equitable, holistic community. Technology will be part of the solution, but so will individual leadership and organization. After all, we don't always need smarter machines, but we definitely need better people, to maintain and operate Spaceship Earth.
EVOLUTION AND REVOLUTION
Morphologies: From Renaissance to the Baroque
The Battle of the 19th Century: Neoclassical versus Gothic
A Similar Moment of Transition: From Modern to Contemporary
The Farnsworth House flooded, May 2020 (Link: Chicago Tribune)
There's a scene in Kubricks "2001: A Space Odyssey", where Dr. Haywood Floyd is asleep aboard his starliner to the Moon. His ballpoint pen briefly escapes his shirt pocket, and we see the pen floating in space, until the flight attendant picks it back up. In some film circles, the scene symbolizes humanity's loss of control of their tools in space, a corollary to the opening scene of the human ape inventing the first tool. I wonder if architects have hit that moment already.
This scene hits close to home, not only because Kubrick used a pen to symbolize man's loss of control over tools. Over the past few decades, architecture has had to adapt to waves and waves of technological changes, from the days of the drafting mayline in the 19th century, to some strange "ray-tracing copy machine" in the 1970's, to AutoCAD and then to BIM. Along the way, the profession has transformed from interpreting and understanding construction symbols to building and maintaining digital simulations. This means that not only do architects have to know how to construct physical buildings, they have to learn to construction digital models of increasing complexity. Over time, I think we have started to lose control of the tools of the trade, ceding them to excel-sheet-wielding developers, or code-wielding programmers, discussing things we can hardly understand.
In order to thrive in the post-pandemic world, architects have to step up and start regaining control. At the bare minimum, we need to understand the basis of how our systems operate, before it's too late. The loss of understanding does not only influence the digital sphere, but the physical products we ultimately make and deliver. The medium is the message. Understanding architecture is understanding construction, but it is also understanding the tools of construction. If it happens to be the computer, then we are all computer scientists now.
I got this funny email in April, from a non-profit group soliciting proposals for design collages for an upcoming urban conference in Chicago (or remotely). Unfortunately I had to turn it down. But that got me thinking again, about the nature of cities and how we define a successful city.
Flipping through Aureli's "The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture", particularly the last chapter on O.M. Ungers and OMA, I am reminded again of the distinction between "urbanization" and "cities". What we consider today as "cities" are more like "urbanized areas of sprawl", and usually the historic center of places is what remains of the traditional ideals of a city (both in Western and Eastern contexts). In the 1970's in Berlin, Ungers' counter-proposal to urbanization was to essential transform architecture into "miniature cities", or point nodes that include the amenities of traditional cities (gathering spaces, commercial places, residential areas). I can see how this chain of thinking lead to, and inspired, the idea of "programs" in buildings, and eventually "mixed-use buildings" we see all around the world -- a counterpoint to just "sprawl".
But architecture or sprawl, physical communities should still have metrics by which to measure their success. From the unit of the dwelling to the built "region" or "megaregion", there are some basic ingredients that make up and shape cities. Just as a thought experiment, I wanted to catalog them from the foundational to the aspirational -- and see what it looks like. Does this still ring true? And what does it tell me about my own personal biases (about cities and what makes them function)?
Level 1: The Dwelling Unit
The foundational level is a lot like the first level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. All cities need air, light, and water for the survival of its inhabitants. From ancient times to today, a lot of these needs have remained a constant (except for the internet). In a funny way, each of these needs build upon each other, and without the earlier step the following step would not exist. Successful places, at least in the industrialized world, have these ingredients in abundance, most of the time.
Level 2: The Infrastructure
At the community level, these basic building blocks become a bit more complex, because the problem concerns connecting dwelling units together. We are still concerning basic needs, but rather than basic individual needs these are basic community needs.
Level 3: The Economy
At the economic level, the infrastructure elements help generate environments for community growth. We move beyond meeting "needs" to "wants", particularly regarding economy and governance -- the more intangible, but equally important, form of social ("soft") infrastructure.
Level 4: The Individual
At the highest level, a successful city means people who thrive together, rather than just survive on their own. These are not community "wants" but individual "wants".