Nobody ever said "Making Beautiful Things is Easy." Nobody. The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was not painted in a day. Gustave Eiffel was mocked day-in and day-out during the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and long after the tower opened. (The whole country of France hated him.) It took two generations of the Roeblings to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Nobody said architecture was ever going to be an easy road.
The beauty of architecture lies in the constant tension between an ideal abstraction and concrete reality. The interplay between these two forces is always a fine balance, a carefully articulated line. Too ideal and artistic, and the project is "thin", and probably unbuilt. Too practical and realistic, and the project becomes just another "building", a "competently decorated box". Architecture is walking that tightrope between the creative and the analytical, the right and the left brains, the "hard-charging project manager" and the "wistfully thinking imaginative designer". Architecture is understanding nuance, which is really, really hard. It is hard to explain with words, and it is even harder to quantify with numbers, figures, and dollar amounts.
A New "Beaux Arts" Moment
I see this ideological tension, between the ideal and reality, in the relationship between the physical and digital environments. While physical architecture may be a pure and beautiful experience, it may be hard to carry over to the cold and calculating domain of computers (booleans, strings, integers). Likewise, while a website may be beautiful, sleek, and seamless, the physical infrastructure is messy and tough, with people and their irrational politics. While people complain about this all the time, and over and over again, the fertile ground is the space between -- the loose machine-to-human interface, the desktop monitor stand and "setup", the strange touchscreen exhibits at modern art museums. The "space in-between" is always the missing link between the two, and it is where there has been the least development yet.
We have been promised an internet of things and virtual reality. However, how are these devices really integrating the two worlds? Are they not merely devices to supplant the physical with the digital, at the great detriment of physical experiences?
We are at a turning point. Much like the early 20th century, when artists and architects were beginning to grasp the true potential and aesthetic of the machine age, we are today witnessing a digital revolution, just beginning to understand the power of computation and AI. In the 1900's, the leading architects of the day were still building to Beaux-Arts standards, perhaps with some European Gothic references. In other words, they were still utilizing the aesthetics of the 18th and 19th centuries, whilst their buildings were employing 20th century industrial technologies (Elevators, Steel Frames, Mechanical Systems). Corbusier and the early modernists started looking at the latest "machines of the age" for architecture inspiration -- airplanes and automobiles -- instead, rejecting centuries of tradition. And rightly so -- the world and its systems were changing, so why dress up buildings in ancient and outmoded garments? His buildings adopted not only the aesthetics of innovative machines, but also their logic and performance (towards efficiency, functionality, and speed). He studied airplanes and automobiles, and loved them.
We are in a similar moment of transition today. In 2020, modernism has become the old institutional guard, while the aesthetics and culture of computation is ascendant. Modernism has failed to keep up with demands of globalization, sustainability, and automation, just as Gothic Architecture in the 1900's "dressed up" the beauty of industrial structures, and could not keep up with social and technological change. While the most forward-thinking architects of the day has adopted the system of digital production, such as AutoCAD and BIM, we have not yet embraced the full comprehension and logic of computation in our design cultures. We have yet to understand computer science as our primary design driver, much like earlier architects failed to understand industrial design as an aesthetic on its own.
The same way Gropius established the Bauhaus to create art and design in a new Industrial Age, we need to establish a new school to celebrate design in the age of computation and AI. While this age looks the same as decades ago, it is fundamentally different because our technologies are mostly invisible. This should not mean that architecture should be permanently nostalgic for a bygone era. It means that architecture has the fundamentally embrace the language of parameters, variables, inputs, booleans, loops, and recursion as a way of thinking in practice and not only in academia. Only then, can we make genuine innovations and start thinking about real ways to improve how humans live on Earth (and beyond).
Year 27 Goals
I turned 27 this week (T-3 Years Until the Big "3-O"). That's right. I'm getting older. Amid all of the national protests, the pandemic, and the economic depression, I still have hope for the future. I wonder what I will accomplish by the time I turn 28, one year from now. Since moving to New York, I've been setting yearly goals for myself to move the needle forward and to try to do better and better work. It has, and will always be, about producing new work and discovering new ideas. That is the truest expression of architecture. Last year, I promised that I would gain professional licensure, start learning programming, and make/save more money financially. I have generally achieved those goals for year 26.
For the next year, A. I plan to move forward with my software design education -- 1) become intimately familiar with Revit API, 2) become fluent in HTML, CSS, and JS (Front-End), and 3) develop my own set of design tools from scratch -- regardless of where I end up working. B. I am going to incorporate my own side business and get my first real client. C. I will finally make my belated trip to Iceland, which was supposed to be my present to myself for passing the ARE's (but was derailed by the pandemic).