Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Nostalgia, Values and Sustainability

This is going to be a difficult assignment for me to address because I don’t really understand what a value system is. It’s been mentioned in class but never talked about like some of the other things we’ve addressed. I found Cecil Balmond’s presentation and his answers to all of the questions asked insanely inspirational. I gathered quite a collection of interesting quotes that awarded me with hours of pondering after the lecture. I was getting to the point that I no longer knew what I really wanted to do and why but some of the things he said reminded me of my reasons for getting into architecture.

His comment that things aren’t being done the way the used to and that nostalgia is the architect who does everything stood out the most. It’s something I was thinking about when I listened to Frank Gehry speak last semester but I never quite wrapped me head around it. I remember talking to my girlfriend after his panel discussion and saying that he really doesn’t seem to have that much to do with his projects anymore besides throwing some crap together, sending hoards of people to figure out how to build it and stamping his name on the plans when it’s done. By his own admission, he doesn’t know a thing about how to do stuff on the computers, which is interesting since his designs are entirely reliant upon that technology. I kept arguing that it’s an embarrassment to architecture that he wasn’t doing it himself and that he doesn’t deserve the popularity he has. Now that Cecil has open my mind to the fact that it’s simply the nature of the profession today that there are no longer singular people doing great architecture, I’m able to understand my frustration and why things are the way they are today.

People outside of our little profession have no idea what goes into the design and construction of a building. They don’t know how many phases you go through or how many people’s hands and minds will touch the drawings from their initial conception until the ribbon is cut. They just see the building and see the person who owns the company that designed it. Since I’ve been able to see the process from start to finish, I’ve had a hard time grasping that it isn’t one person doing everything. Now I see that it’s the only way anything can get built nowadays. Nostalgia really is the time when one architect did everything. Imhotep is nostalgia.

So now I’m in the modern condition, with all of this knowledge and understanding that 99% of the world lacks. Do I feel powerful? Not in the least. People are so hung up on being nostalgic that they’ve lost their own ability to create anything new and instead try to relive and recreate the greatness of the past. Proof in point is this little thing called branding. Now that us designers and architects understand that it is pointless to reminisce about the olden days when one man did it all, rather then accept our collaborative futures, we brand ourselves. We try to create a commodity of our name, our work, and ourselves. It’s rather interesting actually. When you can’t be the person who does everything, why not create a fictitious identity that still is you and sell it to the masses. Then it’s that entity which does all the work. What remains are Gehries, Hadids, Mosses, Fosters, Nouvels, Andoes and so on. I write their names this way purposefully because they shouldn’t show ownership to the authors because the author is an agglomeration. Now everyone is able to get their own piece of Nostalgia, and realize they wasted their money on an industrialized collectible.

I don’t even want to get started on sustainability, but I have to. It’s part of the assignment.

Nothing sickens me more then when something that benefits the health and wellbeing of every aspect of our lives is packaged up and handed to me with an inflated pricetag. It’s not that I don’t think the movement is incredibly important. I do. I realize that without it, my future is fucked. I just don’t like how something this important has to become mainstream in order for it to be accepted by society, and that simple acceptance means it comes at a price.

In relating the topic of sustainability to my previous rantings, what I find most interesting about sustainability is that in its modern form, it’s one of the few original ideas that exist. BUT…despite this originality, there is still a great deal of nostalgia associated with it. People aren’t thinking about the future and how wonderful it’s going to once we’re no longer dependent on foreign oil like the commercials say. They aren’t happy that birds and ducks all over the world will have their feet free from plastic bags and soda can holders. They aren’t thrilled that the t-shirt they just bought was made from recycled toilet paper and for whatever reason only comes in brown. All anyone thinks about or really talks about is how easy everything used to be. “Remember when gasoline used to cost you $1 a gallon and you could smoke cigarettes in airplanes? Remember when we didn’t have to pass smog tests? Remember when I didn’t have to pay for my employee’s benefits? Remember when we used to be able to dump all of our industrial waste into that river outback? Remember when children used to be able to work in factories and could get into those tight spaces?”

It’s all bullshit because in reality, people don’t care. They want the easy way out. They don’t want their time wasted, their money wasted or their new French manicure wasted. Why else would people be nostalgic? The only reason is because they think things were so much better back then. People only care about sustainability today because we’re to the point that if they didn’t, everyone will think they’re a jackass. There aren’t many people around who would think twice about buying a 10mpg BMW over a 35mpg Saturn if they could afford it.

Sustainability is a brand and society is behind it. Nostalgia is wishing sustainability wasn’t a brand.

What is Architecture? What is a Building?

These are all questions that I hate. In fact, I hate all questions that are anything like these ones. I’ve never been one to ponder philosophical notions because I’ve always seen it as unproductive. It’s not that I don’t understand that people want to try to determine the difference between designing architecture and designing buildings so they can try to improve their own work. I get that. I just don’t think it will ever affect me or my work. I look at philosophy like I look at religion. Some people believe in it and spend their lives devoted to it and it changes them. If you don’t believe in it then how can it change you? Because I don’t like searching the depths of my psyche to obtain a deeper understanding of the possible differences between architecture and buildings, I don’t see how doing so would really have and profound benefit to me. I don’t think we need to distinguish between buildings and architecture. If we’re going to make an argument that just about anything could be design, related to design, or even be architecture (ie a snowboard), then why try to say there is a difference between a building and architecture. Why can’t it just be two words to describe the same thing?

Cultural anthropology teaches us that each and every culture has different words for the same things. I’m not just talking about languages. Whenever something is important to a culture, or necessary to their survival, they develop more words to describe it. Take for instance the Eskimos. Snow was very important to their survival during the winter months. They developed words to describe the various types of snow that can be used in different ways that don’t exist in our vocabulary. Even if you look at us and consider how many words exist in our language for money. I can think of at least a dozen off the top of my head. Cultures where money is nonexistent or unimportant have less, or none at all. If I take this approach to my understanding of the differences between architecture and a building, I can start to see some differences. Obviously a building can be architecture but not all architecture is buildings. Architecture can be houses, skyscrapers, bridges, garages, shacks, and so on. The way I see it, have always seen it and will probably continue to see it is that Architecture is this huge category, inside which exist these smaller, descriptive words that are necessary for communication between members of a society. This is the only way I can begin to see a difference between Architecture and buildings. Things need to be cut and dry, or black and white for me. Not because I’m incapable of seeing beyond, I am, I almost majored in theoretical physics. Then again, maybe that’s a bad example since theories in physics are only proven by the most precise and definitive of equations.

To quickly touch on design, I look at it the same way I look at the differences between Architecture and buildings. Design is this broad category encompassing anything that is created by the mind to serve some sort of purpose. I know, it’s incredible vague and broad, but if you’re going to ask someone like myself to answer a question like that, it’s the only answer I can come up with. I know that you’re not even expecting answers to these question from us, just exploration, but I can’t do that. I need answers.