Zarathustra meets Architecture

February 17, 2010

There are many ways of categorizing architectural styles. One way is to use a spectrum on which one end there lies a kind governed by logic; one that is practical, realistic, engineering, systematic, sustainable. On the other lies one of emotion; the abstract, artistic, sublime. In our society, most architecture contains both to varying degrees. But it is important to remember that beauty is not found in the combination of both, but in the relative balance of the two.

I argue to all architecture students to be careful when they design. We are always told by society to “step outside the box.” The goal is always to be innovative and forward-thinking. But when the student asks about innovation, he or she is pointed to the starchitects; to an iconic, superficial architecture dominated by fluff.  To the layperson, “outside the box” is defined as flashy, rendered innovation with expensive materials and a stress of form over detail, of quantity over quality, breadth over depth. It is a box that is defined and governed by values found in our modern society. It is a box where speed, efficiency, and money are valued above emotion, beauty, and art.

It is unfortunate when students are unaware of the forces at work within the profession. They see an “Architecture Record” article of some Zaha project and decide that must be what architecture is! They then go off and copy, with no real invention, no real innovation. They don’t try to understand what it is they are doing. It is sad, in a way, to see people who don’t really have their heart in it; they are simply reproducing what they see everywhere else. At some point, they may stop and ask, “What if I try it this way?” But they would be told to go look at some famous architect. They would be told to make more renderings.  They would be told to tuck in their shirt and straighten their tie. And that would be the end of it.  True, meaningful architecture has no place in a society like ours. Perhaps this is a criticism of our society, or perhaps this is a criticism of architect’s inability to influence society.

But what of the students who do discover this innovation? What of the lucky few who manage to make it out uncorrupted? What if they decide to push for something more meaningful; an innovation not inspired by the superficial? Innovation that is not “outside the box” is not a concern in our society.  It does not align with, to be frank, our society’s capitalist ideals.  Our society wants either “iconic and emotional” or “mass-produced and logical”.

But what if innovation was applied to systems existing inside of the box? What if we challenge ourselves to deal with what exists instead of constantly inventing new forms. What if architecture pushed for a new definition of beauty in society? One based not on superficial, but on meaningful innovation; on the balance of logic and emotion. A kind that stresses depth over breadth, and quality over quantity. It is much harder to innovate within bounds and constrictions than it is to just invent new ones. But it is through this struggle that new opportunities and innovations are discovered.  It is here that will prove to be the battleground for our future as architects.

To the innovative student: this struggle has already begun. It has its roots in the high-performance/sustainability movement, but still lacks a true identity.  It manifests itself in all kinds of forms –  re-use, passive systems, future-use, and material sciences and research, to name a few.  It is here where meaningful innovation will be found in the future.  And it is here where I think we can finally rediscover balance in our architecture.

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