Architecture’s Relationship with Change

August 29, 2010

This post is in part inspired and helped along by a collection of long discussions with fellow architecture student and good friend Cesar Duarte. And while this is only a working draft of this concept, I wanted to post it to get it out there for the time being:

Innovation: Innovation in Architecture exists as a spectrum. On one side, a pragmatically innovative kind of architecture, and on the other, an abstractly innovative architecture. These two extremes manifest themselves inherently within all architecture, but no where is it as obvious when looking at the pedagogies of different university curriculum. The difference between my alma mater, Northeastern, and say Columbia or the GSD as an example of the difference between:

  • Pragmatic: Inside-the-box innovation.

and

  • Abstract: Outside-the-box innovation.

Both are methods for discovering innovation, and each one takes an extreme stance in architecture.

These two extremes of innovation are in effect the two methods for navigating the changes taking place in society. To shortly summarize, the first, grounded approach is one that “pushes” change along based on what we already have within a discipline. Think of squeezing innovation out of the efficiencies found in real-world sites, codes, programs, or toying with existing technologies and materials to discover innovation. The second abstract approach is one that “pulls” change based on what is occurring outside a discipline. For example, squeezing the most innovation out of digital representation or out of current trends in art and society. (Note: this distinction is made outside moral grounds (that is to say that both can be moral or immoral). Note 2: it also of course does not investigate the third pedagological approach of “no-innovation”.)

The question now is: which will be the approach to bring us forward as a society and as a discipline? Do we want to push or pull change in architecture? Do we want to improve upon what we already have, or do we want to invent something totally new? Do we rely on manifestation or representation to carry us forward?

Lets look at some examples. Today, perhaps it is an environmental moralism that asks for our attention. In Europe, this is already apparent. Environmental architecture is thriving. And it is successful. This is not because a few architects made some great buildings or because of some new flashy advertising scheme. And it is not because a few efficiencies discovered in material sciences and building technology. It is successful because of a balance of the two kinds of innovation. This integration was not found in either the “manifestation” or the “representation” approach, but rather in a balance of the two; a pushing of both inside-the-box and outside-the-box innovation simultaneously. Or lets look at Corbusier’s social housing projects. He truly does synthesize real-world problems of building codes and social issues with innovative, abstract architectural concepts. Integration. Synthesis. Balance. The answer is simple.

But as you know, thats not all of it. There is also this little thing called quality.

Quality: Before choosing between pragmatism and abstraction, we must consider the other half of architecture. Architecture is not only the product of innovation; it is a product of quality. Similar to innovation, quality also exists as a spectrum:

  • Physical: Inside-the-box quality.

and

  • Abstract: Outside-the-box quality.

On one end is the physical, on the other is the abstract.  Physical quality is found within raw architecture through detailing, efficiency, form, material, construction, or even through the codes and politics that define any project.  Abstract quality can take many different directions in architecture, ranging from a moral, intellectual, or social quality. But here too, balance is required. You could have a spectacularly built and designed building, but if it lacks soul, it will not be successful. Or of course, the reverse is true too – if a building was designed with true intent and social meaning but was built like crap, it will not be successful. In quality, it is easy to see how a single minded approach is an unsuccessful one. It takes the synthesis of both to make up the foundation of any great work.

So, now that we have some fundamentals to work with, do we rely on manifestation or representation to carry us forward? And do we look to abstract or physical quality? I think it is clear that both must find balance for true movement to occur. Left alone, singular paths will lead to dead ends. The two fundamental characteristics, innovation and quality, are the building blocks of architecture. Innovation is the forward movement of architecture, quality is the substance itself, and both require simultaneous harmony and balance. To successfully continue forward as a society, as a profession, and as individuals, we must re-balance the scales.

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