food for thought
By Architect Dr. Ami Ran - Editor in Chief -
Architecture 0f Israel Quarterly
One of the symptoms currently shaping the world of architecture that feeds mainly on generic content - is the loss of personal identity. The most concrete example of this phenomenon is the malignant use of Emoji that is rapidly replacing speaking, writing and planning.
Admittedly, global languages have some merit, otherwise they wouldn’t have been invented - musical notes that in the 11th century replaced biblical musical signs, Esperanto, developed in 1887 by Eliezer Ludwig Zamenhof, a Jewish (Polish) physician who thought of a way to connect hearts, Morse code invented prior to the telegram and, more recently, the Emoji, extreme- short-cuts to express joy, sadness, or disappointment by attaching an orange face that manages to communicate between a Chinese and a Sudanese at the speed of light. The problem is that sadness, joy or disappointment are always personal and overlooking this might eliminate the differences between race, gender, culture or place.
Giving a personal touch to global design language is not new. The concept was developed in the 19th century in order to give mass production local meaning in the Deutscher Werkbund - the German Association of Craftsmen that served as a basis for modernism at the beginning of the 20th century. The founding architect was Paul Bruno – and his talented student, Mies van der Rohe who falsely commandeered the copyright for the cliché ‘less is more’.
One assumes that as a world famous architect who replaced Gropius as Bauhaus director, Mies was aware of this line by British poet, Robert Browning, in his dramatic monologue “Andrea del Sarto” - a Florentine painter whose work was characterized by subjects emphasized by colors, against a gray background.
One way or another, the phrase became the most renowned symbol of modernist architecture - tired of the superfluous ornamentation of the classicism that preceded it.
In this context, it is worth noting that neither Mies’s most cited example - Pressworth House of 1957 and Phillip Johnson’s Glass House of 1949, exemplify any architectural thinking worthy of imitation: Their climatic functioning is faulty, as their curtains don’t prevent the summer heat from penetrating the building, and when they are open in the winter, do not allow residents’ privacy.
However, the modernist concept doesn’t refer to any particular formal style, but rather to an abstract design code, open to endless concrete interpretations. And, since the function of a building is not determined in advance, neither is the form.
Thus, the planning code correlating content and form has given architects open creative freedom, as long as they can (ostensibly) assign every detail in the building a functional justification, whether symbolic, representational or ornamental.
Evidence of this is Le Corbusier’s “open hand”, which appears in many of his buildings as an obvious ornamental element representing the architect rather than any function of the building.
Moreover, Le Corbusier’s buildings have never been perceived as representative of the phrase ‘less is more’, especially due to the fact that the “less” principle underlying his buildings is by no means simple, and certainly not less (see AI#113). Ironically, his most quoted contributions to the modernist campaign are his anti-social declarations, “a house is a machine for living in, as mentioned in his book, published in 1923, “Towards New Architecture”.
By the way, this is true about all the modernist branches - the De Stijl or Neoplasticism in Holland, the “Natural” theme developed by Alvar Aalto in Finland, and the organic architecture developed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA. Each of them had a completely different outlook on architecture, and not at all minimalist.
Cardinal to them all is a conciseness that uses “word” economically, while enabling varying interpretations, very much like poetry where one says less, but means much more.
And about style: The history of art is consistently based on two alternating trends appearing in varying shades – one is realistic and less decorative, the second - romantic and overly ornamented.
In this context, the rotating transition from the ornamental classical approach to minimalist modernism, and from there - back to content loaded Post-modernism, was natural, regardless of the circumstances.
The transition from modernist style to the formal negation of the minimalist concept (wrongly) came from two directions: On one hand, users who thought that simplicity was too boring, and on the other hand, architects who were looking for ways of expression beyond the artificial subjugation to function.
Prominent among these was modernist Robert Venturi, who coined the cynical phrase, ‘less is a bore’, arguing that the modernist “truth” was no longer relevant, since human beings (architects as well) needed ornamentation for self-expression.
Venturi, who worked in Louis Kahan’s office (who was born with the non-minimalist name of Louis Isadore Kahn), demonstrated the concept on his own house in Philadelphia, where the balanced, symmetrical facade was violated by deflecting the chimney from the center.
With the end of the post-modernist cacophony that legitimized meaningless affectation, I personally suggest replacing the message with something more moderate, like ‘more is less’, and the well-known Hebrew phrase “anything added, lessens”, is preferable to ‘anything added, is perfect’, because it really isn’t.
In an era when aesthetic boredom stems from over-design and computerized tricks that no longer do it for us, the optimal solution seems to be a comfortable harmony between minimum and maximum – something that enables a reasonable measure of personal expression - yet not too clever, nor overly decorated, and certainly not boring.
The cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (not my own invention), first appeared in the 1916 silent film, Molly Bawn. The script was adapted from the book by Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, though like anything intelligent, the concept was already known in Greece in the 4th century BC; Shakespeare used it in several plays in the 16th century, and ever since it has been quoted in innumerable essays dealing with the notion of aesthetics.
The heroine of the book - Molly Bawn, was a “frivolous, annoying” Irish girl who rebelled against the harsh social/religious conventions.
Hungerford’s book is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses in 1922, that ended in a discussion about stream of consciousness. Joyce himself is quoted as saying about his book: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality”.
The concepts of conciseness and involvement underlying the above relate to the term “meaning”. 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, argued that understanding the term “meaning” is actually the reconstruction of the writer’s intention.
But, today, any knowledgeable scholar knows that the cliché “what did the poet mean” pales in comparison to the question – “what do readers understand”, particularly in terms of architecture that strives for a long life.
While the first question is suitable for researchers, what actually determines the life of an artwork is the number of layers it manages to reproduce in its lifetime through readers' or observers' interpretations long after the work is completed. So it is with literature, music, art and certainly architecture, which constitutes a durable arena for innumerable events, the most important of which are created randomly without any connection to the artist’s intention.
This perception utterly negates Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher’s argument, whereby understanding the meaning is a reconstruction of the artist’s intention, when the invisible ‘less’ becomes ‘more’ and more in time.
In this context, space organization is far more significant than the look of the building. This is where the involvement happens through discovering the hidden, which is, according to the Sages – the motivating component of life, and the best way to involve the user in the act of creation.
The best example I know of this approach is poetic writing (as opposed to prose writing), where the space between the words requires the closing of gaps, which delays the flow of thought, thereby requiring the reader to engage in personal involvement, reminding him of similar situations (referred to extensively in the article: Where exactly lies the poetic dimension of architecture - AI #68).
History of architecture is loaded with endless ways to illustrate the fact that the more you invest in thinking, the less you are required to invest in the building process.
We have chosen to illustrate (most of) the article with works by Wespi de Meuron Romero Architects, in which - no matter the style - less intervention is an outcome of more architectural thought.
hide and seek
element of order
in chaotic situations
It’s no secret that the smartphone, the internet, and google manage to shorten the distance between Tokyo, New York, Tel Aviv and blur the difference between actual reality and a virtual dream, pulling to pieces the personal identity that until recently was an important part of the most personal defence mechanisms. The question is – whether and how this boundary-blurring finds expression in architecture.
The automatic answer is – of course it does and big time; after all, architecture is Man’s most obvious clothing, whether he is worthy of it or not. And this is precisely what the inventors of phenomenological architecture are referring to - what is ultimately important is not the author’s intention, but rather the user’s interpretation.
A psychological research study carried out in 1968 at Kansas University entitled “Social Ecology”, showed that the design of various meeting places such as offices, houses, restaurants, and parks significantly affects people’s behavior, particularly their expectations of others. And it is not surprising; after all, it is natural for people to behave differently at the beach, a theatre, their private homes, or the work place.
1968 - Almost fifty years have gone by. I’d let you off with regard to these obvious “findings” if it wasn’t a leap-year (366 days) a year of “monkey fire” – a year prone to disaster according to Chinese astrology, appearing every sixty years to fan the flames of revolution in various places, as if they were a single field of thorns.
Fact – In the course of that year, there were worldwide, highly significant social upheavals, such as the student revolt, which began in France against the backdrop of the Vietnam War inspired by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and led by Pierre Victor and Red Danny (Daniel Cohen Benedict), later leading to the “germ” that brought about the establishment of many protest movements, among others - the Black Panthers in the US and the Black Panther movement in Israel. A year when the Soviet Union invaded Prague; Apollo 6 circled the moon; the eternal Mapai disbanded; Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy were assassinated; an El-Al plane was hijacked (for the first time) to Algiers; France became a nuclear power; Israeli television started broadcasting; the submarine Dakar disappeared; the Long Short Cut, a novel by Paul Winterton (under the pen name of Andrew Garve), was the first book entirely written and printed electronically – without Tippex, erasers, or notes attached acknowledging mistakes, as any self-respecting book did then.
At this point one may ask: what is the organizing principle underlying all these events and how does it work?
To answer this, I propose "recalling" Émile Durkheim, father of modern sociology, who claimed that organic solidarity explains the underlying rules of universal situations.
No need of much imagination to understand that what lies behind this is the “germ of belonging” which, as a result of the communication revolution, has become an invisible virus managing to reduce the speed of gossip to a mere “like”.
Evidence of this is the “Islamic Spring” that swiftly ended all the corrupt (but stable) Arab regimes to become a threatening “winter”, the most extreme expression being the Islamic State - or simply - Daesh (ISIS).
To return to the "astonishing" 1968 findings whereby “the clothes make the man”, we cannot ignore the fact that this is also particularly true in reverse - namely, man makes the clothes (and architecture as well); likewise, the relationship between two polarities is not always mandatory. The Midrash Tanhuma relates specifically to this: “The clothes are worthier than the person who wears them”. That is - there are those who receive good architecture, but mess it up.
José Ortega y Gasset, one of the most important Spanish philosophers, was preoccupied with the reciprocity between environmental circumstances and human beings. Ortega's elaboration was reflected in the sentence “I think, therefore I am”, meaning it is not enough to think (as Descartes and others believed) one must take action.
Ortega's intention was that while the person is indeed a product of his environment, he always has freedom of choice, and may do with it as he pleases, according to his culture and understanding.
No research is needed to illustrate this sentence, although there are many studies that actually “discover” that behavior patterns are a significant factor in creating a place, giving it a cultural value or, alternatively - taking it away – supported by basic terms in sociology such as “neglect”, “bad taste” and “vandalism”.
This connects directly to the herd-behavior phenomenon (flocking) whereby if you want to ensure that your behavior is appropriate, do what everyone else is doing, assuming they know what they’re doing”.
This principle also explains the popularity of social networks based on the principle of “If you aren’t there, you don’t exist”; and in my opinion it may also explain one of nature's most fascinating questions of “how does a flock of birds or fish numbering thousands of individuals move as one body, decide to turn or belly dance with incredible coordination?
Although no reasonable explanation has so far been found for this wonder, not even through Game Theory, which deals with decision-making depending on the response of the opponent, I propose to explain it by using the principle of belonging (solidarity) prevailing on social networks, where a “big” random brain unrestrainedly controls many users with small brains.
And less cynically, this is about “something” reminiscent of Plato’s innate ideas (Descartes, too) who claimed in The Method of Memory that knowing is actually recalling. And it is well known that a newborn baby already knows from his previous incarnation the secrets of feeding, and actually all the secrets of life - some with their parents’ help, but even without their help they are likely to survive, get up, walk, communicate, and build a house for themselves, even if they never spend one day in a school of architecture.
The invisible connection between ostensibly random content reminds me that a few years ago, when I still thought teachers should be able to answer every student's question (because otherwise they might think that he wasn’t an expert on the subject), I was asked to explain the odd and irrational connection between strange contents of a dream, their having no logical relation to reality. At the time, I was enjoying dismantling and assembling computers and my instinctive response was that the human mind, like a hard disk, stores information according to free space, not association. That is, parts of a file may be scattered in different places, although they maintain an associated connection.
According to this logic, a dream that attacks the brain without any prior notice transmits bits of information randomly located in the vicinity, but not necessarily according to the informational association that created them, and this is obviously food for thought.
This storage method has for several years been used in automatic store houses, where items are saved based on available space, unlike a conventional warehouse according to catalog series. This method is also successfully applied in electric car parks - in both cases - items are located through an association mechanism that "remembers", where the hell we parked our car.
An associative mechanism of this kind works, like everything in nature, randomly and unpredictably, regulating the constantly changing relationship between individuals, environmental conditions, freedom of choice, and the herd principle, while allowing an individual independent identity.
I did not invent this of course, but simply “recalled” Associative Parametric Design software, which facilitates simultaneous, automatic adjustment between the various parameters, once constraints defining the relationship between them are determined in advance (AI # 69).
It is this principle of associative mechanism, I suggest, that causes a flock of fish or birds, as well as cyberspace mosquitoes, to act as if they were one organism, rather than any external stimuli.
We live in a virtual world that crosses all boundaries: Google and Face Book deceptive dreams that decide for us - what, who, and why - instead of God.
This leaves architecture as the ultimate default milieu, where one can, maybe, still feel at home - maintain one's independent identity and freedom of choice in grazing fields of herds that gallop away with neither direction nor director.