Text and Context

Text and Context

            A building - any building, is composed of 90% purpose and ten percent intentions. This is, of course, when taking into account, that cultural preferences, personal tastes and fantasies of the architects and his clients, are functional par excellence. However, most texts accompanying architectural projects choose to focus on the ten percent of pretensions that usually exist only in the mind of the designer. And because descriptive writing was never a strong suit of technological professionals, it is these texts, clumsily and meaninglessly expressed, that detract from the architect’s image as an intelligent artist.

            As is often the case, the root of the problem lies in architecture school. There, amidst the excitement of final project submittal, students starved of inspiration and guidance are often suddenly and inexplicably fed irrelevant criticism. Dangerous mambo jumbo is thrown into the emotionally charged air by learned and experienced alumni, who grasp the opportunity to impress their ideas upon students.  More often than not, these inspirational ideas represent goals they themselves have failed to realize, introduced by tired phrases such as 'You should have…' or 'If I were you, I would have…'. And thus delivered, the cultural guidance the students receive is a far cry from reality that persuades aspiring designers that all they have heard in five years of instruction is false.


            Many students do not understand the real importance of what the pretentious poet was trying to say. As a result, they tend to pad their final assignments with irrelevant quotes and phrases that are mainly derived from an utterly subjective world. The more annoying ones: “It was very important to me to create something special”, “I really love the color yellow because it reminds me of grass,” or “I was thoroughly impressed with the movie 'Winds of Desire...” Unless defined in the student’s programme, there is no reference to man other than as part of a specific group - 'aliens', 'acrobats', 'monks', 'artists that live by the beach', 'Rothweiler-owners' and other such subjects produced by the students and his tutors’ wasted imagination. Other students confuse themselves with abstract expressions, which cause the listener to want nothing more but to see the next project.


            As for more concrete subjects, such as environment and climate – it is rare to find a student who considers such factors in a project. So he invents adjustable patents, mentions the existence of the sun, and even the need for insulation, but as a rule all practical matters are pushed aside, as if we exist in a Caribbean vacation village where the living is easy. After all, we have air-conditioning and a maintenance staff – let them worry about the practicalities.


            A while ago, I was invited to observe the submission of final projects at one of the leading architecture schools.  In one of the classes that included functionaries from the Municipality of Ramlah and the Ministry of Interior, a day-long discussion was conducted which failed to reveal that the city of Ramlah includes an Arab population, with the special needs of a mixed community. In another class, a student created an artificial valley in the desert town of Mizpeh Ramon without relating to the winter floods that dictate the region’s topography. Adding insult to injury, when a lecturer mentioned the term “drainage”, he stressed that he was referring to population. and not rain. And one of the guests, a known “expert” on climate issues, pointed out that the subject of drainage was irrelevant because “a plastic pipe solves every problem”.


            The problem is not only the students, after all, they are supposedly taught by experienced instructors. In the course of time, students eventually graduate and even become architects who publicize their projects in the “design” magazines which are sprouting up  at a frequency which belies the slump in the construction industry. It is here that an utter absence of articulation becomes most obvious.  For example, one quotes a fourth year student of architecture at  Bezalel Academy, “The project investigates the limits of living in Acre, and offers a new alternative urban fabric, which gnaws at the old one. A fabric in which the basic living unit, as an urban autonomy, envelopes the public realm.” What has the reader, who merely wants to get through the day in one piece, done to deserve this?


            Often, one sentence demonstrates all the weaknesses of a project, its planners and clients. Thus, for example, 'On approaching the Max Dadon building in Caesarea for the first time, one cannot help but notice the building’s geometrical shapes'. What happens the second time, do the shapes change or are they simply unnoticed? The text continues, “The plan of the exterior volume is based on a playful combination of various geometric shapes…” How does this sentence differ from the latter? And it continues, “The plan was originally denied by the local authorities due to its many rooftops (fourteen different levels) but the architects managed to convince the authorities of the building’s architectural qualities.” Were the authorities merely slow to understand that fourteen rooftops are essential to a building of architectural quality? The text supplies the answer, 'Two central elements function as unifying factors, the interior stairwell and the exterior swimming-pool.” Let’s be grateful it was not the reverse.


            Needless to say, the greater the distribution of the magazine, the greater the damage these texts do to the architectural profession. But as in all matters related to architecture, we weren’t the ones who started. World renowned architects also put much effort into reinventing architecture. Among them are Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, or even Frank Gehry, who has lately begun applying the 'fish theory' to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, based, he says, on his mother’s traditional Gefilte fish. The only real difference is that Bilbao can speak for itself and any oral explanation, even from the mouth of Gehry, is superfluous.


            Thus, the question remains, what should the text describing an architectural project be composed of? As little as possible, because the building should justify its own existence without the help of its parents, or at least the correct dosage of clear and concise text, which emphasizes the unique quality of a building in comparison to other similar buildings. There is no need to squander the readers’ powers of concentration and take the chance of allowing the trivial to cloud the important. It is important to avoid overuse of subjective superlatives, which complicate the text while obfuscating the building.


            This is a sure way to cause one to question the writer’s objectivity.  As we all know,  every building is composed of purpose (function), place (specific conditions), and the architect who brings the first two together (interpretation). The use of empty phrases such as, “It was very important to me to create a round building...” are allowed only if to express the subjective opinion of the writer of an objective facts, that may or may not justify such phrases. For example, “Because I installed large windows in the west to expose the sea view, it was important to me to install shading devices for protection from the powerful sun which hits the building facade in the afternoon hours.”


            As for dosage, considering that most buildings serve a limited number of purposes (e.g. offices, apartments, hotels), it is not necessary to use so many decorative descriptions which may be true of any building. It is better to concentrate on the particular way a building serves its purpose (even if it is imaginary, as in the case of student projects), and to take advantage of the readers’ limited patience. Better yet, is to concentrate on the building as it exists, and not on wishes or intentions not realized. Leave those for the next project.



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