The Abundance Conundrum

Has the abundance of work, abundance of money—general abundance—of the last several years stifled creativity and obliterated the notion of experimentation?  Has it become more about production, building, and practicality—because that’s where the money is?  This article about architect Lebbeus Woods made me consider that perhaps this “Great Recession” could be a healthy and productive part of the design cycle.  Productive for the mind, that is.  Not necessarily productive for the built environment—at least immediately.  Freed from the chains of “the man,” minds are better able to wander, to experiment, to express.

Architecture, or rather good architecture, embodies a fine balance between form and function, creativity and practicality, art and space.  A fine balance between possibilities and realities.

Let’s face it: there is no shortage of reality, architecturally or otherwise.  The last thing we need is more reality.  How about a little fantasy?  A little fantastical, imaginative, whacked-out creative expression?  Maybe even a little absurdity?

Much of the debate and discourse among architectural theorists has long been related to the question: What is architecture’s role in society? In Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, Kate Nesbitt poses four possibilities that, in my humble opinion, are worth a serious ponder: “1) architecture can be indifferent to social concerns and their expression and representation; or 2) architecture can be an affirmative actor supporting the status quo and accepting existing conditions; or 3) architecture can gently guide society in a new direction; or 4) architecture can radically criticize and remake society.”

Given that I don’t care much for societal boxes or rules, I am of course most inclined to agree with option number four.  Anything that radically criticizes and at least attempts to remake society is automatically granted some form of validity in my book.  Change requires change, period.

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Over the past few centuries, an array of architectural characters has created work that categorically debunked the status quo with designs, drawings, and ideas that boldly expressed distaste for the usual, and contempt for the pragmatic.  The 18th century was, in some ways, a time of architectural revolt, with architect-artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Étienne-Louis Boullée—who all used their work to basically say, “I don’t care what everyone else is doing, and as a matter of fact I don’t like it.  How about we shake things up a bit?  Maybe this is how it should be.”

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Piranesi built little over the course of his career, but he drew a lot—creating etchings of exaggerated and theatrical architecture—certainly not pragmatic, but emotion- and question-evoking. He wasn’t ignoring history, but he was certainly turning it upside down.  Ledoux and Boullée followed Piranesi by just a couple decades, and each left a body of work that could be considered more visionary than realistic—much of it never intended to be realized in the built form.  To be fair, I should note that Ledoux actually has a large roster of built projects to his credit, but this did not stop him from also designing more theoretical, visionary schemes.  All three—Piranesi, Ledoux, and Boullée—left legacies as architectural visionaries who scoffed at the standards of their times.  They were designers who were not bound by societal constraints.  Their work may not have been built, but it offered radical concepts and ideas to inspire change.  It wasn’t immediately acceptable; it required critical thought.

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

The point is, these visionaries left their marks on the architectural world not by designing what could have or should have been built.  They left their marks by doing quite the opposite.  And if Lebbeus Woods is now left to be the lone ranger—the only one who is not only willing, but also interested in, making work that evokes radical ideas, concepts, forms, and change—I believe we will be left with a barren landscape of horribly mundane architecture, and probably a generation of horribly unfulfilled architects.

Just as change leads to more change, ideas lead to more ideas.  Historically speaking, change and progression have come by way of revolution.  And revolutions typically come with much controversy, as do the revolutionaries who participate in them.  But what would our world be without revolutions, and revolutionaries for that matter?  Those who have made the biggest impact on the world, and left the biggest impressions, were not necessarily well-liked.

So now that the economy has ripped from our greedy little hands the ability to design and build hundreds more condominium towers or extravagant retail outlets, I’m calling for a moratorium on boring.  The way I see it, there are two options:  1) We can take the necessity is the mother of invention route—and design with minimal costs, minimal extravagance, and begin building with scraps and garbage (ala early Rural Studio); or 2) We can say screw it and forget about pragmatism, getting stuff built, pleasing clients (because where are they, anyway?), and being realistic.  Go wild, go nuts, draw crazy things, remake, reinvent!

I think it’s high time for another Piranesi.  Or maybe a generation of Piranesis.


12 responses to “The Abundance Conundrum

  1. I’m happy to see you beginning to give credit to fantasy 🙂

  2. check out archigram, they made some “rad” stuff:

  3. Piranesi actually came up multiple times while I was doing my grieving project and it was a pleasure to think and talk about fantasy architecture rather than a typical mortuary or cemetery, you know, something that everyone can get behind and understand. However, it was still an idea I was trying to sell, one that not everyone could get behind. By the end, when I knew I was only designing it for myself, I began to wonder if it mattered. I still stand behind the choices I made, it’s just an interesting subject to think about.

    • Yes, a bit of a double-edged sword. Trying to “sell” something that’s not intended for sale is kind of a futile task. But not everything needs to be for sale. You created something that made for thought-provoking conversation–something that made people think–and I say that’s valid on its own.

  4. How can there be too much reality if it is all “based on the clouded and deluded lenses through which we see?” Do you equate practicality with reality? If so, wouldn’t one’s practicality be another’s fantasy?

    • It’s an interesting question because, really, I believe that reality = perception. But yes, in this case, I am equating reality with practicality–at least to a degree. I’m simply suggesting that there is validity in architectural designs that aren’t really intended to be built. It’s about idea generation. Conceptual, schematic, big ideas that lead to change. Certainly, practicality has its merits but by nature of the world, we will never be without practicality. It’s the fantasy part that requires pushing.

  5. What I know about architecture you could put on a pin head. But I believe , like you, that we do need change. I can’t agree that we need to push fantasy, though. Now more than ever we need to be practical. We need to be thinking GREEN. Solar panels, wind turbines, roof gardens and greenhouses, that’s what we need to think about in design. The era of cheep energy (OIL) is over, or soon will be, and we have nothing in place as a substitute. If you can incorporate all those with fantasy, I’ll buy that.

    • I don’t disagree with you that what we do build needs to be ecologically responsible, and I would add socially responsible. However, what I’m writing about here, in some ways, doesn’t apply to that theory/requirement because I’m not necessarily talking about what gets built. I’m talking more about conceptual ideas behind designs, being creative, and using the lack of real and practical work (which is greatly lacking due to the current economic situation) as an opportunity for designers to be free from the creative restrictions of having clients. Mostly what I am encouraging is out-of-the box thinking, and yes, I’m suggesting that greed and abundance have replaced a lot of creativity with a lot of production.

  6. You’re too intellectual for me. I guess I should stick to gardening, and cooking, and other mundane things, as I don’t have the foggiest idea what you are talking about. Perhaps you can explain it to me over a Thanksgiving dinner sometime.

  7. Like Grandpa, I don’t have the most sophisticated understanding of the world of architecture. I’ve worked with architects on a couple occasions, that’s about the extent of my experience.

    So I guess I see this issue through the lens of a consultant. It seems like an essential ingredient in the questions you’re asking is how the client (whoever that is) sees the architect. Does the client see architecture as one of the ways they can make a mark on the world, seeking the vision of an expert, creative architect, and building that into with his/her own vision? Or does the client see the architecture as merely a means to an end –– making sure the roof doesn’t fall in, that the building can hold enough people and will last enough years, things like that.

    As a consultant, I’ve found myself in both positions over the years. Sometimes, where I have built the right kind of relationship with a client and expressed enough of a vision, they value my perspective and expertise, and entrust me with a significant chunk of their business and reputation. The client encourages to bring my creative, radical ideas to a project.

    But when the client doesn’t want you to do that, it doesn’t really matter much what your vision is, or how you see your role. If they just want you to design a box to put people in, it’s usually best to just design a box to put people in.

  8. So to sum that up, I’d say the questions I’d be inclined to ask are: (1) how can the world of architects market itself as a whole in a way that leads various kinds of clients to see creativity and vision in architecture as a worthy investment, and (2) how can the world of architects develop tools/resources/frameworks that assist individual architects in doing that sort of thing on their own, in their own niches.

  9. Pingback: You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. You say good; I say what? « Defy Rules by Audrey Alverson

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