Saturday, August 11, 2012

Intro Follow Up/Architecture Today

As it turns out, this is the 3rd part of 3 of some posts about mindfulness and intention in architecture.

From Chipperfield's intro:

Our contemporary, ambiguous public realm of consumption, travel and leisure, is shaped by criteria that tend to contradict the impossible but irresistible idea of a formally expressed, meaningful societal order.

Now to deconstruct this sentence in the context of 'architecture as gift.' 

The places we shop, vacation and relax in, Chipperfield seems to be getting at, have fallen into/become a gray area. What are they? How are they created? Why are they created the way they are? What is the 'criteria' in play? 

They ambiguity seems to me to be the the lack of true focus on the end user of these places because the criteria applied is: Will it make money? The work serves a value neutral purpose: making money.  But I don't really think 'ambiguity' is the right word here; it seems to be used as a soft way to describe the difficulty of serving 2 masters.

There is nothing wrong with making money, most of us go about it it everyday. It is done most effectively in the service of community needs and aspirations (see comments further down on Hester's book). In the realm of architecture, which has worked so hard to elevate itself to the level of a 'profession,' I would argue that there is something of an implied commitment to serving the end user of the projects (public projects, whether privately owned or not) they help create. This concept is what provides the contradiction overtly stated in Chipperfield's piece.

The 'impossible but irresistible' of the statement is, in some sense, the essence of the human condition. Architects want to design it, builders want to construct it, people want to live in it. It is what makes concepts like 'a process of continual improvement' necessary and valid. Our condition and environment is dynamic and in need of constant re-evaluation. A 'formally expressed, meaningful societal order' will not be created, even for a moment, when the bottom line and not even a 'triple bottom line' is leading the way.

Hester's book, which I'm just getting into, illustrates some of the issues raised above. Much research and many personal experiences document the positive qualities of community and shared experience that can be added to mundane activities like heading to the grocery store or bank. Per Hester, "To maximize enabling benefits, the environment must be designed to accommodate...[social interaction during routine, mundane activities]. Unfortunately, many ritual places do not. Most grocery supermarkets have narrow aisles and standardized high shelf heights that preclude stopping to chat in or across aisles. In contract farmer's markets with wide walkways and niches adjacent to the the main circulation paths encourages socializing." P37

The farmer's market serves the community in more than one way - it is a Third Space - place where people can congregate and share info while accomplishing routine errands.

The grocery store is about maximizing profit in the minimal amount of space with displays intended to entice purchasing. The design of this is not a gift, it is not done with the intention of serving those who will shop in it.

These are not easy questions or problems to solve with lasting answers. It is constant challenge. My aim is to keep us mindful of the inherent conflicts and contradictions in contemporary American architectural practice and to encourage a better balance of priorities.