Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition 2007: And the Winners Are...

This years' KROB competition featured architectural renderings of exceptional quality and revealed a wide variety of modes of expression. The annual event reminds us of the obvious but often forgotten truth that architecture is as much informed by art than it is by techtonics and function. Before a physical building can make an impact on the passerby, the preliminary rendering of it must move the owner to such an extent as to be willing to pay large amounts of money for the vision presented. Renderings initiate the passion required by the owner to see the building through in spite of the seemingly endless series of hassles during a project's development.

Renderings also expand the scope of how a building expresses itself, emphasizing concepts and phenomena not apparent to the finished product but that is nonetheless crucial in embodying meaning beyond a project's financial and programmatic bottom line. Thanks to the renderer's masterful techniques at his disposal, the vision depicted in the rendering can be so seductive and powerful that often its physical manifestation can seem sorely disappointing. KROB seeks to celebrate this gifted use of technique and composition as opposed to the merits of the architecture depicted, which can transform the most mundane structures into celebrations of the human spirit that overlays what it means to build.

This year's winners exhibit the richness of imagination required to make the simplest ideas moving in their intensity. The Best of Show (above) was awarded to Hernan Molina, whose thesis project as a student at Texas A&M University reveals a grandness of scale, a sunny atmosphere that leads one to recall memories of shimmering waters and infinite horizons. He skillfully composes the image by using the proposed tower as vertical frame that crosses with the horizontal frame of the sky, while using the deep blue-green field of the water to make his waterfront design appear to float in space. And still, his design seems to grow out of the existing city scape convincingly, avoiding the common tendencey of merely pasting over a photograph. Molina would also win the category of best Digital Hybrid entry at the student level as well.

At the professional level, the best digital hybrid entry was awarded to Brendan O'Grady, whose image describes the concept of a dwelling built behind a highway billboard. Whatever one may think of the actual merit of such an idea, it is difficult to dispute O'Grady's instincts in the sensitive use of colors and tones in composing a richly patterned background which help to convey an other-wordly quality to his building. The layers of jagged shards complement bio-morphic character of the his "aeroform" dwelling, and the light that emanates from behind adds a slick and subdued texture to its surface.

Robert Berry's lyrical and organic sketch of a classical building corner won over the jury for best hand delineation by a professional. Produced as part of an exercise where one simultaneously observes the subject while drawing without ever glancing at the paper, repetion of the same profile appears to create sort of richly articulated architectural space (I thought I was looking at just a typical quick sketch of a historic street corner with lightly traced facades). In a way, this is drawing in its purest form, in that the connection of what one sees and how it is translated by the hand not interfered by our mind to "correct" what we observe in order to illustrate something more intelligible. It is an exercise dictated by the senses, and therefore lends something sensual to the sketch.

The winning entry for the best hand delineation by a student went to a work that was rendered in a style for unusual for a modern tower wrapped in a glass wall. Mark Getty's impressionistic treatment of the tower runs counter to the tradition of expressing the reflectivity and tranparency of glass towers with mirrored reflection and colored gradients. This kind of painterly technique, which seems to have been made with dabs of paint applied by knife, allows the tower express itself in a radically different way: a pattern of light boxes that radiate warmth with a quilt-like variety and texture. The faint lines and scratches, the soft edges and random speckles of color generate an atmospheric effect, but it also animates the building as an object that displays ongoing activity in time and space. Glass towers are often portrayed as crystaline monoliths in the landscape, not containers of activity, animating boards for street nightlife. There isn't a cutesy banality common among watercolored illustrations, but rather a liveliness and dynamism that makes the building breath the life within as opposed to standing as a sober and austere statuesque backdrop. Clearly this rendering is my personal favorite, which means I wouldn't mind hanging it in my house as art.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

In the End There is a Building: the Limits of the Sustainability Ethic

Although I rarely attend architecture lectures due to my familial obligations (and the fact that, aside from pretty slides, the architect's commentary can be mind-numbingly boring) I found myself recently at such an event featuring an up-and-coming star architect from Spain. Anton Garcia-Abril, a gifted designer and builder from Madrid in his late thirties, is relatively young in his profession given his growing reputation. Like most emerging and talented architects in Europe, Garcia-Abril successfully won state-sponsored competitions to establish his practice. He presented a few of those seminal projects in addition to a couple of oversized houses for his family (it always helps to come from an extremely well-heeled family, and many of the most successful architects-especially outside the U.S.-come from the upper class).

Overall I liked many of the projects he presented, more in the way they conveyed a deep poetic concept than in aspects dealing with efficiency, the quality of spaces and the materials used. His buildings were not to my personal taste, as they displayed too much concrete and the natural stone too contrived in its stonehenge-like roughness. Still, Garcia-Abril has made moving statements about gravity and experimention in structural statics that recall the attempts by Gothic masons to determine how high and how elaborate one could build before inevitable collapse. Structural elements are emphasized by their large scale and minimalist detail, heavy opaque masses appearing to float over vast spaces thanks to delicate connections to the vertical supports. In particular to his houses, Garcia-Abril uses extremely long structural spans to dramatic effect, synthesizing an original structural composition while enabling an interupted flow of spaces and views of the horizons. Some of the projects remind me of Mies Van der Rohe (especially Crown Hall) in the way they celebrate major structural elements and use them as the primary means of architectural expression which effectively dissolves the outer wall envelope, thus allowing unobstructed spatial continuity between inside and outside.

Yet it's that juxtaposition between massiveness and emptiness through the ambitious use of structure which makes his work a target of criticism. At the end of the lecture, a member of the audience posed a question regarding the ethical dilemma resulting from such a style of building. In summary, the question asked: Given the evident amount of construction resources required to make these buildings and the enormous size of the structural members used in building a private house (there were two building cranes on site for one of these houses that erected one story-wide steel girders and precast concrete I-beams more commonly used for highway overpasses), how can the designer ethically justify this approach in a world where the issue of sustainable practice is paramount? The amount of stone, concrete and steel is excessive considering the program of the projects involved, and the required manpower and equipment required to construct such buildings can more commonly be found for commercial sites or grand public works projects than for somebody's private house. There is little to quibble about homes showing off their luxuriousness by the copious use of expensively elegant finishes, but what does it mean when luxury is instead expressed by a complex and energy-intensive construction process?

Garcia-Abril is actually in keeping with the traditional way in which Modernist architecture conveys elegance through the exhibition of technical detailing. Under the Modernism, the rejection of surface ornamentation would be compensated by expert architectural detailing that required a high level of precise craftsmanship and engineering ("God is the Details"-Mies Van der Rohe). Garcia-Abril takes this practice one step further, adding overscaled proportions and an archaic use of 'heaviness'. There is a gradual abandonment of the machine-inspired ideals of the lightness and the efficient use of strong industrial materials that informs the theories and works of the original Modernist founders. Instead, modern is mixed with the primitive to make a statement about basic natural forces and the passage of time by the most unmachine-like of means.

I will confess to sensing a bit of unease while looking at Garcia-Abril's house projects for the first time. My response was driven by how such overscaled construction contrasted with the principles of modest proportion, simplicity and cost-effectiveness I personally cherish. Even though such principles are commonly professed by many architects, they do not apply to all architecture nor should they be the sole basis on which to judge projects. There are countless objectives to achieve when designing a building, and each makes a choice as to which of these objectives is worth their while.

To rephrase Garcia-Abril's response to the audience member's question on whether his architecture posed a moral dilemma: "Some architects are excellent theorists and writers but often produce terrible buildings, while others never write a sentence yet produce sublime works of art. I choose to believe that it is better to let the architecture speak for itself, independent of any theoretical or philosophical justification. In the end there is just a building, and whatever verbal rhetoric that accompanied it will eventually be forgotten." I'm sure the Spaniard would somewhat object to my interpretation of what he was trying to say in a foreign tongue that evening, but what I do recall still deeply affects my view of the matter. To be honest, I admire the fact that he refused to directly engage the question by arguing that his designs are sustainable and green depending on the criteria used. And he refused to publicly claim that he was fully committed to sustainability (though he might be), since his work showed quite a few contradictions such a statement (unlike numerous hyprocrite designers who do exactly that). Rather, Garcia-Abril's retort transcended such mundane eco-talk by essentially saying - "Here are my buildings, here is what the design process is like for me, make what you will of it, since in the end its about the building itself and it is independent of any contemporary value system".

Whether or not that was what Garcia-Abril meant to say, I sympathize with the idea that architecture should not be limited by an overreaching ethical system. What concerns me about the ubiquitous rise of enviromentalism and green sustainability in my profession is how it actively seeks to become the foundation of all ethical decisions about buildings The primary question ceases to become whether a building is beautiful or sublime, but whether it is good for the planet. Such thinking naturally limits a designer's freedom to create, since the environment's needs overpower an individual's need for self-expression. By evaluating new designs from a strictly green perspective, I find that many boring buildings are held up as icons worth emulating for the simple reason that they employ a green-friendly technology that barely can be noticed in the pictures. In my view, the planning of buildings is a uniquely human activity, a combination of problem-solving and art, a tension between the technical and thoughtful composition. Sustainability in design seems to focus on the former aspect, but it has very little new to add to large body of theory dealing with architectural composition. It does not help in examining the problem of expressing tectonic loads in a meaningful way, or in giving a personal character to a wall.

What the ethos of sustainability does is add an additional layer of values and codes onto a project. It might improve the way a building performs as a "machine a habiter" (machine for living in) through its stress on efficiency and low environmental impact, but it may sometimes run counter to architecture's role in producing "machines a emouvoir" (machines that move you). For all of some star designer's liberal use of resources to make a unique and dramatic statement, if the building manages to stir the soul then no ethical system, wether secular technocratic modernism of the twentieth century or environmentalism of the twenty-first century, should limit its power.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wealth Along the Road to Serfdom: Lessons from the Roman Empire

As I (slowly) read Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, I have made it to Caesar and Christ, his thorough and entirely entertaining treatise on the rise and fall of Rome. Given that so much of Christian history takes place in the shadows of the Roman Empire, and the history itself is quite fascinating, I knew I needed to learn much more about the era. And especially because so many academics are quick to point out the way America has become the "new Rome", I knew I could only engage such a claim of American imperialism honestly with more knowledge about Rome itself. Suffice to say, there are vast differences between the Roman Empire and American dominance, mainly in that much of America's influence is voluntary, i.e. no one forces a young Chinese boy to wear a Nike t-shirt. Militarily, American global superiority would have surprised Americans even as late as the early 1940s, as America struggled to remain neutral in its second straight world war. But there is much to learn regarding Rome's civilization, the struggles it went through, and the changes Romans experienced as Rome became more affluent and powerful.

It's golden age was begun by the affable Augustus, who ruled from 30 B.C. - 14 A.D. Augustus was by all accounts a happy emperor, and the empire was happy with him at the helm. That is, until he imposed laws based on his growing taste for ancient virtues. Augustus saw that what constituted a Roman citizenry was harder and harder to define. He noticed that in an age of affluence, women were freer than ever to explore their sexuality, and people found a growing sense of individuality growing within them. Family became more of a luxury than an expectation, and people wanted a taste of the "good life." Durant summarizes it this way:

"The decay of the ancient faith among the upper classes had washed away the supernatural supports of marriage, fidelity, and parentage; the passage from farm to city had made children less of an asset, more of a liability and a toy; women wished to be sexually rather than maternally beautiful; in general the desire for individual freedom seemed to be running counter to the needs of the race."

Consequently, Roman families began to wane, and the numbers of imported slaves and quickly-reproducing non-Romans were increasing. Durant writes of the Roman family, "Of those who married, a majority appear to have limited their families by abortion, infanticide...and contraception." Augustus, probably nothing short of a believer in a "master race" by our standards, sought to reverse the trend.

Several of his "Julian laws" heavily penalized adultery and rewarded those who had large families. One law in particular gave women of three children "the right to wear a special garment, and freedom fromt he power of her husband." One woman who had quadruplets was heavily rewarded by Augustus for her "patriotism." Marriage was mandatory for men under sixty and women under fifty, and "spinsters and childless wives could not inherit after fifty." Whether or not these laws are justifiable (they aren't, from our modern understanding of human rights) or they worked (they didn't as there were plenty of loopholes and ways to resist) is not what I aim to debate. Instead, what is remarkable is why they were necessary to begin with. What is it about wealth and affluence that causes us to forget the lessons that created and preserved the wealth and affluence to begin with?

I am in no way advocating similar laws, but Augustus' critique against his own people is worth us hearing. He saw within his empire, at the height of its power, the moral degradation that would help lead to its downfall in years to come. They way in which they wanted to selfishly keep the good life for themselves, but in no way share it with children, the way that they lacked the foresight to see that their philandering and promiscuity would turn on itself reminds me very much of western culture. It has achieved such great heights, but in an effort to keep those heights for themselves and not share it with future generations, consider the following consequences:

* Most western nations have not have enough children to pay for current generations health and retirement benefits.
* Most western nations are not having enough children to keep up with immigrant demand on social programs.
* While it is hard to quantify, virtue or lack thereof as measured by adultery, divorce, abortion and violence seem to be slowly slipping away.

Rome experienced very similar tensions. When Augustus' laws did not work, he realized that merely changing the law could not change hearts. Durant writes, "In the end Augustus, skeptic and realist, became convinced that moral reform awaited a religious renaissance." Well, here is something I have in common with Augustus. While I hope that some Republican or Libertarian will be able to address some of these social/political problems, I know that only a return to virtue will ensure a better future economically, politically, and morally. Why is it so hard for us wealthy to realize that in order to keep things good, we must remember the values and experiences that got us here to begin with?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Our First Podcast!

How come the name "Architecture + Morality"? Why the name of "corbusier"? What is our blog really about? Also, corbusier clears the air in sharing his thoughts on New Urbanism. Click on the image to listen...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Patriots: Ayn Rand’s Football Team

In a world of political correctness that seeks to convince us that mediocrity is the most cherished of all virtues, how refreshing are the New England Patriots? (Yes, I know, this blog probably sees itself as “above” the world of professional athletics, where it is true many steroid-using athletes get paid way too much money to play what should be a fun game.) But allow me to regress to my truer, more base nature, and wallow in the field of athletics, and even tie in cultural ramifications, because in the Patriots we finally see something we don’t even see in corporate America anymore: unequivocal, unashamed men applying their craft with excellence and without a single concern for anyone else. Un-Christian? Unfair? Unimportant. They’re out for blood, and I am loving every minute of it.

Think I am over-reacting? Consider that while they are running up scores on unassuming opponents to stick it to the league, media pundits are starting to call them the “most hate-able” team the NFL has seen in a long time. Hmmm, so when a team is dominant, and doesn’t care whose feelings they hurt in the process of dominating, in a sport that demands dominance, we are supposed to hate them for perfecting the craft? This sounds oh so familiar, and I can only think Ayn Rand is saying, “See, I told you so!” How sad is it that in America, a country that once championed “rugged individualism” (cliché as it may be, I absolutely believe it’s true), we want to pile on the hate to a team that is superior? All of this while corporate America trips over itself to be seen as the most “green,” and “socially responsible.” Whatever happened to the idea that production itself was the socially responsible thing to do?

The NFL is popular now for a reason. Sports work because at a deeper level, they do, in fact, mirror life. Teams represent cities, they represent cultures, they represent ideas, like it or not. Don’t think so? Consider the Saints, the Eagles, the 76ers, the Lakers, the Knicks, the Cowboys: they are often built in a way that is reflective of their city. And we like to debate sports because it’s the way we politely debate politics. Can’t talk about religion and politics? Talk about sports instead, but you’ll find the same debates, just couched behind GMs, players, coaches, and strategies. And in a politically correct world, a world that seeks to rid of greatness so we can achieve “equality,” a world that is often ashamed of success as a sign of greed and sanctimony, you will find that the more the Patriots win, and the less they care about the well-being of their opponent, the more they will be hated.

And that is a shame. If they were in the compassion business, they would be abject failures. If they were in the charity business, they should have their tax-exempt status revoked. If they were in the social work business, or worked for a government bureaucracy, perhaps they should lose funding or be voted out. But they’re not. They’re in the excellence business. They are in the fight for their life, the modern-day Roman Coliseum, gladiators who seek to destroy whatever is in their path. They don’t play dirty, they do it all by the rules (well, this year anyway), and for that they should be applauded. I’m not saying we should lift them up each player as a moral role model for our children – I’m so disappointed in Tom Brady’s fathering habits – but for being the best at what they do, we should be rooting for them.

Did they cheat? Yes, and that may very well tarnish their past. But seeing as they were caught in the first game of the year, and we can be pretty sure they’re no longer videotaping the opposing teams defensive signals, it’s time to move on. They’re proving their greatness on the field, and they are aptly named. Without trying to sound hokey, they are patriots. They are what America is about: the freedom to achieve greatness on your own terms in the confines of the rule of law, without regard for others so long as you do no harm to them. If America turns on the Patriots because they’re great, they should be ashamed. Screw political correctness; after the Saints, I’m rooting for the Patriots, and any other team that never apologizes for excellence.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Modern vs. Contemporary: Language in the Church

Architects, designers, and social critics often use words that carry a great deal of weight to their craft. Modern, Post-Modern, Classical: these are words that convey entire philosophical systems, entire schools of thought regarding aesthetics, design, and man's interaction with space. Ideological wars have been fought over these words as competing factions wanted to own them, disparage them, or combine them. Every profession has its "inside" language, words that mean a great deal to those familiar with it, but little to those on the outside. The church struggles with words of its own, mainly Traditional and Contemporary. Not to mention Father and Son, which has come under a great deal of critique from feminists who demand gender-neutrality in all things liturgical.

The most grassroots culture wars are fought over "Contemporary" and "Traditional," however, as only inner-city and academic institutions quibble with ridding of Father and Son language. Just consider the vast different aesthetics between your typical Joel Osteen service and a liturgical service with incense, and you get an idea of the wide range of discrepancies in worship. Both of these words are heavily weighted, but equally meaningless in their own way. "Contemporary" Christians may embrace rock music in their worship, dramatic lighting, and "inspiring sermons" that deal with "daily life." But they can't escape all tradition or form, and you will find proponents of contemporary christianity as dogmatic as any "Traditionalist," just with different taste. The traditionalists, meanwhile, hold on to the "way things have always been done," which certainly has its limitations. But is the gospel any less contemporary now than it has ever been? Isn't the church, though 2,000 years old, as young and vital as it ever was? And isn't the liturgy, that by and large, has retained central pieces for 2,000 years continually contemporary?

So just as designers may struggle with how to label their style, so too does the clergy, especially as it seeks to reach an "un-churched" or "de-churched" world. Perhaps what we need is a change of vocabulary. Instead of mislabeling traditionalists as opposed to innovation and contemporaries as tradition-loathers, perhaps we could use the terminology of Modern and Classical. Classical seems to imply not a lifeless adherence to all things old, but instead adherence to those values that need not changing. Classical, for better or worse, seems to imply a better way of doing things, a harkening to a time when things were done right, when straight was straight and crooked was crooked. Modern, meanwhile, implies a break with the past, without casting judgment on the past. It's just the way things are done now, not that its an improvement per se over the way things used to be, but that its the natural evolution.

But is that any improvement? And is the church stuck in time? Can the Church "modernize?" No, yes, and no. Visions of what life together can be like certainly evolve, though, and that can indeed be reflected in its art, music, and architecture. But I am dubious of many attempts to "modernize" the church, to make it more "relevant" by speaking the vernacular of rock music and inspirational jargon. Indeed, there should be no "Traditional," "Contemporary," "Modern," Or "Classical" in an ideal world. There should just be orthodoxy, right praise and right teaching.

What continually strikes me as incredibly interesting about the Bible is that, while I am no scholar by any means, it truly still speaks to our current situation. The same thing cannot be said of a 2,000 year old medical guidebook or a 2,000 architecture journal. The human condition, and consequently God's interaction with that condition, never changes. The Church can speak to that un-changing nature by simply lifting up those things that remain changeless, letting them take center-court, and get out of the way as fast as possible. But that's not to say aesthetics don't have an enormous role in how that happens, or that minimalism is the answer.

Indeed, in many ways, the Church is stuck in time, but at the same moment, it transcends it. So great designers do have something new to bring to religious life, even if most new theologies do not. Tours of a Modernist chapel and Notre Dame reveal the way values have indeed changed, and it strikes me that architecture should reflect that. What once was about facing the same direction has come to be more about intimacy, and facing one another. What once served people in a utilitarian sense but served clergy only in a liturgical sense, now serves worshippers as the masters of ceremony. What once kept the focus squarely on what was both straight ahead and above, there is more interest in what is beside.

So worship may be more in the round than in a rectangle. The altar may be in the middle of the worship space, not just at the front. The pulpit may be at the same level as the hearers, not far away and towering above as in days of old, which was mostly for auditory improvement. Natural light, and being at the mercy of creation, may create a more "alive" atmosphere than canned music and artificial lighting. These are just a few architectural/aesthetic changes that can be made to reflect our evolution, but minimize our need to become "contemporary." I hope we can grow in maturity as we come to appreciate the role of aesthetics in religious life.