Architecture as a cure for nihilism

Last year I wrote about the reasons why modern/contemporary architecture is so often dreary, devoid of soul and downright ugly. I used Malta as an example since at the time I was studying Maltese architecture and meeting with many architects and artists working in Malta. Now you can read my long overdue architect manifesto in which I present solutions to this problem.

Perhaps first and foremost I should point out why bad architecture is much more important than bad visual art or music: It is much easier to turn off music or not visit an art gallery than it is to avoid huge hideous buildings. Shelter is a prime essential human need; other art forms, while also essential, are lower in the hierarchy.
Any art form is an expression of our values. Our appreciation of beauty and the aesthetics we develop are an expression of our highest beliefs. Physical ugliness in art and architecture is a sign of spiritual poverty, in the same way an unkempt house tells something about the mental health of its occupant.

Without venturing deeper into the philosophical causes for our present state it can simply be summarized as nihilism as the prime mental disease of our time. Society worships nihilism, but man cannot live in it.

Good architects can help cure this disease, and this is how:

Appreciation of beauty

For thousands of years the pursuit of beauty was the prime motivation for artists to create stunning, timeless and priceless works that centuries later people still appreciate.

Philosophers who attempted to rationally explain what is beauty, from Aristotle to Kant, wrote about the golden ratio, Fibonacci numbers, the Vitruvian man, symmetry, mathematics such as the Pythagorean view, harmonious shapes & colours, imitating nature, and the organic whole.

From all this wisdom we can derive reasonably objective standards of beauty. It is not just in the eye of the beholder: no one in their right mind would claim the Wicked Witch to be prettier than Doroty, nor choose a dog turd over a dog. Artists and architects can play within variables but to completely ignore beauty standards equals self-denial and only leads to inhumane creations. Perhaps in the context of an art museum such explorations can be interesting, but when it pollutes the public space it constitutes a crime against humanity.

Timeless beauty

Usually large public works projects are are introduced with the most profound words, fancy renders and mock-ups presented during lavish buffets. The experts are easily fooled, for it takes a certain level of intelligence to fool oneself that something ugly is in fact good, and group-think settles the consensus: few dare to say the emperor has no clothes.

The public at large, confronted by an abomination on a daily basis, is much harder to fool. People cannot live in a fancy discourse, we need beauty, the kind of which our ancestors lived in for countless millennia before the birth of civilization.

One of these houses is designed by a world-famous architect, the other by a virtually unknown. Which one would you rather live in?

To acknowledge that the old masters knew better how to achieve beauty does not mean we should copy their work or style, rather we should rediscover the principles on which they are based.
Beauty, after all, is not a relative -ism but an eternal absolute.

When Louis Sullivan coined the maxim: ‘form follows function’, he did not give architects a free pass to abandon every stylistic touch or ornamentation that isn’t strictly necessary. One casual glance at any of his buildings would tell you that he obviously believed beauty is also a function. And as such, there are very practical reasons, even financial ones, to give importance to beauty.

Beauty is timeless: what was beautiful 500 years ago we still find beautiful today. A beautiful woman, such as the model for Botticelli’s Venus, we would find equally stunning today. Superficial fashions changes, but beauty is lasting.

Door knockers have long lost their function but who would remove these?

Most other functions, by contrast, are much more susceptible to change. A beautiful building from centuries ago has outlived its functionality many times over, but every consecutive generation made efforts to adapt it to the necessities of their time, rather than tearing it down.

A beautiful building is lasting, for today’s spiritual needs as well as those of future generations. Rather than only building for our immediate material needs, we should heed the words of the ancient Greeks: “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Romance

Life is worth living when ideals such as love and beauty redeem our suffering.

Romantic images can be found in many households, nostalgic landscapes of times gone by, still-life’s, fairy tails and religious depictions. This type of imaginary is one form of expressing an existential human need. Romanticism goes beyond the beautiful by depicting the sublime. The idealization of men and nature offers us a glance at the divine. For a brief moment, it allows us to forget our suffering and feel at peace.

By contrast, poor art and architecture increases our stress. This has even been demonstrated scientifically.

Architects take note: this is what we book on AirBnB.

Romanticism often expressed by kitsch: it is easier to copy a proven recipe than to create something new. But by examining the staying power of such objects we can develop a contemporary architectural language.

Central to romanticism is an element of surprise, to show that we are more than just creatures of flesh and blood, a building is more than just a collection of walls and roofs. Every years millions of people visit the castle of Neuschwanstein, a prime example of a building full of gravity defying towers, secret passageways, splendorous halls, intimate inner courtyards, balconies each offering a different view, and so forth. Many more millions visit Disney parks with the same aim of being surprised.
But when was the last time you were surprised in an office building or mall?

It’s easy to object that Neuschwanstein was built by a maniac who exhausted a kingdom’s treasury with an insatiable appetite for kitsch. Or that most projects do not have a billion dollar budget of a renown entertainment corporation. Indeed very few architects would find themselves in such a position.

However, the point to take home is that architects should see themselves as artists first and foremost. The process of designing a building is an artistic process, not simply fulfilling the basic technical requirements. Any fool can sketch a floor plan. To a true architect, that is just a starting point.

Many of today’s famous architects like to pretend to be artist, by adding one gimmick to their buildings: an interesting shape OR one element such as an arch or spire OR an interesting choice of material; in an otherwise totally boring building. The gimmick is then made a selling point, called ‘daring’, ‘innovating’ and “spectacular” during hour long talks dedicated to it. Stripped from all this wordy praise it is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

Two boxes with a gimmick made by two celebrated architects

A true architect aspires to use many different elements, experiments with colours, patterns, materials, shapes and so forth. Every part is examined and (budget permitting) done in a unique way. Many sketches are made to come up with the right composition. Models are made and torn down again. The use of colours, by far the easiest way to make a nondescript building look good, is examined until the right balance is found.

The result is a building that excites our romantic sentiments, nothing is predictable, everything is a surprise. A building that breathes life.

The curved line is divine

Antoni Gaudi wrote: “The straight line belongs to humans, the curved line belongs to God. There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners.”
Is it any coincidence that Gaudi, along with Hundertwasser who shared a similar sentiment, are among the last architects whose buildings attract large tourist crowds?

Advancements of mankind, technological or otherwise are always inspired by nature. Architecture should be no exception. We humans are at best only capable of approximating nature, not improving on it. Even our fastest rockets are incapable of providing their own fuel like birds do.

The curves give appeal to this otherwise ordinary bus stop

We would do well to listen to Gaudi’s advice and apply the divine curved line so common in nature. Unlike Gaudi, whose scale models are a marvel in itself, we can use computer generated 3D models to calculate more complicated curved structures. Curved lines are not only beautiful, they are also more structurally sound and energy efficient. While challenging to design and build such buildings, savings in materials and energy use can offset the added cost, with beauty adding extra value.

We must ask ourselves questions: is it necessary for a wall to be straight, or can we gain something by curving or bending it? Do floors, roofs and ceilings have to have the same level everywhere? Do all doors and windows have to be straight?

If something can be gained by not following the linear 90-degree convention, it should be considered.

Iglesia Milagrosa by Felix Candela

Eccentricity

People like to say: diversity is strength. This is true for many things: a diverse gene pool, competing ideas, competition in business, (peacefully) evolution in culture and religion: all lead to human advancement. The same is true for architecture. It is preferable to have streets with vastly different structures, even including bizarre creations, over the mind numbing monotony of dreary contemporary architecture, which after 80 years without any evolution save for technological advancements, should more aptly be labelled old fashioned architecture.

No person dresses exactly the same as the next, nor does fashion remain the same as 80 years ago. Similarly, architects/master builders should be allowed and encouraged to experiment instead of copying. Budgets surely put limitations of what is possible, but not, for example, on the colour in which a building is painted. There are plenty of variables which have little to do with budgets, but a lot more with (lack of) creativity. Beautiful houses have been made out of discarded materials. Doing a lot with a little is in fact, a form of creativity in itself.

Hundertwasser gave a lively middle finger to the architecture establishment. 40 years and millions of visitors later, the snobs still haven’t learned from it

Not every eccentric creation will be beautiful or even very functional. Quite a few would in fact be fairly ugly, like a Frank Gehry building perhaps. Only a morally strong and confident society can manage to suppress its conformist urges in favor of the unique and unusual, even when it includes occasional misfits. For it is the trees that make the forest, from the sickly little rotten tree to the majestic giants reaching the heavens.
In the same way it is diversity of buildings that make cities attractive. Look no further than any major tourist city, without exception, these are places with a diverse range of buildings often but not necessarily constructed in different styles and time periods.

The harbour of Copenhagen wouldn’t be quite the same if these houses were painted in the same colour

Cultures, like forests, are adapted to climatic conditions that have shaped diets and habits, but with technological advancements the challenges posed by climate have become less relevant, allowing for a one-size-fits all approach to modern urban development.
Now that most of us are further removed from nature than ever before many people simply don’t know any better than the extreme artificiality of city life and it’s dreary contemporary stables. Like well domesticated animals, we don’t like to venture out too far from the shelters built for us. Members who do not walk in line with the herd have always been regarded with suspicion. It seems an odd contradiction that in a society that is safer than any civilization that came before us, people are more unwilling to take the slightest risk.
Perhaps it is no wonder that architects rarely create anything noteworthy. Doing so is an uphill battle whereas simply doing as told by stakeholders and create something inconspicuous will earn you a decent living as a well respected member of society.

But a society that closes the door for its most creative and productive geniuses is doomed in the long run. Instead we should break the status quo in architecture and embrace the eccentric individual who dares to do something different.

Bring back ornamentation

Early modernism was partly a reaction on excessive ornamentation of neo-classisism en vogue in the late 19th century. Industrialization further cheapened ornament which caused the elite to favour more minimalist design. Ever since clean buildings became the norm, ornamentation has become a dirty word, as something only paupers in slums use to decorate their house with.

Who could object to a small artistic touch?


But ornamentation is far more than a lion statue, a Greek column or a torso of Venus. It is the easiest way to give a building identity. Venture into any historic city center so universally loved and you will notice plenty of old buildings are very much like the next one, but a range of details are different: names, dates, doors, windows, structural elements with patterns carved in it. We do not have to turn a building into a tacky wedding cake, only give it a little dose of a unique flavour.

Unfortunately by doing away with ornamentation we have thrown away the baby with the bathwater for many old trades are lost and the few people that do know such trades are now highly skilled specialists charged with maintaining our historic buildings. It would take a while to teach a new generation of builders but we do have one advantage: a 19th century woodworker or ironmonger could only dream of the tools we have today.

Functional art

But where do we start? A Dutch saying goes: it is better to borrow a good idea than come up with a bad one. We could pick up the pieces where the last true architectural movement left them: Art Nouveau/Deco & the early modernists and look at the way how they created functional art. That is the true meaning of form following function, to look for the function of an object and then give it a unique artistic form.

Architectural language

The word architect means master-builder, in other words, the head of a construction crew. The architect as someone working in an office building far removed from the construction site, only involved with the design phase and never getting his hands dirty, is a rather new phenomenon.

Furthermore, the difference between architecture and engineering is being obscured. Architects are primarily artists, who have a lot of engineering knowledge, in the same way a painter needs to know a bit of chemistry in order to make his paintings. Simply throwing paint on a canvas does not make someone a painter. Likewise, erecting walls with a roof does not make one an architect. Any engineer can do that with great efficiency.

Any architect who wants to develop his own style needs to get down and dirty. Gaudi used to sleep at his construction sites, Lloyd Wright designed not just furniture but even a dress for the occupant of one of his buildings. The great architects of the 19th and early 20th century frequently ventured in to other art forms: furniture, stained glass, paintings, sculpture, ironmongery, mosaic, book illustrations. They were involved and invested in their buildings up to minute details. A prime driving force was the arts and crafts movement which brought about the concept of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, the total artwork where all art disciplines came together to a harmonious whole. It led to some of the most beautiful creations the world has ever seen: buildings so magnificent only utter barbarians could tear them down.

In that light it is interesting to note that even Adolf Hitler tried to avoid the destruction of Paris, whereas Le Corbusier with his ‘Plan Voisin’ proposed Paris to be torn down and replaced with a series of similar looking communist style skyscrapers.
Let’s instead bury Le Corbusier and the nihilist school that has taken hold of architecture. Outstanding works cannot be created without a belief in higher ideals beyond pragmatism, combined with hard work. It is time to start creating again!

Feel free to comment below!

Architecture and development of Malta

A few weeks ago I left Malta to try my luck somewhere else. I would have loved to organize the event I intended to hold, a conference regarding Maltese contemporary architecture (or rather lack thereof), however circumstances do not allow me to pursue such an interesting but unprofitable venture.  I would like to thank the people who offered their help with organizing it: Norbert Attard, Narcy Calamatta and Eduard Duca. Their support gave me really warm feelings towards Malta.

In order to repay the favour I’ll share with you some observations regarding the problems of Maltese developments and offer suggestions for change.

Continue reading “Architecture and development of Malta”