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When I abandoned the study of architecture at university, it was
because I felt I did not possess the brain of an architect. I did not think
in images so much as words and concepts. Moreover, it was these that
really inspired me: I found myself hurrying out of the design studio
with a sigh of relief when it was time for the philosophy lectures I was
required to attend for my minor. Predictably, the buildings I designed
were highly conceptual, inspired by such things as Hegelian dialectic
rather than such mundane, obvious architectural founts as site, users'
needs, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Equally predictably, my buildings were
second ratetheir floorplans strained to adhere to the concept, their
elevations alien to the site. I looked at the top students and noticed
that they eschewed such conceptual methods of design, relying instead
on their architectural intuitions: their feelings for space and boundary,
form and function, shadow and light. A philosopher, I reflected, doesn't
base his theories on architectural concerns; why should an architect
base his designs on philosophical concerns? Philosophy and architecture
are two different intellectual worlds, and my name was registered in
the wrong one.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into the Boston Architectural
Center's thesis presentation show in November to hear student after
student describe how they had begun their year-long projectsthe
culmination of their architectural trainingby intellectual investigation
into a variety of non-architectural fields, and had then striven to apply
the results of their research to the design of a building. Not that their
buildings were as awkward as mine had been. On the contrary, I am
happy to report the show was generally quite impressive to my
semi-educated eyes. Nevertheless, I left the talkswhich were devoted
almost exclusively to explanations of the design concepts rather than of
the buildings themselveswith the feeling that the success of the
students' architecture was due not so much to the input of those
concepts to the design process as to the ability of the students to
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dissolve their theoretical concerns into traditionally architectural ones.
Take Corey MacPherson, for example, and his design for an artisan
work/dwelling and commuter rail station for Waltham. He started out
with an architect's concern for the flexibility which the spaces within
the building would need as their uses changed with each coming artist.
But then he presented chaos mathematics as the solution to that
problem, on the grounds that chaos theory sees order in what appears
to be complete disorder: a situation allegedly comparable to the
(physical?) order a building imposes on the changing, disordered lives
of its residents. As he puts it in his accompanying essay, "How can we
bring order and stability into a disorderly society while still trying to
achieve the goals of flexibility? Through chaos." Chaos theory also
states that things look different the closer one looks at them: a factor,
again, which is also true of a building.
But this strikes me, at best, as a distinctly strained parallel between the
needs of MacPherson's artisans and mathematical theory. His solution
to the problem of adaptable spaceviz. sliding panelsseems to have
been inspired by architectural precedent rather than fractal geometry
or ruminations regarding self-similarity. Nor did his other major design
decisions seem to be informed by chaos theory so much as by the
realities of the site such as the river, railway line, and people density.
Yet that, I suspect, is why his building is a good one. In the end, his
theoretical concerns did not impose any limits on his architectural
sense because they did not actually inform his design.
One could say similar things about Leo A. Parker II, with his
independent film studio for Boston's South End. He at least chose an
area of intellectual studyfilmthat has some things in common with
architecture: namely, its concern to arrange and frame spaces. But the
highlighting of these parallels was as far as his investigation went. As
with Corey MacPherson, the big design decisions he took were informed
by the nature of the site: for example, the "closed" regularity of Back
Bay, broken by the "open," diagonal slash of Tremont Street.
Admittedly the two-aspected nature of his buildingwith one elevation
regular, the other very irregularwas also supposed to reflect the
dichotomy between the "closed" world of fictional film versus the
"open" nature of the documentary. But, once again, the parallels seem
dubious: the concepts of "open" and "closed" seem extremely strained
here. But better to let the concepts take the strain rather than, as I
was wont to, the architecture. This is why Parker's building is also a
good piece of architecture.
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Mohammed Abdelaal, with his design for an Islamic Awareness Center
for Boston, was the most successful at boiling his theoretical concerns
away. He began his research by considering how Islam should inform
architecture in a more intimate, organic way than simply serving as a
paradigmatic historical style. This initially led him down various
abstruse alleys of inquiry but, in the end, he contented himself with a
parallel between the "fixed and flexible" aspect of praying and the fixed
and flexible requirements of an architect's design brief. This, together
with his conviction that Islam requires a building to be professionally
competent, left him free to let his architectural imagination take over
completely. And, hence, he arguably came up with the most successful
piece of architecture, with its great semi-circular sweep of a faade
punctured, punctuated by a rhythm of beam endings.
By contrast, the only student whose design seemed to have been
genuinely informed by his theoretical investigations came up with what
was, to my mind, the least successful building. As a preliminary to his
design of a public library for Central Square, Cambridge, Jeremy
Schwartz engaged in a wide-ranging study of philosophical theories of
the self. But his division of human learning into five distinct categories
according to their relation to the self (creating a "hierarchy of
self-awareness") inspired an overly-complex floorplan consisting of five
disparate elements colliding at "communication nodes" (mirroring his
philosophical conviction that a self is a "node in the matrix of
communication"). Worse, the criteria for assigning each subject to one
of the five categories seems utterly opaque and one can imagine
wasting a lot of time looking for the architecture section unless one had
some sort of mapmuch as one would leaf aimlessly through Roget's
thesaurus, trying to place the word one wants in the right category,
were it not for the alphabetical index (apparently an afterthought).
Perhaps, though, this is the point, for Schwartz believes that "an
architecture conscious of this understanding of the self should
encourage the random wandering of bodies and ideas." I doubt the
book-readers of Cambridge would agree.
Schwartz's building represents what I take to be a great sin in design
(and one which I found myself constantly committing): that of declining
to respond honestly and professionally to the needs of one's client and
the realities of one's site in favor of building a monument to one's own
(for want of a better phrase) intellectual pretensions. Meanwhile, the
other buildings I have mentioned seemed to have come about by
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needlessly tortuous routes, the intellectual inquiry that supposedly
inspired them actually turning out to be entirely redundant. Or worse: a
burden that the students had to surreptitiously dismantle, like an
existing structure on their site, before they could set their architectural
imaginations to work.
I say a burden because I learned later that this method of design is a
requisite of the BAC thesis project. This raises the question of whether
it is meant to serve as a paragon of architectural practice or whether it
is intended merely as an educational exercise. Bob Augustine, the
thesis program director, neglected to address this matter when I
e-mailed him, but he hinted at the former view when he declared that
the recent attack on the World Trade Center (with the ironic shadow it
casts on Abdelaal's Islamic Awareness Center) proves that architecture
"really, really matters." According to Augustine, the WTC was singled
out for attack because of what its architecture stands for: namely, an
open, free, and tolerant society. "We begin to understand the
significance of this art and craft we call architecture when we see the
tremendous economic, political, historic, psychological, and spiritual
effect the loss of those buildings and their occupants has had on our
lives." In other words, a building, for Augustine, can constitute a highly
powerful statement of a society's valuesand, by implication, an
architect should strive to make such a statement: to build with what
Augustine calls "meaning."
But he should be careful not to overstate the case. Surely one salient
reason that tall skyscrapers were attacked is that they were full of
people (thereby maximizing the body count); another is that they were
accessible to hijacked aircraft. Moreover, surely the distinctive
architecture of skyscrapers has only come to symbolize American
values (which, remember, the terrorists interpreted as an unholy
obsession with money) by virtue of growing up, as it were, in America.
There seems nothing intrinsically democratic about steel and glass: the
"modern aesthetic," of which "modern skyscrapers are the very
embodiment." If skyscrapers had been developed in the Soviet Union,
would they not have come to symbolize the state towering over the
Perhaps it is going too far to say that only its use or its spatial location
gives a building its meaning, its symbolism. A choice of traditional
materials and low elevations, for example, can hardly fail to suggest a
certain conservatism, a certain timidity before the outside world, the
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future. But why try to impose deeper significance on buildings? Why
not appreciate them for their sheer architecturethe dazzle of their
forms, the richness of their volumes, the wonder of their lightingthe
things that are so hard to put into words? (Not to mention more
practical criteria such as the ingenuity and efficiency of their use of
available space.) Why should a passer-by be required to read a book on
cultural, mathematical, or philosophical theory before he or she can
fully appreciate a particular building? Owing to the emphatically public
nature of architecture, such a requirement seems even less excusable
than the case of the many conceptual artists who require their viewers
to read an accompanying essay to understand a particular object in a
On the other hand, it might be argued that such intellectualizing is just
harmless fun as long as it doesn't actually detract from the design
process, as in Jeremy Schwartz's case. After all, there is no reason why
a building, like a novel, can't be appreciated on several different levels,
from that of the architectural critic to that of the building site worker.
But one still balks at the folly, the sheer waste of time of trying to
make completely alien disciplines bear on architecture. After all, how
could a building's design be informed by such a thing as chaos theory?
What was the point of Corey MacPherson's months of laboring over, as
he put it, re-inventing the wheel? It seems to me that an architect
should not go methodically looking for influences from outside
architecture. He should merely be culturally aware and, wherever he
feels that culture bearing on a particular design brief, he should
respond accordingly. To use a Hegelianism which Schwartz would no
doubt recognize, the practice of design should be the antithesis of the
overly theoretical BAC thesis method. It should begin and end with
traditional architectural concerns. And if an architect is not happy with
that, he is always welcome to borrow my philosophy course notes.
Paul Jump
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