Thursday 19th of October 2017
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GREEN SEDUCTION; ARCHITECTURE AS A ROMANCE LANGUAGE

 

Once, as a student, I was trudging home, bag full of books and head full of dreams, across a great Brunel-esque bridge at sunset. Gazing out over city and harbour, I was struck by the immense privilege accorded those whom society trusts to shape its world. To be an architect seemed very nearly divine. 

 

At 20 or thereabouts, I was old enough to thrill to responsibility but young enough to overlook the flaw in my own heady reasoning. For architects do not shape the world, or any part of it bigger than the individual building (and even there, claims to autonomy are greatly exaggerated). Architects seldom get to call the shots, and the bigger, more world-shaping the project, the truer this is. 

 

Ceertainly the profession would see this changed, but the public, insofar as it cares at all, would more likely reign-in architects’ world-shaping powers, along with those of developers, engineers and bureaucrats. For most people, experience teaches that a new building in your street or city is usually cause for regret.

 

This, understandably, leaves architects feeling somewhat defensive. Withdrawal, however, only increases their sense that no-one ‘out there’ gets it, and the more arrogant and self-regarding they appear. This is a common professional plight, shared by barristers, say, and neurosurgeons. But for architects the stand-off is exacerbated by the fact that their wares are more luxury than necessity. 

 

The upshot is that many architects carry their sense of divine appointment throughout their lives, seeing criticism merely as further proof of public obtuseness. 

 

Once, several years ago, I had dinner with a number of extremely well-known architects and artists where this sense of fighting the good fight was overwhelmingly dominant. Throughout, the conversation revolved around how hard it was to get ‘them’ to understand and appreciate even the coarser points of the architectural sublime. Once or twice I attempted to jolt my colleagues into momentarily leaving their bubble, in order to lighten up, maybe even laugh at themselves. But no way. Design was the godhead, and our job as its disciples was unswerving devotion.

 

This, it seems to me, is the problem, not the solution. A hundred years ago this might have been relatively harmless; good satire material for a Waugh or an Amis. Now, though, things are more serious. For ongoing devotion to this sense of righteous superiority blinds the profession to a god-given opportunity to save not just itself but (I submit) the planet. 

 

First, the question needs to be rephrased. Rather than “how can we persuade them to our view (of our own superiority)” but “what do architects offer that (a) no-one else specializes in and (b) people actually want?” Where, in other words, is our natural market opportunity?

 

The answer, in a word, is beauty. 

 

OK, fine. It’s a ridiculous word, hopelessly old-fashioned and unbeautiful-feeling, both because it implies some consensus as to meaning – an idea that postmodernism has roundly expelled, as if agreement were somehow imposed and authoritarian – and because few, looking around, would accept architects as having any particular expertise in that direction. 

 

But neither of these objections stands scrutiny. Regardless of how beauty might be defined, or which objects might therefore be said to possess it, there is no question that architects are aesthetically trained and focused – not to say obsessed.  

 

But it’s not just architects’ obsession; it is also their specialism. Other building professionals may have aesthetic viewpoints and even insights, but only architects (with the possible exception of landscape and interior designers, whose role tends to be more partial) are focused principally on aesthetics. 

 

This is what makes architects seem – and feel – weak. It’s like that old joke they told us at architecture school. “Don’t worry about being a female architect on site. As far as we’re concerned, all architects are girls.” 

 

In classical and even Modern times, when building composition was accepted as a  scholarly discipline, the architect’s role was a respected one. It is post-modernism, with its attack on judgment and expertise, that has weakened architecture’s confidence to the point that a primary architectural skill, learnt early in the student career, is to couch aesthetic decisions in terms of those more defensible values - structure, functionality and cost.

 

But there is another aspect to this weakness, which relates to the excruciating drabness of most contemporary buildings. The 20th century was an unusually bad time for architecture; a failure that is heightened, I often think, by contrast with its uniquely enchanting rhetoric. 

 

Although I have always been entranced by modernism as a subject of study, I can’t think of more than a couple of dozen modern buildings I’d keep, when the aliens invade. 

 

Which forces architects to argue that the world is so ugly precisely because of their powerlessness – because almost all buildings are without architectural input of any kind and those few that do have it, so often ignore it on the advice of assorted beancounters.  

 

It is of course possible to argue this the other way; that modernism, with all of its unforeseen destruction, was given legs by architects’ rhetoric and wings by architecture’s aesthetic. 

 

But either way, my plea to architects is to wake up to their own power and wield it in the interests of the future. The power is that of beauty. 

 

The perception (and fact) of architectural weakness arises in part from that false dichotomy by which the arts have, for too long, allowed themselves to be defined; the use-beauty dichotomy. Or, in modernism’s preferred terminology, form-function.  

 

It is traditional to consider uselessness essential to beauty. This infects personal beauty (to wit high-heels, corsets and foot-binding) but also beauty in the arts; hence the distinction between ‘fine’ art and mere craft. 

 

Architecture, caught between the yearning for beauty and the demand for function, has been especially crippled by this distinction, since it allows engineers and bean-counters, purveyors of function, to look strong and masculine while architects, dealing in mere beauty, seem weak and girly.

 

But the looming environmental crisis – from global warming to peak oil to food shortage – offers an unexpected opportunity to rearrange this inimical roleplay. 

 

It’s not just an opportunity, but a need, generated by democracy’s demonstrable failure to change patterns of consumption, at least in time.

 

Any climate change blog makes this apparent; in Australia, which has become a denialista stronghold, the numbers come out relatively even. This is terrifying enough. But scarier still is the way the extreme emotionality (as well as the illiteracy) is concentrated on the denialista side. Scary why? Because, as JS Mill’s noted, democracy is the tyranny of the majority: these people vote. 

 

Over two centuries, democracy has brought an inexorable devolution from the dominance of the educated elite to that of the uneducated many. And because climate change can only be remedied (if at all) by determined, unrelenting and comprehensive government action, what should properly be a matter for scientists and climatologists will actually be decided by popular poll, as if it were a matter of opinion not of fact.

 

Democratic leaders, trained always to ‘take the people with them’, favour education.   But education is slow. If we are to remedy climate change, we must act fast.  It is unlikely that popular opinion can be shifted quickly enough, if at all, by technical or rational argument. Which is where beauty comes in. 

 

For reason’s power is limited to persuasion, but beauty wields the power of seduction. If you doubt this, think for a minute of Steve Jobs and the success of Apple. For decades, Apple has focused not on function, which any PC can do as well and more cheaply, but on high-end design appeal – beauty, in a word – and has reaped huge success from this. So much so that the company’s share price rises and falls with Steve Jobs’ health. 

 

As Roger Scruton notes in his recent book on the subject, “beauty… is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.” That is, beauty sells. 

 

This immediately suggests an obvious new and powerful role for architects – one that should appeal even to their priestly instincts. It is a role I call Green Seduction. 

 

Green Seduction is necessary because of the density thing. Just as, after the 1990s fuel crisis, design made small cars desirable – so that a SmartCar is now a status symbol – the same needs to happen with houses.

 

 Australians grizzle constantly about housing affordability, yet we build bigger houses further apart than anyone else on the planet. And anyone who suggests changing this has outrage poured upon them, as though even to use the word density is to undermine the Great Australian Dream.

 

Never mind that neither suburbia nor the MacMansion is an Australian invention (although our new houses are almost four times the size of those in the UK). Never mind that its hidden costs (in terms of energy use, carbon footprint, food miles or cultural depletion) are immense and unacknowledged. Never mind that there is no way our environmental profligacy can be sustained, however gung-ho our economy. Australians are united in their disdain for small, proximate living space. 

 

But this can change. Indeed, it is changing. Across the country, inner city apartment living is booming as never before, especially amongst the smart set. And it may be that, in the natural course of things, this vogue will gradually spread. But time is not on our side in this, and design can speed the process.

 

The job for architects, then - and by extension interior, landscape and industrial designers – is to harness the power of beauty-making, and make a lean, green, zero-carbon future not just bearable, but actively desirable. 

 

Can it be done? Can people be made to want small houses? I believe so. As a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, “activating status motives” amongst the opinion-formers, the prosumers, can give rise to a race the ycall “competitive altruism.” Just as  the must-have amongst billionaires these days is said to be your own charitable foundation, the example given is the Prius. Where is architecture’s equivalent? 

 

Most people’s imagining of the future is strongly Hollywood-influenced, positioned somewhere between the rainforest citadel of Star Wars and the romantic urban decay of Bladerunner. 

 

This is the start point, for what Hollywood’s CGI guys cannot do is make these bird’s-eye impressions into real, working systems; seeing and realizing the use-beauty interplay at every scale from the urban pattern to the shower-room or balustrade. 

 

Norman Foster’s zero-carbon Masdar City, in the Abu Dhabi desert, is perhaps the closest so far a comprehensive green future. But, typically Foster, it is so abstract and corporate, so clean and spacey and zero-bodyfat, with its underground electric cars and its office-atrium feel, that it is hard to want to be there, except maybe for a flying visit. This is Modernism’s end-game; a utopia perfectible by the complete absence of the human. 

 

There are surprisingly few renditions of how delicious and delightful a green urban future might look and feel and taste. There’s the odd skyfarm image, there’s cogeneration and urban agriculture in various guises. But the operating green fabric that we need – the streets and houses, the parks and blocks, the transport and commuter systems, the towns and offices and laneways and shopping – remains as a whole underimagined. 

 

Like any privilege, the privilege of future-designing of which I had a heady whiff back on that bridge in Grafton, brings a responsibility. But that’s what makes it exciting, for this is an exercise in romance. A new dreaming is required, melding Star Wars’ New Jerusalem and Bladerunner’s alley-riddled wabi sabi grunge into a plausible Project Earthly Future. What Poussin and Courbet did for the picturesque, and Corbu did for the Modern, 21st century design can do for the planet. 

 

What the sixth taste – umami – does for food, architects must do for the future. Give it mouth, give it feel and texture. Make it irresistible, delicious. Make it yummy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

copyright - elizabeth m farrelly

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