aesthetic totalitarianism

A  house is not a “machine for living”, it is not a high-performance apparatus, nor a domestic praxis.  This may seem obvious to most people for whom primarily a house is a home.  However, for architects educated in the later half of the twentieth century, trained in deconstructing the social, gender, political and mechanistic strata of a house, seeing a house as simply a home is quite foreign at best, and quite possibly a betrayal of their education and higher architectural principles.

In all professions there must be a significant gulf between the theory learned and the art practiced.  Certainly an attorney, schooled in the finer aspects of constitutional law, must find some dissatisfaction in the messy and mundane practice of real estate contracts.  However, in architecture, that difference between the learned and the practiced can often be more like a yawning chasm and it is most acutely felt in the design of houses for individual clients.  There are so many stories of architects telling clients that they are not living properly, not in accord with the design of the house. It is one thing to tell a museum trustee that their institution needs to look or act a certain way, quite another to tell a homeowner that their desire for a television does not fit with the intentions of the building’s design theory.

eisenman houses - house VI (with slot window dividing owner's bed) and House X

This controlling desire by architects used to be primarily aesthetic.  A “good” architect would elevate the moral life of the client with the creation of a building of a higher artistic and spiritual making.  This kind of blatant snobbery could be a genuine belief on the part of the architect in the progressive and edifying power of art.  More often I think it was a not-too-secret desire of the architect to design a great, avant garde building at the expense of the client’s lifestyle.  Rarely mentioned was the notion of “taste”, most architects believing that their work so far transcended any notion of mere “style”.  (Of course, post-modern, post-structuralist architects might revel in the ironic use of elements of “good taste”, but still with the same sense of moral superiority over their clients and popular culture and an earlier generation of architects)

In the very real concerns over climate change, there has been a rush by many architects to force their clients to adopt energy savings and green construction as a moral imperative.  So now in a post-structuralist world, we can no longer maintain the aesthetic higher ground, many have substituted the moral imperative of  sustainability and green construction as the latest elevated spriritual plane from which to dispense wisdom down on unsuspecting and unenlighted clients.  Believe me I am not belittling the very real benefits of sustainability and I strive to incorporate the principles, technologies and methodologies on every project I undertake.  Rather it is the attitude of architects that disturbs me.  We are experienced, we are experts, but we have no claim on any higher moral ground, be it aesthetic, moral, spiritual, sustainable or anything else.  The greatest abuses of the built enviroment, the worse false promises of architecture have been executed with attitude of superiority.  You need only look at Pruitt Igoe or dozens, nay hundreds of projects across the world where lofty architects, often aligned with government and corporate interests, under the guize of helping and “improving” the lot of the poor, heaped crappy, misguided and cruel architecture on our cities and citizens.  It is the need and desire to control, it is the disease of expertise, that makes for truly horrible architecture.

Pruitt Igoe housing