By Richard Herriott
March 3, 2015
There is commonly a failure among architects and planners to accept that the built environment we live in now is inferior to those of the classical period.
It works in a mechanical way but it is dispiriting. There are no postcards of suburban Copenhagen, for example. People do not take city vacation in the Banlieus of France. People with money choose either to live far away from the city or deep within it. The suburb is a compromise. Still we build what most ignore and many dislike.
Having grown up as a champion of Modernism, I ignored the wider built environment and did not have the facility to understand what the classical idiom achieved unselfconsciously. It has taken me two decades to understand what I was unable previously to see. That was the disruption of the gradual evolution of building styles and the organic growth of cities.
Architects rejected decoration as if it had no function. Two, architects rejected the basic element of the city, the street block of conjoined façades and shared party walls. The first objective seems mostly to be driven by the notion that architecture needs to be visibly efficient and decoration is not. The second objective was driven by an idea that if given sufficient light and space people would be materially better off so buildings were built to stand in isolation. It was also driven by a misplaced notion that motor cars would be the zenith of personal transportation. That extra space between buildings result not in garden cities but mostly a landscape of car parking and unused lawns.
Quite manifestly, the expressive element of architecture is as unavoidable as it is in speech. Adolf Loos was categorically wrong to say ornament was a crime. Its elimination was not going to herald the end of social injustice or a halt to the waste of the world´s resources. Decoration is expression. A person without expression is commonly a person diagnosed with a personality disorder. Our architecture has a personality disorder.
The second rejection, the street as the basic unit of the city´s fabric, has led to each building having the impossible task of needing to be as comprehensively finished as a ceremonial building such as a church or civic monument, complete unto itself. It is the very special non-functional aspects of ceremonial buildings that make them what they are. It is a lot to expect this of an office, bank or apartment block. Buildings for ordinary use are unavoidably burdened with banal functions which require a topological ordering of façade, sides and rear walls. With that in mind, the city of streets and blocks created a theatre of the public space. The grittier, messier backstage of services, lanes, storage areas and access gates could all conveniently be kept out of sight. Look at the way the road widening projects of the 1950s ripped off the corners of junctions to reveal gable walls and backyard landscapes never intended for public viewing. New construction of free-standing buildings did not integrate with existing streets and left every building´s services exposed. The rail way station plaza of Kongen´s Lyngby is a good example. Being there feels like being behind the real town. From an industrial designer’s point of view, it´s like leaving the mechanism exposed. It´s disordered.
My argument is that the failures of the way we build our cities and towns are based on theories that were incomplete and incorrect.
Social progress is not led by architecture any more than by shoe designers. The social housing experiments of the 50 to 70s demonstrated that Le Corbusier´s Radiant City resembles nothing people actually want. The simplistic idea that light in-fall, separation of functions and ease of traffic circulation were the primary parameters of planning has produced urban sprawl and promoted destructive private car use. Does anyone idolise the private car today? The resultant landscape of free-standing boxes surrounded by car-parking and link-roads is anti-social. Yet municipalities are still planning on this model. The argument that it is practical holds no water ethically, aesthetically or environmentally.
The challenge for contemporary architects and planners is to actually learn from the century of experimentation and not simply carry on re-making the mistakes that others have made. I don´t propose a return to classical ornament though that which exists is pleasing. Designers in every other field produce varied and high quality work that is of its time. Planners must learn that engineering thinking is right only for engineering problems. The current approach has the aesthetic merit of wheelie bins but lacks a human quality we find in our clothes, products and vehicles.
The moderately dense city of mixed uses evolved at a human scale which the bulk-construction of the built environment has not. Phase one is to stop building more of it, not only because great expanses of retail boxes and car parks, office campuses and uniform housing tracts are bad for nature, but because they are bad for our mood. Phase two is to learn how to make places for people. It takes time but the future is very long.
Finally, I understand this argument is prescriptive. I have a clear idea of what a good place and good building look like. So does every architect and planner. We happen to disagree on what constitutes good, on what to prescribe. Secondly, there is an argument that I am looking backwards and that anything from the past is suspect. Again, this argument does not stand up. If I gave my daughter a hug yesterday does that mean I can’t do so tomorrow? The argument is not about whether the best solution is from the past or an entirely notional future but whether it is a socially supporting, humane and sustainable one. Or not.
Architecture is not a science but a craft with a strong ethical dimension. It needs a Hippocratic oath to do no harm. What we have learned so far is this has not been learned.
Richard Herriott is Assistant Professor of Industrial Design at the Design School, Kolding, Denmark. (March 3, 2015)
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