February 22, 2009
Text published on a special issue of the Indian Architect & Builder on ‘conflict’, February 2009.
An issue dedicated to conflict and architecture is a perfect opportunity to think about the conflicts inherent to the profession, for they are symptomatic of a deeper social stress and have a profound impact on our cities. Architecture seems to be in constant conflict mode. Against the elements, against clients, against developers, against planners, against previous conventions, techniques and theories. Even against itself. That’s why architects make good mercenaries, working in the service of rich clients, and also being intense critical theorists. However, they rarely become fighters in their own names. Or even in the names of other causes.
Architects have generally ignored the political dimension of their work, even though this has been the main topic of much urban theory throughout the later part of the Twentieth Century. They have instead preferred to pose as designers concerned first and foremost with form and aesthetic. However, we know since Freud that whatever is repressed and interiorized will come out in some other way. This is why we would like to take a hard look at conflict within, and suggest a way to deal with it.
It is our contention that the conflicts within the profession should be addressed by the architects in their daily practice. The photos accompanying this essay illustrate how a new generation of architects is coming to terms with these issues, by engaging directly in the urban realm and using their skills to improve the living conditions of the people who are most deeply affected by social injustice. It is only recently that architects have started looking at the environmental, economic, and political impact and potential of architecture.
Architects usually think of themselves as mighty creators, producing context rather than responding to it. However, as Arjun Appadurai reminds us, there is no architectural construction without destruction. Architects typically have to destroy whatever is on the ground before their own venture can start. It is virtually impossible to build without uprooting trees and disturbing the local ecosystem. And that’s just for a house. Imagine the destruction involved in the production of a neighbourhood or a city.
The ritual of destruction and construction is actualized in different ways in different cultures and civilizations. Sacrifices, prayers, games, collective performances are all brought into play when transformations are in progress. The rituals that modern creators perform are similar in spirit. Architects, governments and urban planners make searing critiques of earlier designs, templates and forms, thus rendering entire schools of thoughts and practices redundant. They declare whole neighbourhoods as dysfunctional and arcane in acts of symbolic destruction before setting up their own plans and designs into motion – which eventually will face a similar fate.
At heart, most architects know that 99% of buildings are built without architects. Just as most cities are not master planned. Yet, this cannot be acknowledged after a point, lest it mean hacking at the very branch they sit on. As a result architects split themselves up. Their roles as commentator and critic become distinct from that of a practitioner. It is virtually impossible to have a dialogue between the two stances. For example, you have a Rem Koolhas who theoretically advocates an anti-architectural stance and then goes on to produce artifacts in the same breath. What bridges these two positions is a shrug and a sigh – usually of resignation. A resignation embodying both self-awareness and cynicism.
Architects find themselves in the eye of this cyclical industry of building and re-building and soon discover that their talents are frequently abused and perverted. The more architects become aware of the history of the discipline and the forces that shape it, the greater is their disenchantment. They become highly conscious of the contradictions the profession embodies. They are aware that, as an artist or a socially concerned individual, they have one set of impulses, and as a professional another.
The conflict between the world of ideas and the world of money, and its collusion in the form of luxury homes and corporate architecture is every bit as dramatic as the suffering endured by a bipolar patient, passing from a state of ecstatic joy to one of utter depression. In the same way, architects can experience the sublime joy of pouring forth the human thrust for eternal recognition. And minutes later be confronted with the dire realization that not only will their contributions not be fully acknowledged, even by the people whom they were intended to serve, but also that their visions will be revised and adapted to the will of the all mighty client. Instead of being gods themselves, they are merely pawns in the service of a higher being: the client.
Responses to this sorry state of affairs have been as imaginative as one could expect. One is a special version of the Stockholm syndrome that causes architects to fall in love with their client. At this point, they can become “bottom-up” advocates submitting themselves to the will of the noble savage for whom they have all types of contradictory feelings. Sometimes they decide to indulge in the love of money, cynically selling their creativity to whomever pays more.
Another kind of response transforms them into Peter Pans. They refuse to grow out of the mighty age of architectural adolescence, when all dreams were lived with full intensity and faith. This sometimes produces geniuses such as constructivist Iakov Chernikhov, who entered the pantheon of famous architects after building only one structure, but sketching hundreds of fantasies into architectural glory; and Hermann Finsterlin who privileged inspiration over rationalism and refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would hurt his creativity. But usually it produces teachers of architecture, who take their revenge by making their pupils dream harder and higher than they ever could, thereby producing the next generation of frustrated architects.
Architects are nearly never able to resolve their internal conflicts between artistic creation, building actualization, economic success and social recognition. Even those architects that become superstars have often been so used to selling their soul on Main Street that they have become intellectually frigid and unable to experience the simplest joys of creation. The practice of architecture evokes the greatest agony amongst its most creative and rebellious souls. They are acutely aware of the inconsistencies they embody, at once full of importance as producers of the physical world and profoundly aware of their own futility.
Sometimes these internal conflicts produce a friction that stimulates creativity even as it destroys the creator in his core. Sleepless nights, heavy consumption of coffee and cigarettes, hours in front of the computer screen, loneliness and seclusion from the family, and miserable paychecks are the common lot of architects around the world.
Architects are usually unwilling to face the true object of their quest. They are therefore unable to realize how this quest could be fulfilled. Lets face it, architects are narcissistic egomaniacs dreaming of reshaping the world in their own individual and idealized self-image. Architecture as we know it today may be a language but it is hardly a spiritual path. Ego has been driving architecture for as far as we can remember. And that’s true of almost all acts of creation.
This drive is fundamentally human and its fulfillment possible, if only one approaches it with a healthy dose of pragmatism and a bit of perversion. It can be done by hitting at the aesthetic and economic arrangements on which the profession is based -from below. For example, let’s not immediately aim at designing the highest skyscrapers or masterplanning an entire city. Instead channelize these impulses into the total production of a structure that means the world to someone who would normally not have the means to afford an architect. See this not as do-good charity, but as the way to a balanced resolution. A sacred union of the enemies within the architect’s psyche will certainly happen once you swim against the tide and project the self not merely on a CAD design, but more radically engage in the physical production of an architectural object. If the whole mind and body focus on the enormously challenging task of realizing a project with limited means, you will shock the system and transform it. All you must do is fully project your ingenuity, skills, and know-how into every minute of the construction process. Even the most conventional colleagues will have to applaud this move. The architect will then really feel like god, since, as the saying goes: “God is in the details.”
In this respect, Indian architects have a head start. They are surrounded by informally developing settlements filled with people with some resources and a great need for some architectural legitimacy and support. They can help them fulfill their own dreams of a well-built house or neighbourhood, short circuit the system and find a place in the hall of fame. Unfortunately, they are ignoring this opportunity. Instead, their colleagues from around the world are coming in large numbers – in search of the real raw material of architecture – people in need of shelter, with the basic skills of making their own.
Young architects are coming from far away to work in Indian cities because they want to learn by doing. Unplanned settlements, where many residents still remember how to build a shelter for themselves, provide the most amazing learning environment. At the same time, these deprived contexts give adventurous architects a chance to actually put their learning to good use and build. The practical knowledge of materials and methods of construction should make a comeback in architectural education, if only because they can help the contemporary architect to cure his conflicted mind.
Resolve the conflict inside the architects’ minds and we will have moved centuries ahead, into a culture of sustainability.
Photos of a 2006 project by 24 year old architect Filipe Balestra (photo) with the NGO Instituto Dois Irmãos (i2i) in Rocinha, Rio. With 200,000 to 300,000 residents and a total footprint of 0.8 sqKm, Rocinha is the largest favela of Brazil. With the help of local residents, i2i converted an old rotting house into a school and community centre. The whole project cost $30,000 out of which $16,000 went to buying the plot. It took about a year to be completed. This structure now serves nearly 70 children during the day and adults during the night. The structure hosts a large number of activities including a community centre, recycling of materials art school, Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish classes, literacy, maths, capoeira, storytelling, cinema, Internet room and other temporary activities. Filipe now lives and work in Pune, India where he works with SPARC on incrementally developable structures. For more info on i2i, visit their website: www.2bros.org.