ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, August 15, 2013

the challenge of character (partIV)

I'm not quite sure what to make of Jean Nouvel. Like so many of the best architects, his work retains more power when it is unbuilt--but is that still architecture? If a painter, at some New York cocktail party, announces that he has a vision of a portrait that will make the Mona Lisa look boring then he is under an obligation to produce the work. Architects seem to be held to a much lower standard.

But, I'm more interested in the issue of character in design. When does a building reach a point where an ordinary person walking by on the street stop and say "Gosh, that looks nice." In the U.S. we associate character with age and history--Beacon Hill, The Alamo, Los Angeles Art Deco, Greene and Greene, Chicago. Contemporary buildings can look interesting, but we  impose the test of time on architecture. When the original builders and occupants are dead, we elevate the work and document it, and in some cases, fight for its preservation.

The Old West End in Boston had character. The urban renewal that replaced it has none, and I doubt it ever will. Someday, it will be replaced, and if the forces of nostalgia are massed and organized, there is the chance that the Old West End will be restored, but in a way that precludes the organic purity of the original. The new buildings will be new, they will be functional, they will make sense for the banks that lend the money, and the hipsters who occupy them will expect all the modern conveniences. In the United States, we revere history, but only as we choose to remember it, and the craft of that illusion consumes the design profession at all levels.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to make a pretty bold statement about unbuilt architecture. Those who design only on paper are artists, and they can be great, but they aren't architects--they are fantasists. And I mean that as a compliment. Some of the most impressive imagined built spaces come from great works of fantasy--the mines of Moria, the Eyrie--and conversely, the architectural descriptions can be some of the best moments in these books and tales. Allowing our minds to imagine the unbuildable, the utopian, the engineering marvels, the shining castle by the sea, that is essentially the work of the fantasist. The paper architect is simply rendering that vision in 3D graphics instead of words. More power to them. Maybe someday we will build a version of their vision, but like a movie set or Disneyland, it will not quite be as shiny, as ethereal, or as free of real-world problems as our imagination.