Warning: Metaphors galore!
I sometimes used to feel like the boy who cried wolf. I kind of sense a pattern that to me is quite apparent; but for some reason it does not register much among the rest of the architects community.
For some reason, since the seventies; architecture has been rocked by explosions. No. That one is not a metaphor.
The first explosion was a voluntary one carried out by the administrators of a very large housing complex at Pruitt-Igoe, at St. Louis; USA. The reason? They wanted to recover the space it was built on. This event happened in the seventies.
The complex became decrepit. But not because of age. It became decrepit in a few years after the project was occupied. The design simply did not work out. There were huge environment-behavior issues with that project.
Broken windows, signs of vandalism and neglect everywhere. Ladies were frightened of walking out in the lawn. The corridors had dark shadows who morphed into evil beings with switch blades.
It did shake up the theoreticians among the architects community. Because the irony was not lost on them: The very project had got a prestigious award — for the design came after an intense, much talked about and admired international competition. So that should have been a clue: We architects really do not know what the heck our processes are!
That event resulted in lots of intellectual jargon and a lot of escapist philosophies such as “Post modernism”.
Charles Jencks book “The language of Post Modern architecture” started with the dramatic lines “Happily, we can date the death of modern architecture… “ for some reason he wanted to reassure himself and his crony club, that post-modernism would save the day. That and another obtuse philosophy called “Deconstruction”
The architects who wore the emperor’s new clothes were supposedly inspired by Jacques Derrida — when that philosopher possibly never even agreed to the label being used. Because Jacques Derrida’s philosophy was notable for refusing to settle down into any “ism”.
He had quite cleverly explained how meaning keeps jumping from one to the other kind of a fractal and you can never pin it down. He called it “differance” He had actually contributed more to post-structuralist linguistics rather than philosophy. He must have been bewildered for sure at the behavior of architects.
Architects wanted a neologism they wanted to hide under. And here was one, which nobody anyway understood much. How convenient!
The second explosion was the destruction of the World Trade towers in New York. A metaphor should have woken us up but we never woke…
Ironically, the architect of those ill-fated towers were the same as that of the project in the first explosion. Was that a coincidence, or a warning from Nature?
Who would have thought that a new boundary was being formed in the complex rapidly re-congealing society? — here was one that sat uncomfortably between politics, unfairness in the middle-east, fanaticism and symbols of wealth.
Finally something had to give. Which is when the towers came down like some gigantic curtains hoping to reveal a new world.
But architects did absolutely nothing about the event. Of course, ever since that event all the genteel and deep seminars conducted by the architects community; did have a dramatic photo of that dreadful event. Yet the architect continued to work only on the immediate and the empirical, as they were doing since centuries now.
But of course, nothing got revealed behind those curtains. Nobody really debated anything meaningful. The honorary members on the dais, showed color photos with nice background music and no explanations — because it seems it is immodest to talk of your own work — so let the photos speak for themselves.
Kind of the way, pimps arrange whores along roads. The pimps obviously want to keep up their image of being modest. Architects then went on to politely gorge on the hors d’oeuvres being served at such events, got drunk after the event and went home.
Now the third explosion has just happened. This time, nature has even dramatically broken the grain silos at Beirut — much of their food were all in those silos.
But this time, the architects were prepared. Aren’t we clever? All of us have already receded; as mere ectoplasms buried fearfully inside the exoskeletons of the built environment and their own illusions.
Maybe we want to reinforce the thought that our silos are much better than the ones in Beirut.
The other professions; economists, doctors, economists and even lawyers have important points to say. They are all scurrying around trying to do their best.
Then the rest of the society turn to look towards us architects for more insight, ahem…that’s so embarrassing. We are after all wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. Don’t look at us! We are modest! We don’t talk much.
We like to weave intricate, obtuse vocabulary and then the audience can all nod sagely as if they understood. It is a game we all have been well-trained. For generations. Both from the dais and from the audience too.
The truth is that none of us have any clue on the what, the how and the why of the built environment. Many of us have never remotely modeled our design process — much of even stalwarts’ works have been propped up by green-washing and obtuse philosophies.
We stood on elevated platforms as exotic chefs who refused to reveal the recipe of the dishes they serve. The audience have to remain blindfolded and guess the process that led to the product.
So as a community, the entire architectural world has nothing to offer. No coherent data on how this virus may be spreading thru spaces. No comprehensive studies on various approaches to improve the environment. No cross talk adopting developments and insights from other fields.
We still carry on using books that were written and captivated both the pimps and whores 30 years back. We still look at climate like Gods descending benevolently from the heavens to gently offer a light finger tip touch on the beseeching raised arms of the public.
I had guessed that the pandemic had a part to play in the Pakistan air-crash. It turns out that the inexperienced pilots were engrossed discussing COVID and they forgot to lower the wheels!
Even at Beirut I suspect bad facilities management due to incorrect architectural modelling of the Beirut godowns combined with the hurried response — people who cared may have been stuck at homes. It’s just a guess.
What ties all these explosions?
The complex, hugely interconnected world we are in; that world is continually going to throw up strange borders which we have no experience with. We cant keep scurrying around and put banal explanations only to whitewash or green-wash the immediacy.
We need to break out of our own silos and collectively debate and organize the backdrop theories and abstractions — and that is just the start. We have to use our models of built-environment before it explodes in front of us. We need to rewrite our books. There is a lot to be done else I am afraid this is going to happen again and again.
Sadly nothing much has changed — the format is different but we are still rehashing the old. The new webinar culture is now become a clamor of architects because now all of us can literally shed our clothes officially. We sit in front of our webcams naked, and be the kings and queens of the silos we have built for ourselves.
Yesterday, a building at Bandra in Mumbai, India collapsed — last few weeks, Mumbai has been experiencing almost incessant rains.
So history will keep continuing onward, with architects continuing to react only empirically with absolutely no inclination of wanting to holistically model and get their entire act together.
I am dreading what would be the next neologism we will now invent. Instead of really coding architecture for the future, we may call this Neo-Covidified architecture, perhaps?