On Bullshit, Architecture and Locale

I think information should be layered in our environment.  Cultural information.  Not didactically.  It should be an integral part.  When I say layered, if you are interested, you extract it.

– M. Paul Friedberg

I generally don’t like listening to architects talk about their design philosophy.  As a historian, it rarely tells me anything illuminating and tends to wind up coming out sounding eloquent but vapid and meaningless.  Even the great Louis Kahn is guilty of this– I doubt many people really ‘get’ what he meant when he said that a brick wants to be an arch.

The fascinating thing is that it’s part of some unspoken code of architecture that nobody can call them on it.  Architects (and academics!) consider a good conversation or a skillfully written paper one that involves a slew of ten cent words, with bonus points issued for words like orthagonality or interstitial.

Some might call this jargon and argue that every field has it.  I call it bullshit and argue that for a profession so concerned with urbanism and the human condition, why are we so incapable of speaking in a manner that the common man can understand?

A large part of what I believe is wrong with design is the simple fact that there is a massive disconnect between the architect and the people inhabiting the spaces he/she designs.  Almost all of the interventions, particularly in public urban places, that make a space into something unique and reflective of the community are initiated not by architects but by either local artists or residents.  This disconnect can be traced back to architectural education, but that’s an entirely different post.

Whenever I visit a new place, the elements that stand out to me aren’t monumental or part of the canon of architectural history.  It’s the love locks on the fences of Cinque Terre, the subversive graffiti in Berlin and the metal plaques with quotes from Joyce’s Ulysses placed throughout Dublin.  Those little changes in the environment initiated by nobody noteworthy enough to give a lecture at a major university that seem, to me, so much more significant than the most lauded monuments of contemporary design.

I heard the above quote from M. Paul Friedberg in a podcast (99% Invisible) where he argues that we should be imprinting our poetry, our history, our culture upon the built environment.  What if every designer could rise to the challenge of putting a little bit of local culture into their work?  Would that lead to an architecture that is truly for the people?


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