Friday, January 28, 2011

The style trap

Carole Osterink has a way of beating me to the punch. While I am still processing raw thoughts or gathering background information for a blog post, it seems she's already captured most of the issues on her blog, and more elegantly than I would have done.
     Her post today, Rebuilding the Second Ward, speaks to the housing to be built on Columbia Street, something I've been looking into for a while. The buildings will include three units by Habitat for Humanity as well as the eventual replacement for Bliss Towers by Omni Development, which will total about 132 units. What should these buildings look like? From where should their designers derive their design cues, given that the neighborhood is so broken apart? How can these buildings be contextually responsive when it's hard to say what the context is and whether some of it even should have been put there in the first place?
from 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
     Carole covers these issues well, so I will only add one point: Style is the last thing we should be thinking about in addressing these concerns. When architects dwell on style, they invariably neglect more essential considerations such as proportion, massing, and texture. A building can be compatible with its surroundings if it hits all or most of these marks, even if it is in a different style. Likewise, it can be very incompatible even if its style is "correct." Certainly, we've all seen bad additions to old buildings that were built in the same superficial style but that simply look wrong.
     Important as such visual considerations are, however, they are merely thatvisual considerations. The underlying reality of a building is far more important than its outward appearance, and this is where the design process is properly rooted.
     When I was a student of architecture a long time ago, this was the last thing I expected to hear. Architecture is a visual art, after all. As a confused student it only made my life worse to hear an instructor define architecture in a way that seemed to have little to do with bricks and mortar: Architecture is the physical manifestation of a social order.
     This didn't seem particularly helpful or relevant at the time, but I've come to realize that it's the most important value to bring to the design process. What is the social order the building needs to accommodate? How do the people who will dwell in it need to live their lives? How do they sleep and eat breakfast and raise their kids and relate to their neighbors? What about the people walking by the building and living near it? How might they get to know the occupants? Should they be able to look directly into the house and see them? Or can this social relationship be accommodated and enriched by creating gradations of private-public space?
     Such investigations of social order, when considered sensitively, knowledgeably, and patiently, ultimately will lead to the building that needs to be. Appearances will tend to take care of themselves if you do the rest right, but the doing-the-rest-right part is very difficult. And so far, I am concerned that the developers of the aforementioned properties don't seem to have the inclination to engage the design of their buildings in this way, or perhaps more dangerously, that they believe they are designing this way when they really aren't. I don't know how to convince them otherwise; maybe this is another thing Carole can do better than me.

1 comment:

  1. Great point made. Not just to architecture, but in regards to design in general!

    I read your book and loved it. I'm actually a web designer, but alot of the principles you cover are really universal. I hope you don't mind but I actually posted an article featuring your book on my blog.