Sunday, June 15, 2008

Utopianism, Cynicism, and Sincerity

Expo '67 promotional poster

As a child, I believed that architects were the shapers of utopian flights of fancy, designers of ideal communities that fostered social progress and the betterment of the world. It was in part that belief that attracted me to the profession. It seemed at the time that architects were ethically and politically relevant, authors of visionary designs. Some of the most spectacular projects (at least to my fresh eyes) would be realized for captivated audiences at the immensely popular world fairs of the mid-20th century, of which Expo ’67 in Montreal was the apotheosis. It was the main celebration during Canada’s centennial year and therefore hugely influential in shaping Canadian architecture and national identity. Even though I was very young at the time, I remember the excitement surrounding Expo ’67 and its theme of Man and His World: the national pride, the wide-eyed wonderment, and the resolute optimism about the potential for architecture to address the challenges of global urbanization and its impact upon patterns of human settlement.

I would later be fascinated by the work of Buckminster Fuller (who designed the iconic geodesic dome for the U.S. pavilion at Expo ’67) and Paolo Soleri, both of whom I had the good fortune to see speak at the 1976 United Nations Habitat Conference in Vancouver. In less than a decade, the buoyant optimism epitomized by Expo ’67 had been eroded by a loss of faith in society’s ability to solve its problems even while such initiatives as UN Habitat sought to globally ensure adequate shelter for all. Fuller and Soleri were concerned with the huge question of whether humanity had a chance to survive successfully as a species on our planet. Eventually, both men would be dismissed by many as hopeless utopians.

It was against the 1970s backdrop of the Vietnam War, Watergate, stagflation, environmental degradation, and post-modernism that the ideologies of several of today’s most influential architectural theorists arose. In the absence of actual work, architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, and Thom Mayne turned to intellectual debate and graphic experimentation as their critical platforms. Koolhaas in particular explored the interface between cultural identity and the urban condition, ultimately embracing capitalism as theater, in the process garnering a reputation as a cynic who saw self-interest as the primary shaper of the built environment.

In a 1996 interview for Wired magazine, Koolhaas said:

“Architecture can't do anything that the culture doesn't. We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living."

Since going on to establish a major international reputation, Koolhaas has continued to accept urban alienation and the fracturing of modern society as the justification for the dystopic visions of his firm, OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture). Today, the work of OMA is intentionally disquieting, disorienting, and alienating, and thusly rationalized as a more representative analogue for contemporary urban experience.(1) Thom Mayne likewise defends the highly personal vocabulary of his own projects by suggesting that they signify the “messiness” and discontinuities of our everyday lives. The architecture of OMA and Morphosis is intended to be representative of the time in which we live, of the conflicts and complications that we cope with.

Flagrant Delit, by Madelon Vriesendorp, 1975
(illustration for Koolhaas' book, Delerious New York)

Like the other arts, architecture can certainly serve as critique or social commentary. In the past, architecture has been used as a medium to communicate and provoke constructive discussion about political, moral, and social issues. Rem Koolhaas has contributed significantly to viewing buildings and cities as narratives (his book Delirious New York is a psychoanalysis of architectural dreams, phobias, ideologies, obsessions, and “the secret life of buildings”), and he has commented upon the destabilizing effects of commercial culture. However, his work has for the most part only served to call attention to the problems with urban environments, offering cynicism and pessimism rather than architectural solutions. I have never met Koolhaas or seen him speak in person; nonetheless, I suspect that critics are on the money when they say that he is too clever, too cool, and too apathetic to really want to make a difference. For Koolhaas, it is enough to be the provocateur, albeit a famous one with a Pritzker Prize to his name.

Wikipedia defines cynics as those who see self-interest as the primary motive of human behavior, and who are disinclined to rely upon sincerity and altruism as motivations. Koolhaas dismisses beauty, identity, quality, and singularity because he claims that our culture no longer places a high value on these virtues. I personally prefer optimism to pessimism, sincerity and altruism to cynicism. Despite the considerable influence of Koolhaas and his contemporaries, schools of architecture are once again seeing momentum towards idealism and the belief that architects can make a difference.(2)

Webster’s defines sincerity as being without deceit, pretense, or hypocrisy; as truthful, straightforward, and honest. As applied in the service of architecture, sincerity would seem the surer path towards effective problem-solving, as opposed to Koolhaas’ cynical pessimism, which serves to further detachment and alienation. An authentic architecture is a corollary to sincerity. The problems that confront architects today call for practical idealism and sincere efforts. The cynic sees only a dystopian future; the idealist can prefigure a radically new and progressive alternative.

Recent history has shown architects’ sensibilities and concerns to have been cyclical and temporal, and yet the current swing of the pendulum toward an earnest and sincere concern for bettering our world seems different this time. It has to be. Having my eyes very recently opened to the immensity of the challenges that confront us, we cannot allow the pendulum to swing back in the other direction anytime soon. We need to revive a buoyant optimism of the kind that energized Expo ’67, and restore the faith in our abilities to solve the most difficult problems that architects have ever tackled. We must become “pragmatic utopians,” tempered by reality yet freed from the cynicism and pessimism that would paralyze us. We must believe that we are capable of great things.

(1) Koolhaas' downtown Seattle Library is notorious for the disorienting navigation problems it presents library patrons.

(2) Read Thomas de Monchaux’ essay “Solving for X: Calculating Idealism Among Young Architects.”

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