Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Symbolism in Architecture

The following is another excerpt dating to 1978 from Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis. With this passage he addressed the tendency toward willful form-making he feared was holding sway in architecture schools at the time. This tendency remains, particularly among self-appointed taste makers who seek to promote style over substance:


We should strive to make places that are so clear, so rich, and so right that they genuinely symbolize our most strongly felt concerns about architecture; but there is a great risk in this.

Positive symbolism in architecture springs from arduous efforts to make places that are inclusive in content, wise in definition, and eloquent in execution. It cannot come from willful conceptualizing that ignores much of the problem. And positive symbolism in architecture is rooted in the demands of situations that are real, ordinary, familiar, and concrete. It cannot come from esoteric that are beyond the comprehension (and the caring) of those who experience the built places most. Impatient, overly personal pursuits of symbolic architecture may result in places that are limited in use, or pompous, or ludicrous, or trite.

I am thinking of the users of some of Kahn’s and Le Corbusier’s buildings who were confused by the professional acclaim given the buildings when they knew from their own experience that the buildings didn’t work. I am thinking of the office workers in the national headquarters building of the American Institute of Architects who wondered why they were denied, because of an imposed decree about image and style, such obvious amenities as convenient storage space and the right to bring plants and flowers into their own rooms.

I am thinking of Mrs. Blonder in the award-winning Portland hi-rise whose environment was so impersonal and impoverished that she was compelled to ask “What on earth do architects think about if they don’t think about the well-being of those who live in the places they make?”

I am thinking of the people in Goose Hollow who were infuriated by the destruction of the supportive structure of their community by architects and developers who didn’t even know it existed.

I am thinking about the children in the architect-designed Roosevelt Junior High School in Eugene who must spend three thousand seven hundred thirty-odd hours of their lives in an environment that is nearly devoid of spaces that can be loved, cared for, used spontaneously, possessed, or remembered with real pleasure.

And I am thinking about ourselves in this school as we try again and again to make the best of space that seems to have been made without serious study of any of the activities that are supposed to go in them.

Of course, there is symbolism in the architecture mentioned above. The people who live or work in the spaces mentioned would be quick to tell you that their surroundings symbolize thoughtlessness, laziness, ignorance, and pretense—maybe all of these.

My advice is this: Work long and hard to understand the essential concerns of architecture. Balance them carefully within each design situation. Develop the resulting ideas to levels that are extraordinary. Polish the right things, both large and small, and as you gain experience and skill the symbolism will take care of itself.



Anonymous said...

It is interesting to read these words today. There is a tendency right now in the architecture magazines to shy away from "starchitecture", but at the same time there are so many examples of built projects that still do not work, on a day to day basis or in the details, for the people that live or work within these "exemplary" projects. While I think there is a movement within, at least within the media, to move away from the purely photogenic and shiny, and look for architecture that is substansive, functional and social inspiring, the current reality is that what seems to attract many a commission is still only skin deep. At least locally, I hope to be proven otherwise.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

Thanks for the comment. It is surprising to read Bill's words more than thirty years after they were first written and realize that they are still as relevant today as they were back then. The appeal of big-name "starchitecture" may be on the wane but there is still very much a culture of aesthetic elitism that is equally shallow.