Monday, July 27, 2015

Things about architecture that make you say “Hmmm . . .”

If architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space, is the architecture of an epoch whose time has passed no longer willful? 
Why do architects always wear black? 
How is it possible to run out of space? 
Is a gigantic, multi-million dollar, LEED-certified vacation home located in the middle of nowhere really “green?” 
Why do architects admire buildings so many other people despise? 
Why does the emperor wear no clothes? 

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I’m attracted to architects and writers about architecture who see the big picture, cut to the chase, and aren’t afraid to rethink how and why humans build. They recognize business as usual—our throw-away culture’s worship of profit, novelty, fashion, and technology for technology’s sake—is untenable and an impediment to achieving a true and lasting form of architecture, let alone one resilient enough to withstand what the future portends. Their ideas challenge the status quo. We need them precisely because they’re among the important few attempting to roust us out of our collective stupor. Mostly through their words alone, they have proven adept at disrupting our contentment and complacency with the way things are. 

This post’s somewhat flippant prologue notwithstanding, I introduce with all seriousness four of these current thinkers. They most definitely have made me say “hmmm” on more than one occasion. You might be familiar with one or more of them; if so, you probably already know why I regard them so highly. How they write and what they specifically write about may be all over the map, but they share in common an underlying and unmistakable wisdom about the underpinnings of architecture and its future in the service of humanity and our planet. 

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and design theorist, and a periodic visiting professor at five graduate universities in four countries and three disciplines (architecture, urban planning and philosophy). He is executive director of the Portland-based Sustasis Foundation, and editor of the Sustasis Press. Previously, Mehaffy was associated with the Prince of WalesFoundation for Building Community

Through his work with the Sustasis Foundation, Mehaffy has applied a broad outlook to the task of understanding our neighborhoods and cities. The foundation expressly seeks to facilitate inter-disciplinary collaborative research, education, policy and best practice, committed in the belief that our larger challenges cannot be "siloed" within disciplines. 

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator with Christopher Alexander

Salingaros was the primary author for A Theory of Architecture, a collection of previously published papers that collectively describe a set of guidelines for design (Michael Mehaffy contributed to portions of the book). Salingaros appeals to scientific principles to link architectural and urban forms to human sensibilities. He argues good architecture, in all of its glory and complexity, is the product of relatively simple generative processes grounded in mathematics and science. 

A Theory of Architecture occupies a proud place on my bookshelf, but I’m looking forward to purchasing a new title co-authored by Mehaffy and Salingaros: Design for a Living Planet. The book is actually a collection of twenty essays by the authors that first appeared in Metropolis Magazine between September 2011 and December 2013; regardless, my understanding is the collective essays comprise a coherent thesis about design (I’ve read several of the essays independently). Their ideas will strike many as unconventional and radical but in my mind they’re eminently logical. The authors apply principles of fractal geometry, networks, self-organization, generative patterns, and dynamical systems to the tasks of understanding our world and designing for our place within it. 

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros aspire to nothing less than a paradigm shift in architectural thinking, and that’s why I’m paying attention to them. You should too. 

Graham Brenton McKay
Graham McKay is a prolific freelance architectural writer who currently resides in Dubai (he’s a British expat). The blog Misfits Architecture is McKay’s forum for exercising his wickedly acerbic wit. He often wields his pointed pen at the foibles of the self-styled avant-garde and glitterati (Zaha Hadid and her associate Patrik Schumacher are favorite targets). With equal regularity, he also celebrates those misfits whose contribution to better performing buildings has not been fully appreciated (Douglas Haskell being his most recent honoree). 

Are you a misfit? McKay offers a definition: 

Have you ever thought Rem Koolhaas might just be another person? Or Harvard GSD may not be the centre of the Universe? Do you not love biennali or festivali, or even 'like' anything on ArchDaily?(1) Do you sense something's very wrong with architecture? 

We do too. Welcome. 

Food and shelter are both essential for human life but food is anything from a bowl of rice a day to some exquisite mouthful for a moment's pleasure. Junk food is somewhere in-between but so too is just the right amount of nutrition our bodies need. 

It's the same with shelter. We've got bread buildings that fill, cake buildings that thrill, and junk buildings that all they do is make us want more. 

All misfits wants is a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, doesn't cost the earth or cost us the earth. If that makes us misfits then so be it. 

I’ve included Misfits Architecture on my blog roll ever since I discovered it a few years ago. Reading what Graham McKay has to say is a surefire way to keep one’s ego in check and outlook in the proper perspective. 

Witold Rybczynski
Witold Rybczynski is an award-winning author, architect, and professor. He’s written about architecture and urban design extensively for a wide variety of print and online magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and He’s also authored twenty books, mostly about architecture but also on such disparate topics as the evolution of the seven-day week (Waiting for the Weekend) and the history of the screwdriver and the screw (One Good Turn). 

My personal library includes three of Rybczynski’s titles:
A common thread that shines through every Rybczynski book or article is his writing skill and ability to impart his personal thoughts on the subject at hand. I like to think part of the reason for this is because, like me, he hails from Canada, which former Prime Minister McKenzie King characterized as a country “without enough history and too much geography.” These facts instill a peculiar way of looking at the world, one that favors wistful observation and reflection (my wife thinks I’m particularly prone to navel-gazing). 

What I like most about Rybczynski’s blog (which like Misfits Architecture appears in my blog list at right) is how pithy and yet how insightful each entry is. His posts are wonderfully varied and yet consistent in their questioning and probing of what constitutes good architecture.

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I’m thankful to have discovered clear-headed architectural thinkers, whose writings are variously serious, original, entertaining, provocative, and/or enlightening. As I get older, I’m finding it easier to recognize important ideas when I read them. I do sense an increasing accord amongst those whose work I admire most. The harmonics of this chorus—at first hearing seemingly random and dissonant—is quickly emerging as a self-organizing body of thought. Hmmm . . . indeed.
(1)   Ironically, ArchDaily is another staple on my blog roll.


grupposalingaros said...

Hello Randy,

If you are so kind as to contact me, then I can update you on our new book "Design for a Living Planet".

Best wishes,

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...


I sent you an email.