Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Pritzker Prize and Neural Nostalgia

Siamese Towers at the Catholic University of Chile, by Alejandro Aravena and ELEMENTAL (file via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

Many of us became aware of the announcement last week: The Hyatt Foundation awarded architecture’s highest honor, the 2016 Pritzker Prize, to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Perhaps I’m in the minority amongst my peers, but my first reaction was “who?” It turns out Alejandro Araveno is not only highly accomplished but also most deserving as the 41st Pritzker laureate. According to a statement from the prize jury, Aravena is an architect who deepens our understanding of what is truly great design. [He] has pioneered a collaborative practice that produces powerful works of architecture and also addresses key challenges of the 21st century. His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”

Since the announcement, I’ve read about and seen photographs of several of the projects designed by Aravena’s firm, ELEMENTAL. The projects indeed appear thoughtful and innovative. So too does a frequent working process of his, which he refers to as “incremental design,” wherein the end users of his buildings are invited to finish the designs after they have been occupied and in use over several years or more. The products of this process are amazingly diverse, from low-income social housing to sophisticated office buildings for multinational corporations. He and his collaborators at ELEMENTAL have worked around the globe, with completed or in-progress commissions in locales as disparate as Shanghai (China), Monterrey and Jalisco (Mexico), Montricher (Switzerland), and Austin (Texas) in addition to an impressive oeuvre of projects in their native Chile.
Alejandro Aravena (file vie WikiMedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

Aravena’s individual achievements include much more: He is an International Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a board member of the Cities Program at the London School of Economics; a regional advisory board member of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies as well as board member for the Holcim Foundation; a foundational member of the Chilean Public Policies Society; and a leader of the Helsinki Design Lab for SITRA, the Finnish government’s innovation fund. He has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, the Architectural Association in London, the London School of Economics, and is the Copec Chair at the Universidad Católica de Chile. Aravena has also authored several books on architecture, which have been published in more than 50 countries. He was a speaker at TEDGlobal in 2014, and is currently the director for the upcoming 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Notably, he was a member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury from 2009 to 2015.
I’m surprised I was so unfamiliar with Alejandro Aravena and his work. The news was a wakeup call of sorts for me, a sudden awareness that I’m not up on the latest in the architectural world as much as I’ve always wanted to believe I am. The truth may be I’ve failed to both recognize and understand the significance of recent trends in our profession and the emergence of a new generation of influential architects.
The fact I’m older than a Pritzker laureate is sobering too. Aravena is 48; I am 56. My ego isn’t so big that it should be cut down to size by the knowledge someone who is my junior has achieved so much more than I ever will; after all, both President Obama (54) and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (44) are also younger than I am. Instead, what is most humbling is the realization I may have been stuck in a rut, until now unappreciative of the fresh thinking a new cohort of architects is bringing to the fore to confront the “key challenges of the 21st century.”
I’ve been too quick to casually dismiss the serious talent the most thoughtful younger architects possess. When encountering their work, I’ve too often disregarded it, especially if I could not immediately understand what it was I was looking at. I’d lazily pass over their gauzy renderings or meticulously staged photographs, regardless of the merit of the depicted projects. When you come right down to it, I’ve been guilty of lumping together a majority of the up-and-comers and prejudging them as lightweight, style-driven aesthetes who lack the substance the old-guard architects I admired years ago have or had. 
Why did I do this? Did I really think my architectural heroes of yesteryear were/are superior to today’s best and brightest? Maybe I did and perhaps unconsciously I still do.
I was inspired in part to write this post after reading a recent entry by my fellow blogger and friend, Mr. Random. He wrote about how an individual’s passion for music is highest during his or her early years and how many people are cynical and exhibit kneejerk, jaded opinions about the current state of music and believe the music of their youth is the best music there can be.” He certainly could have been speaking about my preferences, which most definitely lean toward the “classic rock” genre of my formative years: Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bad Company, (early) Chicago, Cheap Trick, Rush, and Heart are among those who occupy my musical pantheon. Many others have commented upon and researched this phenomenon, among them Mark Joseph Stern who in an article for entitled Neural Nostalgia cites evidence suggesting our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age, no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be.

Pink Floyd in concert, 1973.
Many of our most vibrant and enduring memories are from our teen years, which coincide with the emergence of a stable and enduring sense of self. Adolescence and early adulthood is the time when our memories assume uncommon importance for the rest of our lives. They become an inextricable part of our self-image, and crucial to shaping our world view. This is why the music we listened to while growing up holds a disproportionate power over our emotions.
Could it be the architects whose work I was introduced to early on (effectively before I even left high school) similarly and indelibly imprinted themselves upon my developing mind? The same mechanism that prompts nostalgia for the music of one’s youth may also explain my affinity for the famous architects I first came to know during that same period in my life. In retrospect, this group of architects—which includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi, the New York Five, Arthur Erickson, Louis Kahn, Paolo Soleri, Christopher Alexander, Charles W. Moore, and Le Corbusier—appears incongruently eclectic. Regardless, they collectively remain a touchstone for me. I constantly acknowledge their enduring influence upon the way I think about architecture.
Can there be other architects whose work I am not yet familiar with who will likewise impress me so profoundly? Or is it too late for an old dog like me? Do I find that Alejandro Aravena’s work resonates with me as much as Wright’s Fallingwater did when I first discovered it in a book as a child? The answer is no. What about designs by Bjarke Ingels of BIG, or Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, or SHoP Architects? Again the answer must be no. The fact is my early exposure to a particular collection of architects did more than leave a fleeting impression upon me; their varied philosophies, achievements, and aesthetics anchored themselves deep in my psyche during the most vital and momentous years of my life. Their legacies continue to move me in much the same way my neural nostalgia for 1970s music still does.
Mr. Random is absolutely correct in believing the exploration of new music takes an investment of time and energy. We do have a surfeit of both when we’re younger, and later in life the opposite is too often true. He’s also on the mark by saying people tend to become set in their ways as they age—this is the “fossilization factor” as he puts it. I like to believe I’m not set in my ways, and as an architect, I cannot afford to be. The challenges all architects confront on every new project are changing, multiplying, and becoming more complex with each passing day. One of the great benefits of my profession is that it compels its practitioners to always grow and learn. In that sense, architects are perpetual adolescents. Maybe we architects possess a special gene that wires us to be open to actively seek new ideas and new ways to do things. Maybe, but my disregard for much of the new generation’s work says otherwise. 
So, a belated New Year’s resolution: I need to learn more about the ideas and work of the most gifted young architects among us today. They are worthy of my attention. I need to expend the necessary time and energy. I shouldn’t continue to gloss over or dismiss them so quickly. I should also not expect any of them to necessarily supplant the members of the old guard I found so influential when I was younger. I simply need to be open to the fresh new ideas they’re bringing to architecture. Who knows, perhaps I’ll likewise expand my horizons by listening to some of the “amazing abundance” of good and great music being released right now.  Any suggestions? 

1 comment:

dgeugene said...

Other possibilities to be sure. I have recently included among my Facebook friends two painters from Brazil and Russia and a brilliant photographer from Bangladesh. The level of quality and intellect among these makes the usual Salem fare seem pretty thin.