Monday, April 02, 2012

Architecture and the Choice of Technology

One young architecture student got angry at me when I was supporting traditional architecture and said, “Would you design a computer to look like a quill pen?” Without realizing it, he was raising an interesting point about technology.

In some cases, newer products clearly use better technologies than old ones. No one wants to write with a quill pen rather than a computer. It would obviously be dishonest to design the new technology to look like the old one.

In other cases, new products use the same technologies as old ones. A new chest of drawers, mirror, or towel does not work differently from one made centuries ago. In this case, it would be dishonest to design the old technology to look like something new - for example, to make it a chest of drawers look modern by making it an odd shape and coating it with titanium.

And in many cases, the most interesting ones, we need to make a choice of technology. Is it better to eat mass produced white bread or artisan bread? To build freeways or street grids in cities? To use chemical-intensive farming or organic farming? To use nuclear power or solar power?

In many cases, the best choice of technology is between the two extremes: For example, we should move to much less use of chemicals in agriculture, but it probably is not realistic to move to completely organic farming. But in other cases, the old-fashioned way is clearly better: Bread made with stone-ground whole wheat flour is healthier than bread made with refined and chlorine-bleached white flour.

Many architectural decisions involve this sort of choice of technology. Do we want to live in houses that look like glass boxes or in traditional houses? Do we want to live in forty-story glass-and-steel apartment buildings or in five-story wood-framed apartment buildings?

In the 1950s, they thought the modern method had to be better. Architects wanted to design homes that were glass boxes, just as most people wanted to eat mass-produced white bread.

Now, most people can see that the newer technology is not always the best. Architects are one of the few groups who still believe that the new technology must better - who still believe in the old myth of progress, common from the nineteenth to the mid- twentieth century.

This architecture student was being taught this retrograde ideology in school. I doubt if he would insist on eating chemical food because organic food was like a computer designed to look like quill pen, and I doubt if he believed in building urban freeways because traditional street grids were like computers designed to look like quill pens. But he did insist on building modernist housing for this odd reason.