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.


Blogger Marc said...

My take on that inculcated architecture student's outburst is that he is mired in Modernist relativism. Just because one technology (communications) progresses rapidly does not mean we have to radically, perpetually revolutionize another technology (housing or any building typology per se).

Only in the anxious, relativist 20th century did architects suddenly assume that buildings and building technologies had to change as rapidly and incessantly as car designs or iPhone models! This illogical relativism doesn't seem to infect other professions as severely: are tire designers endlessly preoccupied with reinventing the wheel because a new, glossy iPad model just came out? How come 19th century architects didn't incessantly fret over making their buildings look like rapidly-evolving locomotives? It's only been in the 20th century when the technofetishist, anxious, relativistic art and architecture professions fretted over this nonsense (because they're currently adrift in nihilist meaningless and need something - glitzy technology - to cling to; man abhors a vacuum).

Things like computers change rapidly because new features constantly change/expand their functions. If you think about it, the house, neighborhood shop, or office has changed surprisingly little over all these centuries (because our basic needs to unwind at home, go to work, and buy groceries remain constant and unchanged). Sure, with each passing decade we cram more and more technological doodads into these buildings (with ever-diminishing returns) but the overarching function of comforting shelter has remained unchanged.

Despite the constipated desire by "avant gardists" (statist reactionaries mired in the 1950s/60s) to incessantly and arbitrarily "reinvent" the functions of the average home, their soulless machine aesthetic houses have not reinvented homemaking or dwelling *at all.* Most contemporary people live in a "traditional" house exactly the same way they live in a "Modern" house - they read a book by the window, they cook in the kitchen, they use the toilet, they watch TV or chat with family/friends in the living room, and they sleep in the bedroom. Pasting an arbitrary machine aesthetic veneer over this timeless 'hearth and home' pattern just because Apple changed the look of the iPod again this year is meaningless pastiche.

By and large the public is not as relativist as the architecture profession: we can appreciate the glories of a slick social media gadget or a streamlined car (because it actually has to move, unlike most buildings) *and* we can love the timeless architecture that was interrupted and halted by the WWI/WWII nervous breakdown (judging by its continued dominance in the residential construction sector). To argue that a building has to look like an ever-changing, planned-obsolescence gadget is an arbitrary, illogical, relativist argument, unheard of before the aberrant, anomalous 20th century. Most people don't even suffer from this weird ideological conundrum, but architects sure seem to.

2:52 PM  

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