Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Role of Ideas in Architecture

I am thrilled to announce that I will be speaking in Denver, at FROST, on Saturday, November 6th.  What's FROST?  It stands for Front Range Objectivism Supper Talks.  You can read the official announcement on their website, here.

This subject is one that I have been wrestling with for over 20 years, going all the way back to when I was in architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis.  Very little of what I was told to read, under the heading of 'architectural theory', ever made any sense to me.  It was the same in graduate school, when I was at SCI-Arc in the mid/late '90s.  The history more or less made sense, because it was along the lines of 'so and so built this building here on this date' and it was relatively well rooted in reality.  Plus, the history classes at SCI-Arc at that time were taught by Margaret Crawford, and she was not only a superb instructor with a passion for history, but she made it fun.

The theory, however, rarely seemed to bear any relationship to reality.  Occasionally there would be good articles or essays, or a chapter of something that was mildly interesting or inspiring, but they were the exception.

I got out of school and started working, and could pretty much forget about the (theoretical) academic side of the profession for a while (although I remained a fan of architectural history, and still am.)  Over the years, I accepted the occasional teaching gig, mainly teaching drawing, photography, and the like.

Then a couple of things happened almost simultaneously, that, broadly speaking, altered my relationship to theory (or philosophy) as such.  I started taking piano lessons, and I started reading Ayn Rand.

The piano studies fascinated me because, the deeper I delved into them, the more I could see that the music theory bore an absolutely direct relationship to the notes on the paper and the playing of the instrument.  It was as though the theory was actually the element that bridged the gap, if you will, between the notes on paper and the playing.  It was the complete opposite of any architectural theory I had ever read.

This was around the same time that I was reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time.  I had read The Fountainhead years before, but had never explored Ayn Rand's works further, and was completely unaware of any of her non-fiction.  After Atlas, when I read some of her non-fiction, like Philosophy, Who Needs It and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, I became convinced that, here, like with music theory, was a series of ideas based on the strict observation of reality.

Why couldn't this exist for architecture?  This has been my frustration all these years.  It pretty much seems like Louis Sullivan pronounced 'form follows function' and that was the end, and no one else really took it anywhere from there.  Then all the architects forgot all about Sullivan anyway, and he just became that guy who designed those flowery buildings in Chicago.  'Form follows function' became a kind of quaint, old-fashioned notion at best.  I've even heard it mis-attributed to Mies van der Rhoe.

And so, I give up.  I have finally decided to quit resisting and take it on.  It's time for all this stuff to get dusted off and re-evaluated.

In this presentation, I will take a step back from Sullivan, and start with Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the French architect and theorist, whose Lectures on Architecture from the mid-1800s were a big influence on Sullivan and the Chicago School.

Sullivan's greatest pupil was, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, who unquestionably left a great legacy behind, although I'm not at all convinced he was the theoretician Sullivan was.

These three men will be the subject matter that we will address on the 6th.  In due course, I intend to examine more fully the larger picture of the development of modern architecture through the 20th century, and its demise.  I suspect there were some good principles at work that were lost, likely due to poor philosophical underpinning.

I am particularly appreciative of FRO, Kelly Valenzuela, and Diana Hsieh for their encouragement and support.  See y'all on the 6th!

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