Blurred boundaries in cities
During a conference debate at the 2021's SMEF’s Brick School of Architecture, me, along with Dr Peter Scriver from Adelaide, Australia and Architect Bijoy Ramachandran from Bangalore, India, exchanged some ideas around the overarching theme of the conference: "Blurred Boundaries: In Search of an Identity".
Here some thoughts I think are worth sharing from that discussion:
Pic: screenshot of the virtual debate setting, left to right, Peter, Aibéo and Bijoy
The trend of identity politics in architecture
Bijoy described his design of the Bangalore international center as a building in which it's design was quite a flashy one at start but due to years and years of delays in its construction, the design gradually became more sober. That got stuck with me. Mark Twain once wrote a letter to a friend and apologized at the end of it, for it being so long as he had had not had had the time to make it shorter. Does the design of a building require simply more time to get "better", or does it need even more constraints? One could think of the limited number of pages as the constraint. Passing "Mark Twain's filter", or similarly Hemmingways' "bullshit detector" might not be enough for architecture. A building may become more condensed over longer time for analyses, like the letter should have had been, but the building's identity or the identities it creates or enhances to its users or gazers, are born out of multiple constraints, biological, natural, physical, cultural, geographical, religious, etc. even though these are indeed all dependent of the overarching one, time.
The constraint of being site specific, in that you are limited to the amount of travel that one can do or the time spent on site is changing. Many of the projects we design we never really visit the site, we just go online, see the pics, street view and check the data of the real estate trends, never experiencing the place or people there. In big projects, the trend has been both to have less time for analysis and to have less constraints, physical, budget, cultural, etc. The starchitects benefit from this mostly, freed from so many constraints that political vanity bring about and with a massive logistics of speedy delivery of plans for sculptural spectacular buildings that fulfill the most wanted goal of all, a great picture. Hiring a local architect and using local materials and local knowledge was done due to another set of constraints: a) the lack of resources to hire any builder anywhere in the world and b) the lack of awareness of their existence. More local and more diversified architecture could be guaranteed if we set in more constraints. It is fundamental to learn from the global village but, we do need to find better ways to promote the local architects to do the local job. We need to find the balance between these two extremes.
Staying in India, when one walks into Khan's buildings, for example at the IIM Ahmedabad campus, there is a sense of sculpture, which can be inspiring and raise curiosity, a key element for a good design for sure, but there are far other aspects to consider. There is a darker side to the hastiness for stardom: places like the IIM are not habitats for people but for the architect's ego. The Estonian born architect was, as many in our profession, obsessed for a place in the immortality ranks. All this egocentrism comes at the cost of the natural resources and propels a cult of ignorance based on the cult of personalities. For example, the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki has been cladded with Italian white marble which bends after few years due to the local freezing temperatures. Because it is an Aalto design, the facade is replaced every decade or so costing millions and polluting our environment. After so many years it seems this situation will change, adopting lasa marble that will last longer (1).
Kill the starchitect! Inclusive design today translates as: publicly I am all about it, but in practice, stay away from my genius! Architects are like rebels, not revolutionaries. Rebels criticize the establishment but do not really want a change, because its whole existence depends on the criticism. Design today lives from worshiping certain individuals; thus no one can really talk about inclusive design, it can’t exist under such terms.
Inclusive spaces are not about gender neutral toilets. Inclusive spaces are those where people can appropriate them and give them identity. Such can only happen if the space is understandable and if the design of it allows for transformation. The good old seed planning is still a good example. In other words, don’t give the fish, teach how to fish, don’t tell what to think, teach how to think.
Blurred Identities in cities
With no constraints, there are no identities. One could even think that without constraints, manipulation can only increase. According to the work of George Simon (2), the following vulnerabilities are exploited in manipulation, immaturity, over-conscientiousness, low self-esteem, over-intellectualization, emotional dependency, and greed. With no sense of identity, it will be like today's lifestyles, manipulated for the sake of sales. Marketing loves this confusion, because one day you can be the hipster the other day the conservative religious, but for all of these you need the products, dresses and gadgets that project that identity to others, that turns you into somehow someone special, instantly! In architecture we can see the consequences of this trend. Professors of Architecture such as Joel Sanders, lectures about "Social Inclusive Architecture" and it turns out we get a lecture (in 2021 at Aalto) about inclusive toilets! In North Macedonia's capital Skopje, where old soviet buildings have been hidden with reconstructions of ancient Greek facades to turn, a utterly boring capital, home of Alexander the Great, into something closer to its history! A needed fake? A tourist magnet.
Architects are generalists, take a look at my troubled existence, two Master Degrees, musician, graphic novelist, politician... two kids in two countries, Portuguese living abroad for 21 years in 12 countries, speaking 5 languages... Who am I? I am the one who should live in those Blade Runner cities as Bijoy calls all Indian cities. Are top-down planning aberrations of no identity an aberration? I claim we need identity; we need the patterns and rules in the local architecture. We should not let go amok and accept a complete 100% multiculturalism as a sign of progress, we should acknowledge the need for identity, and this starts in the patterns and ornaments of cities. This does not mean it should remain static, but slow enough of change that we, in a lifetime, can relate to.
Tradition brings a certain sense of safety and assurance when things are done a particular way. Having traditions gives people the freedom to deviate from them. This makes it an opportunity to come together and figure out how to make everyone's ideas work together, making it uniquely your own tradition.
Pic: the program of day 2
Pic: screenshot of the hosts of the virtual conference
Thank you the Conference Team, Ms. Pooja Misal, Dr. Poorva Keskar, Ar. Manali Deshmukh, Ar. Sharduli Joshi, Ar. Ketaki Gujar and Ar. Rama Raghavan.
Hyrsylän Koulu, Finland
(2) Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People