Solitary pleasures

by Nathan Romero Muelas

We emphasise these days the collaborative or collective dimension in our profession. It has happened before, in the sixties and seventies, for instance. And earlier. It´s significant to read for example a piece-manifesto, "the Marxist architecture", written by Hannes Meyer, (second director of the Bauhaus), in 1931: "for the Leninist architect, construction must be impersonal, determined by the needs of the masses". The pendular nature of these shifts doesn't make them less interesting.

We have seen the idiosyncratic stars of the nineties being metabolized into brands and gradually lose their punch. Today's scarcity paradigm and environmental conscience, (with its cortege of moral connotations), favours the idea that salvation will be collective or it won't be at all. Participation, co-design, open source platforms are being romanced just about everywhere. Just lately, "wikihouse", marketed by Alistair Pervin, Englishman. Because of being elitist, he says, architecture as we knew it, is over: from now on we are all architects.

Interestingly, and perhaps not innocently, the collectivist trend goes hand in hand with a rebellion against the artist-architect. In the programmatic presentations of many of today studios we find an explicit rejection of the autistic-artistic master architect, with his usual accompanying clichés (the genius misunderstood, the muses, the ivory tower... etc, etc).

We are finally far away from the worn out image of the architect as an orchestra conductor (which, by the way, for me it was always reductive ... I mean, why not composer?), and we have arrived at the  "midwife", the architect as mere birth facilitator, leaving the creature´s paternity to others. Or to all. Or to none.

All together now!

Inspiration, intuition, self-expression, are regarded with mistrust and diffidence. Understandably so, we could say. What is interesting is that in this scenario, maybe by contrast, the quantitative aspects of the profession take the upper hand. And reign supreme. Because if we all do it together, measures and benchmarks are the new Latin. No place for the thick soup of subjectivism.

Make no mistake: more than ever it is all about "levere varen", (Danish for "delivering the product"). Risk is out. The irony is that, while we were busy being "artistes", quantitative (and lucrative) areas of the profession slipped into the receptive hands of the engineer and architectural multinationals. And now that the tide has shifted we are, well ... nervous.

The architect as demiurge is fading, not only from public appreciation, but from the work organization itself. Multidisciplinary teams, platforms, collectives are on the rise. (I will not insist today, in this context, on the opportune and perverse invention of the pre-qualifications ... next post).

There might be something positive in all that, and anyway there is no place for nostalgia. It's just that, in the anxiety and frenzy to adjust to this changing scenario, the architect shakes convulsively. And the first skin he is willing to shed is authorship, if I am not mistaken.

If this was so, and this gracious renunciation of authorship was really happening, we would be "throwing stones over our own roof", as we say in Spain. But sometimes I wonder if this collectivist insistence is only lip service towards the outside world. After all, when we architects bestow the highest honours upon our colleagues, we tend to choose highly personal, "artistic" architects. With names. But it could just be a matter of time. Maybe soon the Pritzker Prize and such, will be given to the company with the highest turnover, which will also be the most collective, and "impersonal". There are signs. Should this momentous tendency become a reality, Denmark could claim a pioneering role.

Masters and witches

I would like to make a few, rather evident remarks. Because I, for one, get a bit tired of all this anti-prima donna nonsense. More like personal reminders, really, no intention to preach here:

A) Let’s repeat once more that architecture is a practical art, a continuum from ideation to construction. And that, apart from being a service and trying to make business, some, the best, try also to make sense. Cultural sense, artistic sense: to move, or inspire, in the few chance occasions.

I would have thought that by now we could do without the usual reductive dichotomies: transcendentalism/idealism versus pragmatism, subjectivism versus objectivism, spirit against matter... etc, etc. Matter and spirit, body and soul: this is our business. And that is why I still believe in the architect from the polytechnic tradition, a humanist that is also an engineer.

B) Architecture is also an inside job. Of course it is collaborative by nature, (literally  "labour with others"), there is no way around it. Its results are the product of teamwork. But it also requires a very solitary or individual diving in. By individual I mean also the harmony of few people, rarely, almost magically, attuned.  The masterworks we travel the globe to visit are the product in general of a lifelong soul searching ... from one or a few masters. To become universal, these buildings were once profoundly personal.

The figure of the master architect has clearly lost glamour. "In architecture, the era of the masters is over", I read. The problem with masters is the same problem they have with witches (meigas) in Galicia, Spain: we don't believe in them ... but boy, do they exist!

C) The mounting ugliness of our built environment at a global scale is not attributable to the few star- architects, or to the "dying" race of the masters, but to their infinitely more numerous, less talented, more pragmatically equipped, fully certified and yes, mercifully anonymous, colleagues.

It’s good not to talk too much about these things. They are intimate, a bit embarrassing. But I wish that at least between us architects, we wouldn't try to fool each other, constantly appealing to a fictitious (because unattainable) objectivity. The anonymity of the collective is all right, as long as we don't neglect this other moment, risky, decisive, autobiographic even, "artistic", without which the architect is more than slightly out of place. Let's not call it inspiration or intuition, but lets not pretend that architecture is only about solving increasingly complex parameters, each of them neat as a mathematic equation.

Big corporations and mega teams do perhaps “levere varen”, but does it matter that often the "product" has an assenting, insipid, chewed, sterile quality to it?  For what is the product in architecture?  Are we delivering it, when it is void of emotion? Solving the many complex parameters is the point of arrival for many, and the point of departure for the "happy few", masters ... or simply architects.

Let's not make it more mystical than it is, but not less important, let's give buildings the same transcendence, at least, that a good song, poem, painting, book has. That is: the power to overcome fatality and the ballast of circumstance, (economy, program, energy, in our case … blessed ballast!), and become something memorable.

Beyond the parametrical fog

Until the work is built, in architecture every moment is the moment of truth. But I would argue that we are instrumentally neglecting a very particular moment, the moment of realization, the "risky jump", as Aldo Van Eyck called it. These instants, in my humble experience, rarely happen at a meeting. In these moments, history, teamwork, data, the golden section, nature, “la Charte d'Athènes”, sustainability benchmarks, statistics, cannot, will not, take us any further. There and then, we are more or less alone. Orphans maybe, but not totally helpless.

These moments represent the part of our profession, which is less quantifiable, less measurable and, today, lessmarketable. Also the least "common": the very thing architects can do to make a whole difference. I understand well why this dimension is today muzzled. Because it is rabid and uncompromising, self-celebratory, onanistic really, and joyfully independent of the market forces and the politics of architecture.

Today naturally we brag about our liaisons, our more or less public conquests, our restless networking. And we are ashamed of these solipsistic, selfish moments, in which we are all to ourselves.

For me, as we approach the Danish apotheosis of “fællesskab” (community), the “julefrokost”, a solitary toast to these introspective moments is long overdue:

The studio is finally empty. Almost. As a sort of reward kept for the end of the day, there are a couple of things we would like to try. They might just do the trick. Picture it: the added concentration that the lack of light outside sometimes brings, the "second wind" that may come after tiredness. Music or a last coffee. (Or Vat 69, in the picture of Lewerentz). Ahead, we face a slice of time whose limits are hopefully not too precise. Pencil and paper, sure. A private feast, but it feels like reencountering an old friend.

To solitary pleasures: Cheers!


Sigurd Lewerentz. 

Originally published on The Danish Architectural Press.