Architecture is interested in architecture. It is not interested in well-being, or other social sciences categories that are imposed upon architecture by government planning policy units and the university research policies that support them. Architecture is interested in architecture. If you get the architecture right, well-being will follow. A quick look at the way development is breaking up the public realm in most cities – reducing it increasingly to an incoherent and unedifying condition – will convince most people that getting the architecture right is no easy feat. This post is a plea for architectural research.
Architecture does not come to people. People come to architecture.
We can ask what makes good architecture? Despite the hegemony in contemporary governance for bean-counting audits, there is no tick-box of qualities. Think sideways to what makes good literature. Think how different Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. There is no list of qualities that they share. What makes good architecture (literature) is its single-mindedness of purpose, the ruthless clarity with which it pursues an idea. Le Corbusier said this in 1923. If the idea is compelling, people will come to it, people will crawl to it the way they will crawl to St. Peters. People will accommodate themselves to it willingly, and with pleasure and satisfaction.
If you look at this seminar room that we are in now, for instance, this room I am standing in and speaking to you in, me here, you all there, it is not horrible. It has a nice acoustic ceiling. It is evenly lit. It has a door. Space for tables and chairs. None of us are in pain, or at least not because of the architecture. But there is nothing compelling about it. It is simply the most efficient armature for hanging audio visual equipment which does not compromise comfort. But it does not see us. It is not organised for us. It is, however, organised. It is organised in a way that generates the most return for its investors. It is organised for the profit of its investors who are hidden from the occupants – you and I – who sit here now. We, in so far as we constitute the University of Dundee, are on puppet strings to whoever developed this building for their profit.
If you look around at all the disorganised spaces in our buildings and cities, it is clear that architecture has failed. But how has it failed? It has failed in its battle against the forces of finance, financially driven development. It has failed to represent, by architectural means or architectural expression, what we might call human values, or more precisely – following Kant – the human understanding. These spaces may be disorganised for people, they may not make sense to their occupants, but they are not dis-organised. They are highly organised. As architect Rem Koolhaas has insisted, the city is organised for making money. To bastardise Le Corbusier, these spaces are highly tuned machines for making money in.