Super Hero Village Idiot: The Architect's Station / by Johnson Favaro

 
INNOVATION CENTER/MAKER SPACE The community library has evolved to become a place where information, knowledge and things are  made  as much as they are collected and curated. And, there isn’t a school in the country now that doesn’t want a so-called maker space—learning by doing is the big thing now.

INNOVATION CENTER/MAKER SPACE The community library has evolved to become a place where information, knowledge and things are made as much as they are collected and curated. And, there isn’t a school in the country now that doesn’t want a so-called maker space—learning by doing is the big thing now.

TEACHING FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES New buildings on this public-school campus will include an instructional building where future technologies will be taught and a prototype development/presentation hall where students will test and demonstrate things they make (robots, drones and other machines).

TEACHING FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES New buildings on this public-school campus will include an instructional building where future technologies will be taught and a prototype development/presentation hall where students will test and demonstrate things they make (robots, drones and other machines).

Students of architecture learn an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright.  He had designed a house for a wealthy client who later called him to say “Mr. Wright the roof is leaking on the piano in my living room,” to which Wright responded “Move the piano”  (Sometimes the story involves a dining room table). Even by the standards of modern architecture’s so-called “Heroic Age” (first half  of the 20th century), Frank Lloyd Wright most flamboyantly relished the role of the visionary, the creative genius.

OLD SCHOOL SUPER HERO The architect as some sort of genius hero was always a charade and damaging to the credibility of the profession.

OLD SCHOOL SUPER HERO The architect as some sort of genius hero was always a charade and damaging to the credibility of the profession.

Why that attitude? Michelangelo was known as il divino (the divine) and yet we find no indication of such behavior in the record (irascible, stubborn, apparently yes). Wright’s behavior (other than Wright just being himself) had something to do with his and other modern architects’ relationship with the academies of fine arts at the time who were slow to adapt and even resistant to the brave new world of the future that was supposedly soon arriving. It took courageous visionaries, the story goes, to take on the academies. 

JUNK BUILDING La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles is a veritable museum of expedient buildings built for myopic reasons while nevertheless stamped and certified by licensed architects. The word “boulevard” suggests a somewhat grander if not at least dignified kind of street. No design review board in the world could get us there from here.

JUNK BUILDING La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles is a veritable museum of expedient buildings built for myopic reasons while nevertheless stamped and certified by licensed architects. The word “boulevard” suggests a somewhat grander if not at least dignified kind of street. No design review board in the world could get us there from here.

GOOD NOT GREAT BUILDINGS The boulevards of Paris are lined with substantial buildings, simple and deferent to the bigger picture of street and neighborhood. Architects were involved, it was a different time and place, we can’t go back (nor would we want to) but we pretty much all  agree they’re successful.

GOOD NOT GREAT BUILDINGS The boulevards of Paris are lined with substantial buildings, simple and deferent to the bigger picture of street
and neighborhood. Architects were involved, it was a different time and place, we can’t go back (nor would we want to) but we pretty much all
agree they’re successful.

Ideology embedded in modernism partly had its roots in the romantic movement of the 19th century — especially in Germany, England, and the United States. Romanticism was a challenge to the rationalism of the Age of Reason.  It celebrated the individual imagination and personal intuition in the search for individual rights and personal liberty. It was a reaction to industrialization emphasizing our connection to nature and an idealized Arcadian past (Wright was all about this stuff). Its ideals of the creative, subjective powers of the artist fueled avant-garde movements well into the last and this century.  To this day there are architects who still talk about the building of buildings as a form of self-expression. This would not have occurred to an architect before the 20th century.

BUILDING LIKE IT MATTERS In an increasingly secular and cynical world some buildings—schools, libraries, civic, cultural and community institutions—still can (and should) be designed and built as if they matter. Clockwise from upper left: Southwest College Allied Health Sciences Building, Pasadena Museum of California Art, LATTC Technology Building, Costa Mesa Library.

BUILDING LIKE IT MATTERS In an increasingly secular and cynical world some buildings—schools, libraries, civic, cultural and community institutions—still can (and should) be designed and built as if they matter. Clockwise from upper left: Southwest College Allied Health Sciences Building, Pasadena Museum of California Art, LATTC Technology Building, Costa Mesa Library.

Over the course of the 20th century things changed. The rapid expansion of populations in America (wonders of modern medicine) created a huge demand for lots of buildings.  This demand coincided with a revolution in building technology (steel replacing stone) that made the building of buildings a fast and (relatively) easy enterprise. This in turn created a market for the building of buildings as a profit- making enterprise with (relatively) short term returns on investment.  And, through the lobbying efforts of trade organizations (the American Institute of Architects among others) governments came to require that no building except a single-family residence could be built without the stamp of a “licensed” architect.

PRETEND PRIMITIVE ART Clockwise from upper left: Chagall, Basquiat, Owens and Gaugin.

PRETEND PRIMITIVE ART Clockwise from upper left: Chagall, Basquiat, Owens and Gaugin.

PRETEND INNOCENT ART (AND THE REAL THING) Clockwise from upper left: Owens, Basquiat, children’s art.

PRETEND INNOCENT ART (AND THE REAL THING) Clockwise from upper left: Owens, Basquiat, children’s art.

When the building of a building became a profit seeking venture the financial models, relationships with banks, marketing the product, and the five-year return-on-investment (ROI) became the product (not so much the building itself). The (pretend) rationalism of business schools and the (relatively) new profession of “real estate development” prevailed in the popular imagination. In the aftermath of the Age of Reason, business (banking and law) increasingly came to be seen as what rational (adult) people do, art and architecture what intuitive (romantic and childish)
people do.

SENTIMENTAL ART Clockwise from upper left: Rockwell, Fairey, Kinkade

SENTIMENTAL ART Clockwise from upper left: Rockwell, Fairey, Kinkade

CYNICAL ART Clockwise from upper left: Koons, Hirst, Warhol.

CYNICAL ART Clockwise from upper left: Koons, Hirst, Warhol.

Despite the law, when buildings are built for the ROI architects are hardly necessary. These buildings are simply engineered for safety and performance with perhaps some veneer applied by the (now required) architect.  High quality, enduring architecture is certainly not a priority. Instead, we get junk building, the equivalent of junk food: fast, cheap, generally bad for our health.  The architect’s station in the context of so much bad building cannot have fared well.

Artists’ and architects’ attempt to abandon tradition complicated matters. Too much knowledge of the past, too much learning, the thinking went, became an impediment to authenticity. Artists like Chagall (then Basquiat) embraced their naïve and primitive selves to create art that was supposed to transcend skills and knowledge. This had unintended consequences for modern art of which the most egregious might be “My child can do this!” People throw up their hands (“I don’t get it”) and soon art’s relegated to snobs and people with too much time (or money) on their hands. To exaggerate just a little: art’s now for rich people to collect, intellectuals to parse and the retired, challenged, or troubled to make (for therapy). Or is it? How many times do we still hear about genius artists and genius architects? Which is it, genius or dummy?

THERAPEUTIC ART To relax ex-presidents, soothe the effects of PTSD and aging, enrich the lives of teenagers.

THERAPEUTIC ART To relax ex-presidents, soothe the effects of PTSD and aging, enrich the lives of teenagers.

HEALING ART To stabilize unsettled hearts and minds.

HEALING ART To stabilize unsettled hearts and minds.

And therefore, while in many quarters in many schools across our nation art is still justified mostly for how it contributes to students’ performance in supposedly more serious subjects like math and science it is with some gratification that we witness the rise of the so-called maker movement.  At the top of every school’s wish list now are “maker spaces” and “innovation labs”.  This, some educators believe, is the most revolutionary change in education in at least a half century.  What’s behind it?

YOUNG ADULT LIBRARY The new Costa Mesa library will provide a room of their own for young adults to read, make, think and create.

YOUNG ADULT LIBRARY The new Costa Mesa library will provide a room of their own for young adults to read, make, think and create.

It is perhaps the realization that what we the practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession have known forever: making something teaches us something about the world and ourselves,  making something engenders a kind of intelligence as human as any other kind of intelligence, we are minds with bodies and bodies with minds, we can (and must) think with our hands, our eyes, our whole bodies to establish true understanding of the world around us, to create the space in which truly meaningful innovation blooms. And it is, therefore, in this context that we submit with confidence how self-defeating it is as a society when we mythologize or minimize the intelligence of the architect.

ELEMENTARY Children as young as the third grade at this Los Angeles area independent school are exposed to all kinds of challenges at a young  age where they are required to think for themselves within in the full array of areas of inquiry: science, technology, art, film and video.

ELEMENTARY Children as young as the third grade at this Los Angeles area independent school are exposed to all kinds of challenges at a young
age where they are required to think for themselves within in the full array of areas of inquiry: science, technology, art, film and video.