The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1947] The Price of Consciousness

United Kingdom

There is a lasting sentiment amongst architects that the buildings they design should draw together aspects of culture, and reconstruct them in a meaningful form. We want our architecture to say something about its time and place. Where does this idea come from? Could it be that culture no longer affords its richest embodiment within monumental building? I argue that, in today's situation, there is a different agenda for architects.

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"As long as we remember the past... there can never again grow a distinctive style in the sense of what we call Greek, Roman..."

-Henry Van Brunt, 1893

A natural facet of the human mind is retrospective thought. Orwell's description in '1984' of a society that constantly rewrites its history to fit its changing needs is shocking because of our overwhelming belief, even reliance, on the past. We seem to find it impossible to envisage or describe a new building - or new song, or art movement - without reference to precedents. Maybe we've overcome "this band are the new Beatles" but the tendency is still to think "this band are like 'x' playing 'y', with the attitude of 'z'". The same is true of all art forms. History is perceived as an unending play, continually layered with new development. The strongest characters - people, projects or particular eras - live on and remain prominent in our minds. In architecture, therefore, it is the lasting monuments which are studied and admired - the outstanding innovations of certain individuals. A picture is built up of the architect as genius - as master playwright, perhaps - able to orchestrate not only the construction process but also, through architecture, the society in which he or she lives.

Such an approach to history is detrimental to students of architecture. It implies that the ambition of the young architect should be to design 'historic' architecture, by which we understand architecture that will in the future be regarded as the significant achievement of our age. Like a knowledgeable but myopic audience, we admire and wish to emulate the show's leading actors, but fail to see the storyline. It's important to realize that, as an audience to the play of history, we have this God's-eye-view, this ability to recognize periods in which architecture seems to embody the prevailing attitude of the time - we can even pick out key characters, individual buildings that epitomize our understanding of an epoch. But this is no more than the privilege of the audience, the historian's imposition. Seldom if ever is an ancient building consciously constructed to symbolize its place in time.

The Gothic cathedral is a common example. The success of Gothic architecture comes from the engagement of the population in a singular, communal belief. The building itself, necessarily a collective enterprise, comes to embody the social values of the population by its refinement as a building type, responding to established ritual. Its symbolic meaning, as we read it, comes about naturally, without intellectual intention. The actors, as it were, don't know they're acting, because the uneducated mediaeval craftsman was not burdened with the weight of architectural history.

Look beyond this standard history of architecture and you realize there's a lot more to be found. By following the thread of western parochialism and the narrow trail of stardust left by our architectural heroes, great swathes of building ancestry are omitted from history. Bernard Rudofsky attempts in the mid-sixties to widen our viewpoint, to show us backstage. The exhibition 'Architecture Without Architects' focuses on what Rudofsky calls, in its various guises, "vernacular, spontaneous, indigenous, rural". This instinctive architecture is a pure product of mankind. It arises naturally out of groups of humans in a society, like language. He quotes Belluschi: "A communal art, not produced by a few intellectuals or specialists but by the spontaneous and continuing activity of a whole people with a common heritage". It's easy to romanticize the troglodytic dwellings of Sicily or nomadic tent structures of Asia, but the exhibition holds a genuine lesson: anonymous architecture, built by untutored citizens, can truly serve the community - embody its social values.

Could we return to such a state in future? Today our situation is rather different - we can travel to another continent within hours, at the press of a button we can be in touch with someone on the other side of the planet. Global communication, initiated perhaps by Columbus' exploration and colonialism, is now materialized in multi-culturalism and the internet. In most of the western world it's impossible to define any culture independent of outside influence - everyone is in some kind of dialogue or exchange. So along with 24-hour news channels and instant access to the Web, we get McDonalds in Malaysia and Australian soap operas on UK television. To return to the theatrical metaphor, the play continues, but no one can understand what's happening. There are a dozen storylines vying for position on stage. The actors all want to feel the hot glow of the spotlight - to be "famous for a day" as Warhol promised. You look round and realize that the theatre's grown so big the people at the back can't see; the walls have receded into darkness.

These advances in science and technology seem to encapsulate the greatest human achievements as well as the cause of many of our problems. With these advances comes the movement toward a rational, scientific understanding of the world - the major shift in the nature of mankind. And here is the crux of the matter, as far as architecture is concerned. The human mind today is so aware, cognitively, of its place on Earth, that the primal experience of 'being' is crushed.

In a cultural climate of explanation ahead of mystery, reason ahead of mysticism, it's impossible for architecture to arise naturally from man. Every building project is consciously filtered through the intellect of the individuals concerned - be it architects or developers or builders. Instead of being able to rely on natural human instincts, the designer is forced to think through every architectural problem - to make conscious decisions. This is where the trouble starts. Individuals might make good decisions or bad - they might succeed in designing a water-tight roof but fail to relate the building to its surroundings. There are judgements to be made on so many different levels that to successfully synthesize each into something effective - working architecture - is a virtually impossible task. It's no wonder that dissatisfaction is rife, that people look back ruefully on the past. If inconsistency is a trait of modernist architecture, its converse is the reliability of a gradually evolving vernacular, in which a house design might be transmitted with only minor changes through a hundred generations.

"Here I am the only successful Architect and Engineer. I have had to break the ice for my successors... destroy the villainous Quacks in whose hands the public works have hitherto been."

-Benjamin Latrobe, 1804

Our profession would argue that an architectural education provides the best foothold for taking on the elaborate task of building. The preparation is immense. In the UK, to achieve a full architectural qualification takes a minimum of seven years. Rarely do newly-qualified architects move directly into positions of design responsibility, there being a huge array of empirical knowledge necessary to practice. This extended training is meant to ensure that, through great knowledge and erudition, we have the best possible chance of coming to the right design decisions. On the other hand, it might be argued that there's a certain youthful enthusiasm, optimism, that's lost along the protracted route to wisdom.

The general principle of architectural education is to teach students the theoretical context of the subject in a university setting, with shorter sandwich periods of practical training in an office setting. Students are given a well-rounded training in the academic subject of Architecture - its history and theory along with design and technical knowledge - before being exposed to the building industry. At Cambridge, the initial three-year degree is characterized by deep historical-philosophical study, increasingly related to contemporary design issues. It creates at best students who are well-schooled in abstract thought and can effectively incorporate some of these ideas into a thorough design proposal.

As capable as it is of producing versatile and learned individuals, I would suggest that this type of education is symptomatic of the wider, rational condition of society. A situation in which building designers are simply shown their materials and left to work it out is so far distant as to be unfathomable. Clearly that is not enough today. To design responsibly we must be aware of environmental and structural issues, and there are a whole range of building regulations with which a proposal must conform. This is one side of the equation - a dry, technical understanding of building. If this dominates education it can stifle students' creativity, but in its proper place it is an essential tract of knowledge. To be sensitive to human needs, however, architects must also possess an inherent feeling for the nature of people, the people for whom they design. This is where our education leads us astray. Dwelling on the achievements of the past, pondering architecture theoretically, withdrawing into academia: this mode of thinking can only carry us away from the real needs of real people, here and now.

I have put forward the proposition that modern society is too fragmentary, too fast-moving, to be embodied in architecture. I have implied that there is not, and cannot be, a modern equivalent of the Gothic cathedral. To quote Wittgenstein, "Architecture immortalizes and glorifies something. Hence there can be no architecture where there is nothing to glorify". Furthermore, the education of the architect leads us to fruitless attempts to improve the whole of society - I suggest that the very consciousness of the 'noble duties' of our profession prevents us from responding to the social values of place, culture, or universal human concerns.

What, then, is the value of the architect?

To respond to this question, I'll begin by looking at what is required of architecture. The primary function of buildings must be utility. People now and in the future must gain from their existence. Ahead of avant-garde experimentalism - which is about doing something new and exciting, something to get the hearts of architects racing - concentration should be on human inhabitation and use. That is not to say that architecture should never be poetic, and it would be wrong to say that the avant-garde is never beneficial to civilization, but there is a clear distinction between titillating architects and making life better for people.

Architecture that really improves people's lives tends to do so on a small scale. It is beyond the scope of architecture to shape a better society - that must come from society itself. Frank Lloyd Wright's work is far more convincing when he aims to give one family a better house, than when he attempts to design the ideal town. It might be that a truly worthwhile architecture in this sense does not appear in glossy magazines, or on the news. It might instead fade into the background, unnoticed - simply stage the scenes of life. There are occasions when a landmark building is needed, perhaps to regenerate a region or promote a worthy cause. Bill Dunster's 'BedZed' project in London can be seen as a megaphone to the voice of ecology, as much as an ecologically-sound development in itself. Bilbao's Guggenheim is the archetypal regenerative public building. It brings culture, publicity and hence employment to a foundering post-industrial city. But these high-profile projects are exceptions; as trainee architects, our ambition should not be to emulate Gehry, but quietly and modestly to enrich the settings of ordinary life.

Having given up designing monuments, signature buildings - abandoned the ego - the architect is in a better position to concentrate quietly on the immediate issues of our time. The most pressing current concern should be environmental sustainability, both locally and globally. As clear and forthright in the architect's mind as sensitivity to site, should be the need for a sensitive approach to the planet. We can see now that environmental problems have been swelling for 150 years, but the current generation of leading architects is the first knowingly to hand down the world to its children in a worse state than it was received. Therefore, any new building that does not react positively and responsibly to ecological strife is lamentable, regardless of its other qualities.

Some of the worst examples of unconsidered design are the hastily constructed, unsympathetic offices and warehouse buildings of developers. In the UK, the battle over architects' protection of their title and the right to practice is ongoing. A considerable proportion of new building is constructed without the input of an architect. Though I have a natural bias, I believe that architects, essentially, are the most competent designers of a subtle and sensitive built environment. Their capacity for integrated thought on many levels is the key quality. Conversely, design-and-build firms may be so engaged in speedy profit-making as to forget a building's most important attributes. Developers and design-and-build are not about to disappear - if the architectural profession is to survive, it must adapt to changes in the building industry. This might mean closer ties with contractors or developers, forming partnerships that balance issues of speed and economy with humaneness and ecology. In healthy collaboration, clients can perhaps be persuaded of the worth of good architecture.

Architects must be humble members of society. It is absurd for architects to be intellectual figures, dissociated from the users of their buildings. If, as I have tried to show, it is impossible to manifest today's divergent social values in architecture, then we cannot hope to lead society from a high and noble standpoint. We need a grounding in down-to-earth, outward-looking, real-world understanding - this should grow naturally throughout an architect's life. Any attempt to learn rationally about people is a poor substitute for genuine, everyday experience. Trying to teach sociological insight as an academic subject inevitably sinks into banal discussion of ergonomic statistics, irrelevant facts and figures - while the true heart of the matter remains out of reach. So much of education, throughout life, is simply about learning through experience - learning to get on with people, to be a responsible citizen. It is these qualities, in abundance, that lay down the bedrock of a good architect - and it is these qualities that I believe are overlooked in architectural education. If only young architects could be set free of the shackles of Architecture as a high art, with its rich history and deep theory, they could return home to their truly connected abode within society.

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The actors in today's show know they're acting - it's unavoidable. But by understanding the audience, by being a part of the audience, and by acting in unison with those around us, we can put on a show that will be appreciated by all. Then, perhaps, architecture can begin to gain some meaning beyond the architect's intellect.

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