Monday, December 19, 2005

Intermissions for Sanity

Winter break. As an undergraduate, it was a brief but necessary respite from studio. A mental break, I would walk away from everything I was doing and lose myself in the holiday traditions. It was a reminder of life outside - that things existed outside that square rectangle of desk space that filled my college world.

It is nice to be a student again, if only so I can appreciate the winter break with greater zeal. I find that, as an architecture student, the trivialities of your work easily consume you, occupying almost all waking moments. In this realm of "all architecture, all the time", it becomes too easy to lose track of the revolving world outside your studio, outside what you are doing. And when you try to sneak off and take a little time to yourself, a guilty conscience reels you back, reprimanding you for your lack of dedication and rigor.

Thus, winter break was a time designated to personal revelry, not academic development. And, as my friends and I took to our corners of the world, it was as if we were given clemency for a short period, freed to re-enter the world of the non-architect. It was permission to relax.

This winter, however, I find myself still distracted. Perhaps because, as my professors were so adamant in reminding me, I should be finding this as an inspirational time to further my research. Hmmm..."all architecture, all the time" now includes "all architecture, everywhere." And I don't know if I want to buy into it.

My visit to Rome brought up certain thoughts about architecture, progress and purpose. Standing in ruins thousands of years old, objects so impressive in scale as to marvel the most cynical of present day observers, I thought about how much the nature of our work has evolved. Has it changed all that much?

On the one hand, I think of course. The materials we use, the construction techniques we rely on, far exceed the technological abilities of our ancient predecessors. And the consequence is significant - we need not enslave nations to find the manpower necessary to accomplish our latest and greatest constructions.

But, in terms of spatial experience - a preoccupation that consistently underlies current architectural research - have we really leaped forward?

Bounded by the physical laws of nature, we still move along a ground plane, through openings, underneath coverings to protect us from the elements; in other words, we stand on floors, walk through doorways, and live underneath ceilings. The materials might change, the scales might differ, but essence, it is still exactly the same, isn't it?

A simplistic reduction, I realize, but maybe a necessary one. It is humbling to think that, in the thousands of years of building and construction, we may not have done more that reinvent the wheel over and over again. We've made it prettier, more energy efficient, camouflaged it in words and metaphors and ideologies. But that's it - nothing more. And all the arrogant assertions of new architectures, new spatial realities can be seen as little more than propaganda for personal advancement and publicity.

Sometimes, this is all I wish to believe. It would clarify how we might evaluate architecture. Is it efficient? Is it constructed in a way that uses the least amount of materials? Does it meet the needs of its users? Does it work? Those are questions that are quantifiable.

But, in the world of my masters program, I face questions that delve into interpretation, opinion, subjectivity. Is your work edgy? Does it have rigor? How dynamic is your experience? And, as much as you might argue, as much as your tutors might tell you how right they are, this gray area is always remain unresolved.

So if there is no "new" possible, then the objectives of architecture become clear. But, even if there is no "new", is it important to ask the questions that can't be answered? Is that were evolution lies? Or is it a waste of time? I don't have any answers myself, so if you feel strongly, one way or the other, then feel free to share them with me.


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