Sunday, December 02, 2007

Age of Invention

Having spent a significant amount of flying in the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but marvel at the contraption I found myself in. This sleek aluminum cage facilitated the travel of great distances in a (relatively) short amount of time. It allowed me to get to places that, a century ago, would be impossible given my short window of opportunity. And, as I looked out the window, at the tiny dots of lights, of houses and cars, lighting up the black landscape below, I couldn’t help but think of how great our leaps have been in certain fields.

Invention has been a hallmark of this century. Transportation, manufacturing, media – all have undergone radical transformations. I still can’t believe that, less than a decade ago, a cell phone was considered the luxury of corporate elite. Now, I don’t even own a land line.

There’s no denying that this march forward has dramatically affected Architecture. The way we practice, the way we work and design, it all has changed. The mouse is now our rapidiograph, our screen, our drafting table.

Yet, as much as our modes and methods have changed, Architecture, it could be argued, has not. Sure, we build taller, bigger, faster. New materials and construction techniques have allowed for our current age of megastructures. But, beyond the gloss of new, the veneer that flashes itself across glossy pages in magazines, has Architecture really evolved?

Stripped of the embellishment, the spaces created from all this new technology are rarely revolutionary. The pancake model of construction, which typifies so much of the modern skyscraper or mega-monolith create the same box, only repeated at a scale not seen before. I guess that’s something. But is it enough?

I remember watching The Jetsons as a kid. Sure it was a trippy cartoon of a future many years from now, rendered in a 50’s era doo-whoop motel style, but it was a visionary one. It imagined life lived in a remarkable, transformed way. And it was communicated, in part, by the architecture that surrounded them.

But, have you looked around? Just in this crazy city, there are dozens of new condo units rising on every available lot, skyscrapers shooting up left and right. They all tout new amenities, new ideas for living, lifestyles for this new age. They all market themselves as unique, revolutionary, transformative. And then you look at the floor plans, the renderings for their “amazing” living spaces. Notice anything? How the floorplans are all the same – some variation of squares, with “open concept” living space? How the finishes usually include some type of streamlined cabinet, dark wood bottom and glass fronted top, with stainless steel appliances, granite or some stone countertop, and glass tile backslash? And, of course, the wall of windows, floor to ceiling, which in concept are wonderful and airy, and never shown with the window coverings that will, on the second day, appear to screen out the hundreds of eyes capable of looking into your slice of new generica? Your millions have bought you what? The same space as those on floors above and below you? Unique indeed.

This is not just the case in cities, contained to these glowing glass boxes. Look at the houses in suburbs across the country. Floorplans repeated over and over again, masked with stucco or wood or brick or siding to give a sense of ownership, of being different. Yet nothing so dramatic as to quell that sense of déjà vu, of thinking, I’m sure I’ve been here before. Because without that feeling, then how could you sell the home as welcoming, comfortable, “homey”.

Maybe a revolution is coming. Maybe it can’t happen. The way we eat, sleep, live both drives and is driven by our surroundings. It’s another chicken and egg scenario; do we try to change the way people live, or do we respond to the changes people are making? And if changes are coming, will the lead to a Jetsonian future? Or will it be something like we have now?

There is no denying that Architecture has progressed, has changed. But when the sketches of visionaries a century ago seem to match the renderings of buildings being planned and built today, it seems like we may want to imagine, for a new century, what Architecture may become.


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