Beyond Buildings


Embrace the Chaos

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Memento Mori
Architecture that preserves life's messy vitality serves as an invigorating memento mori. Image credit: Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill."

The reactions to some of my recent posts on disparate topics ranging from what I see as the over-planning of Singapore to the studio on reuse I taught at the University of Cincinnati reminded me how caught up we still are with the making of the new, the clean, and uncluttered. Paradoxically, we also have a love for what is now known as “disaster porn:” Julie Taubman’s recent book of photographs of Detroit might serve as a good example. Obviously both impulses come from the same place: a need for order but a love of the mess that is life and perhaps a realization that we cannot fix all for all times. Memento mori: remember that you, too, will die, which means that you are alive now.

The most effective way in which architecture these days deals with these competing instincts is to combine the id and superego into a kind of elegant ego of which the New Museum of Berlin, designed by Sir David Chipperfield into an elegant and fully stable reminder of a ruin, is the recent best example. The gentrification of ruins is not a new phenomenon, dating back at least to the artful preservation of neighborhoods like Soho in New York starting in the 1970s. From the exposed brick wall and cast-iron column we have moved to an era in which whole factories can become relics we re-inhabit with relish.

When I talk about the importance of a un-design or un-planning, however, I have in mind something messier than that. I would say that here architecture, for once, has it over art, which aestheticizes everything it touches into a pretty picture. Architecture can preserve what exists, and create a container for the messy vitality (sound familiar?) of everyday life.

At least it could, if only architects would leave well enough alone. The kind of minimal intervention Frank Gehry practiced at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles back in 1983 and Lacaton and Vassal showed off at the Palais du Tokyo in 2002 is all too rare, and even these code-driven cleanups tend still to estheticize what is left. I would argue for something a bit more radical. It would be the sort of just-enough-work squatters do when they take over buildings. If there is any elaboration, it would be fanciful and without clear or evident plan. The model might be Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen, though what was once a hippy colony has now also been gentrified. The Heidelberg Project in Detroit also seems to teeter between gentrification and the joyous elaboration of what is left over.

On an urban level, Barcelona might be a better model for the plan-crazy bureaucrats of Singapore than New York, from where they have imported many of their advisors. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam, a gritty port city where I lived for six years, seems more of a real place than the tourist Mecca of Amsterdam.

The real question is whether architects and planners can just let go. One of the first lessons I was ever taught in architecture school was: Get in, make your move, get out fast. Don’t try to design the whole thing, don’t even pretend you are inventing, just use what you can, reuse as much as possible, and above all else remove any barrier to the adaptive reuse by the people who are going to be there. Wolf Prix called it an “open architecture,” Rem Koolhaas talked of making cheap, easily adaptable or reusable buildings under the “no money, no details” motto, and other architects claim they want to enable rather than rule–but almost all still design monuments that seek to defy life and death with permanence and order.

Even Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who reminded us of the importance of complexity and contradiction, stepped away when, quoting, August Hecksher, they claimed: “Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives…force.” I say: embrace the chaos.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.