Beyond Buildings


Credo: Against Imposed Order

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On October 31, I chaired a panel at the 12th International Architecture Biennale Venice entitled, "Beyond Beyond Architecture." The panelists were Hani Rashid, Wolf Prix, and Winy Maas. The following is (more or less) how I introduced the event. This is the second of three posts, the first was the text that I gave the panelists before the event. For my next posting, I will summarize the discussion that followed.


Almost nothing or the play of forms in light? That, to oversimplify things, has been the choice in modernist architecture for the last century. Such dichotomies can be counterproductive, but also help to point out the ways in which architects have responded to Modernism.  

The latter proposition—which is, badly translated, Le Corbusier’s—holds that architecture must respond to processes of modernization through the production of forms and spaces that are, first, appropriate and, second, create something that reflects a humanist ideal. Architecture should, as Le Corbusier said, look at both processes and products of the industrial revolution and its concomitant social and economic changes. It must understand that in modernity everything we make is, to a certain extent, a machine, and must aspire to make that machine an object of beauty. The modern automobile might replace the Winged Victory of Samothrace as a model, but it still aspires to be an object that can thrill us.

In the Miesian universe, the object tends to disappear. Instead, architecture interprets, intellectualizes, and abstracts the complexities of modernization into a grid, whose realization consists of elements as transparent or minimal as possible. Such objects as do inevitably appear (until such time that technology becomes completely pervasive) are modular, repetitive, and standardized.    

The Miesian approach seems to have triumphed, certainly in the world beyond buildings. As I pointed out in my previous post, form is disappearing and dissipating as the digital ephemerizes all machines, urban forms trace the dissolution of fixed social, political, and economic structures in sprawl, and form becomes further and further streamlined and alien to the human body.

Yet the two ways in which architects respond survive the corrosive effects of late capitalism. Architects continue to build and to plan. Now, these two modes of operation have rarely appeared in a pure form, and many third, fourth, and fifth terms, ranging from the building as technological object (high-tech) to attenuated form (dense minimalism) or the creation of hybrid structures assimilating existing conditions and historical conditions, emerged almost as soon as these two poles became clear.  Yet the Miesian and the Corbusian also represent two different attitudes in architecture and beyond. I believe that it was Reyner Banham, in Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age, who pointed out the roots of these two approaches in the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts. They also are the result of two very different attitudes: the notion that architecture is the imposition of abstract orders on the world, and the notion that architecture is discovery of forms that the designer then manipulates in response to human needs.

I realize, again that this is a simplification, and Le Corbusier, for one, rarely was as open as he claimed to be in his writings. But it is an important distinction to me, for I believe that architecture should go beyond the production of such already abstracted forms, and truly be the gathering together of available materials, forms, and spaces, breaking them open, combining them, transforming them, and allowing new structures to appear out of the thoughtful assembly of what already exists.

I believe that only in this manner can architecture be that which articulates our relation with the world around us and with those like us, which is to say, other human beings. It is in this manner that it can allow us to be at home in the modern world. To me, this is a profoundly ecological approach, which seeks to discover our landscapes and use them as wisely as possible, while extending them in such a way that we can continue to inhabit this planet. Such an architecture would not be an acceptance of reality, but a critical rethinking, reworking, and reimagination of what exists.  

I also believe that there still is a need for icons, which should act as a critical response to the way in which our capitalist world makes sense of the a world of almost nothing, which is through branding. We need icons that evoke or intimate a place, our bodies, what remains of what makes us human. They should also be proud homes for those institutions that draw us together.

Instead of an order or a form, architecture should be a project: a rational but open-ended assessment of what is, what is needed, and how we can achieve that goal. If it does cohere, it should be a projectile aimed at the thoughtless production of the ever more, blowing up the too much to reveal, appropriate and domesticate the endless, but invisible grids of power (literally and figuratively) that surround us like invisible clouds or have replaced the ground of our reality with infrastructure and transformed it into sprawl.

Architecture is an important way in which we can make the modern world our own, in a social, economic, cultural, and physical sense, and the production of buildings may be an important part of its project. What it should actually be I must leave to architects to discover and make, always in a manner that is new.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:06 PM Friday, November 05, 2010

    Would someone please translate what Mr. Betsky is talking about? I have no idea what he is ranting about even though it may be a learned treatise.

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  • Posted by: Dru M. | Time: 2:18 PM Friday, November 05, 2010

    Dear Anon, Read the bio and do some research before launching a tirade that you don't believe strongly enough to even leave an inkling of authorship or identity. Why have an opinion if are afraid to stand up for it? Amazing how many "architects" want to stand up and take credit for their "masterpieces" but are afraid to be know for their ideas.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:55 PM Friday, November 05, 2010

    Well, isn't Aaron the little pompous know-it-all master of what architecture is all about. And exactly how many incredible pieces of architecture has the fabulous Mr. Betsky designed? No WONDER he loves Obama so much.....birds of a feather. It's my fault, now I should know better than to read his silly tripe, and should stick to doing my work as a real architect.

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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.