Performance Driven, Poetically Crafted Architecture

A Place in the World: Towards Inclusion

September 25, 2018

By Donald McKay, Principal, Sheehan Nagle Hartray

Finding a place in the world is fundamental to our human condition. Our earliest experiences are familial, finding a place relative to our siblings and parents. School and work expand our world and the challenges of finding our place in it. When we have children, we become concerned with their place in the world.

There is a symbiotic relationship between what we value and our need for belonging. Some make a place for themselves by excluding others and an exclusionary value system follows. Some embrace an inclusive value system with the understanding that finding a place in the world depends on a similarly inclusive attitude in others. Architecture, which is fundamentally about place-making, cannot be silent on this matter.

(image above) 1 This Finnish town hall is organized as a series of ascending spaces culminating in the council chambers. The vertical emphasis reflects the dominant wooded environment. (Alvar Aalto: Saynatsalo Town Hall, 1952. Photo by the author.)

Inclusive value systems seem to gain cultural traction by fits and starts. Multiculturalism took root in academic studies that brought to light new meaning in canonical texts. It turned attention towards the ‘other’ and gave voice to those outside the mainstream. Increased acceptance of same-sex relationships, new challenges to exclusionary ways of thinking, and the birth of new democracies, resulting in no small part from the widespread availability of social media that achieved what investments of national blood and treasure could not, attest to multiculturalism’s influence.

2 The white Finlandia concert hall appears to float cloud-like above the landscape. (Alvar Aalto: Finlandia Hall, 1971. Photo by author.)

 

This shift towards more inclusive value systems blossomed through the convergence of other cultural forces—through erosion of our fear of the other by exposing both our fear and “the other” in the media, through implementation of progressive programs, through the emergence of technologies that improved open communication and access to information, and through an increasingly global economy.

Other recent challenges nurtured an inclusive worldview. The recent economic recession deepened the perception that wealth had become too exclusive. One challenge is unique to our time—recognition that human activity is causing climate change with potentially disastrous consequences. This challenge will remain relevant through the ups and downs of future economic cycles. It has already driven and will continue to drive substantial changes in the design and construction industry.

In architecture, these intellectual, cultural and environmental developments coalesced into a widely accepted critique of orthodox Modernism. Architectural Review magazine is one of many voices to articulate this critique:

“[Modernity] promised freedom for self-realization unconstrained by culture, community, place and history. Yet without these we are not at home in the world, hence the pervasive alienation, and the atomization of communities into lonely individuals, characteristic of modernity. We now understand that self-realization needs the support of and sense of belonging to this larger context. Without it we are reduced to consumers eating up the planet as we defend our lonely selves from a meaningless world by walling ourselves off with consumer goods, entertainment and other addictions…”

Modernism’s noble conceit that universal forms of architecture could solve complex social and cultural problems proved naive and alienating. But historians and theorists often prefer universal forms of architecture for the clarity they afford historical and theoretical narratives. And architects often prefer universal forms for a wide range of reasons—a desire to be on the ‘right side of history,’ for the efficiency and quality control that it affords the process of design, or for the development of a design ‘brand’ that is distinguishable in the marketplace.

Successful universal forms of architecture accrue symbolic power and authority, which inevitably attracts exclusionary interests—the co-option of classical architecture by Church and State and of orthodox Modernism by corporations illustrate two examples. If there is a lesson to be learned from the alienation resulting from orthodox Modernism, it is not that universal forms of architecture are inherently bad, but that architecture rooted in exclusion is a dead end.

What does it mean to suggest architecture based on inclusive values? One distinguishing feature is that it confronts rather than evades cultural tensions. It may be the tension of uncertainty in transitional times that present new challenges and new means for meeting them. It may be a tension of place that often exists between cultural centers and those outside of them, tension that underlies colloquialisms like ‘second city’ versus ‘empire state’. It may be the Janus-like tension of trying to bridge tradition and the avant-garde. Tension is the natural state of an inclusive value system. Universal solutions attempt to avoid this tension by transcending it.

There is a rich history of architecture that reflects an inclusive approach. It can be seen in the work of contemporary architects like Kengo Kuma, Glenn Mercutt and Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate who achieve poetry by embracing time and place; in the work of Nordic modern architects who synthesized local building traditions with avant-garde ambitions to create modern architecture that lacked the alienating characteristics of orthodox Modernism designed by their peers; in LeCorbusier’s mature work like Ronchamp and La Tourette that favor situational solutions over the universal ideals he championed early in his career; in the work of architects and artists like Michelangelo and Borromini, whose work evokes a humanity that distinguishes it among the awe-inspiring Roman classicism of church and state.

3 An emphasis on natural and artificial lighting strategies are key to the creation of this humane library environment. (Alvar Aalto: Helsinki University of Technology Library, 1966. Photo by author.)

 

The value of an inclusive approach to architectural design can be elusive because perceptions of it can change over time. The work of Alvar Aalto presents an interesting example. Aalto’s work does not lend itself to mimicry or to universal application to design problems. The generation of Nordic architects that followed Aalto were critical of him and his work because they thought it engendered an undesirable elitism. They envisioned a more ‘democratic’ architectural representation of contemporary social concerns and adopted the anonymous ‘grid’ as an objective, ego-free, universal design strategy because of its egalitarian, non-hierarchical symbolism. The deadening effects on the urban environment of this and other like-minded design strategies remain visible today and eventually gave rise to a positive reassessment of Aalto’s talent and his design approach.

Two considerations suggest value in distinguishing between architecture rooted in inclusive versus exclusive value systems. First, this distinction is relevant to a wide range of current educational, economic, political and cultural concerns—it is perhaps a critical distinction for our time. Second, architecture designed from an inclusive viewpoint is less likely to result in alienating environments and more likely to result in work that is considered meaningful to those who use it. This is particularly important as we develop our understanding of what it means to design sustainably because architecture that is considered meaningful is more likely to receive the care and support necessary to sustain it.

Architecture rooted in inclusive value systems has rarely been predominant for many reasons—it does not lend itself to imitation or reproduction, it eludes historical and critical analysis, it is not consistent with business practices that prioritize efficiency and branding, and its subjective nature can result in self-aggrandizing monuments that do not meet clients’ objectives or that lack cultural relevance. This last reason may be the most damning, but it has been encouraged by architectural education systems, design professions and the media.

There are reasons to think that the time may be ripe for the predominance of an architecture rooted in inclusive value systems. Culture seems to be moving in that direction despite ongoing challenges and setbacks. Climate change, which may be the defining challenge of our time, is probably better addressed with situational versus universal design solutions. And students and young designers seem more interested in collaboration than in continuing the design genius narrative. This last factor may prove the most important because it can mitigate the most destructive potential consequence of a subjective approach—ego-driven design. The promise of such an approach is meaningful and truly sustainable architecture.

 

4 Story-deep skylights, monolithic forms and white finishes maximize precious daylight. (Alvar Aalto, Social Insurance Institution, 1956. Photo by author.)

 

Endnotes

  1. Peter Buchanan, “The Big Rethink,” Architectural Review, April 2012.
  2. Architectural history suggests that the alienating consequences of past conceits will be forgotten as we regain confidence in a new ‘zeitgeist’ and in our potential to create new universal forms of architecture. Parametricism claims to be one such form and there will be others.
  3. This architecture is sometimes criticized for lacking criticality and objectivity. Works of architecture that amount to little more than monuments to ego justify such criticism. But it must also be recognized that these criticisms may conceal other self-interested agendas ranging from a defense of business efficiencies to attempts by theorists to gain a foothold in the design process.
  4. This assessment of Aalto’s fall and resurrection in the eyes of fellow Nordic architects was explained to me in slightly different but consistent versions during separate interviews in Helsinki with two Finnish architects who witnessed—even participated—in these events.
  5. In our practice, we have seen evidence of this shift in attitude among recently graduated job seekers. It was not long ago that most letters of interest and resumes included naïve self-assessments about design talent. These have been largely replaced by stated objectives about contributing to a sustainably designed world.