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3_Meaningful New Architecture

One mustn’t confuse the means with the ends. The goal is not to achieve new architecture. New by itself doesn’t mean anything. The goal is that through the new we achieve better conditions that advance the field of architecture, and improve its performance. According to the analogy made to genes in Survival and Replication in Architecture, changes that make architecture’s chances of survival and replication greater. From the previous analysis one can acknowledge that the best ways to achieve this meaningful change is through the application of the first, and fourth points laid out in Architecting the new: 1st to create completely new shapes, and 4th to change the form of the shape (i.e. reconstruct the shape). This of course begs the first series of questions: how can one create a new shape? How can one invent a new function or purpose in architecture? As suggested before, a good analogy one could use, to ease in the task, is that of Allopatric speciation.

By the process of Allopatric speciation living organisms accomplish the task of achieving new shapes by the accidental process of becoming isolated from their previous group in a new territory. The new territory has different environmental conditions than the previous. Therefore natural selection will push for changes that bring the organism advantage in the new environment. Thus the organism has a direction towards which to push development, or in other words, not completely random change as would happen by the process of mutation, but meaningful changes that can help the organism’s chance of survival. Today architecture has two roads that lead to a similar ‘isolation’ out of which beneficial change could occur. The first is the one brought about by the psychological state man is currently under.

Architecture’s biggest ‘mover’, in a process that I am linking to Allopatric speciation, has been man’s psyche and what it has focused on throughout its history, that is, the new territories it has occupied, or phases its mind has gone through in its development. From this point of view, architecture can be seen to reflect an unfolding of man’s main psychological concerns – each new concern or state corresponding to a new ‘territory’ that has allowed for the creation of new shapes in architecture. Thus: when man’s greatest psychological concern was survival, its architecture was concerned with providing basic shelter and protection from the environment. Later when man had achieved some control over his environment, survival stopped being his main concern and his mind developed. The focus then turned to understanding his existence and that of the world in which he lived in – the focus was to try and bring some meaning to it; thus one can see the development of a theocentric focus, where god explained and brought purpose to everything. Architecture followed course, by shifting its priority from providing basic shelter to providing sacred congregation spaces, which one can see in the focus on temple and church architecture that would follow. However, for a short period this phase was almost overcome: in late ancient Greece the focus turned to the Agora, amphitheaters and other public spaces. And in the later Roman period, architecture’s development mainly occurred in that realm – focusing on public spaces like the forum, plazas, baths, Colosseum like spaces, and basilicas. The Roman Empire had conquered most of the known world, and man’s ‘self confidence’ was beginning to grow. There was accordingly a slight shift from focus on god to a more humanistic focus, and therefore the development of the public or more humanistic architecture. Yet, man’s understanding and control of nature was still far from becoming a reality, and religion regained its grip over man’s consciousness as the Roman Empire collapsed. The focus of man’s psyche once more turned to religion, and so did the architecture, remaining unchallenged until the Renaissance era.

With the beginning of the Renaissance the focus on program did not change much (it was still mainly concerned with the construction of churches and temples), however the architecture did begin to show signs of the shift that had already began taking place on man’s psyche (with the advent of humanism). The change from a theocentric to an anthropocentric point of view, where man replaced god as the center of the universe, and truth and morality stopped being based on god, but instead on human investigation, was brought about by developments in science that gave man power and belief in himself; and thus the loss of a need for the crutch that god represented. In architecture this change began to take place with the introduction of linear perspective. The introduction of the eye, the human point of view, as a defining element in structuring space was a crucial moment in the new phase that would from that follow. This Humanist period would extend until the present day, where one can argue it has reached its peak, with individualism being the single most defining element of the capitalist consumer culture we now live in. Along the way one can see the development of the Baroque and the Rococo also pointing to this growing need for individuation, and distinction: when before it would be enough to follow the rules of classical architecture, or divine proportions like the golden ratio to produce architecture, now the focus had turned to the individual as the source of proportions, and systems of arrangement; thus one sees a proliferation of different systems, and the only umbrella term being able to categorize them all being broad terms like Rococo, that had no rules as to how the architecture should be performed exactly; except vague parameters like for example “exquisite and intricate details and decoration”.

A second phase in this humanist period was the explosion of the Industrial Revolution. This signaled the power that man had established over the world. The focus on man’s inner abilities, his intellect, had allowed the development of science and technology to a point where man had in many ways become god-like: in explaining and predicting most of nature’s occurrences, and in producing technological advancements that allowed him to do most things on earth (recreate the sun with electricity; fly with airplanes; travel across the globe with ships, trains, cars; as well as creation of instruments for all occasions and problems). And as Nietzsche professed, ‘God is [/was] dead!’This technocentric phase of the humanist period saw the rise of modernism in architecture – with architects like Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus school, and others advocating an architecture that celebrated technology and worked to maximize its means of production. Thus one witnessed once more architecture reflecting the changes of the new “psychological territory” man was occupying – Humanism and its focus on man’s intellect that allowed the rapid development of technology.

After Hiroshima and the Holocaust, however, it became clear that man’s turn to technology for a sense of peace and certitude in understanding, determining, and bringing meaning to the world had not worked. The situation was one where man’s existential angst was at a maximum. Many indeed turned to nihilism – emptying the world and especially human existence of any meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Existentialism, as proposed by Sartre which characterized “the existential attitude” as a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world, would bring a less negative view on the world, but still left a void in man’s consciousness. Man faced true freedom; a freedom that brought “dread” and anxiety, given that he had, for the first time, to become truly responsible for his actions – one couldn’t blame god, or even one’s genes anymore.

This came to generate today’s “Societé du Spetacle,” as described by Guy Debord. A condition where man is in a constant search for distractions, to avoid facing his reality. Sartre would defend that man can and should define his own meaning. Nietzsche embraced nihilism, but only to more quickly see its departure, for he believed only when man had overcome it, could man find a true foundation upon which culture could thrive.

Architecture’s reaction to this new ‘psychological territory’ has been, accordingly, one of distraction – a return to ornament and an extreme (empty) formalism based on the idea of performance (performalism, as defended by Sylvia Lavin and others) as a result of today’s severely individualistic culture. Present culture can be described as the pinnacle of the Humanist period. Man has focused on himself and his intellect to an extreme, and this inward driven process has been fully expressed by today’s urban environment and architecture. The most technologically and economically advanced nations live in a globalized capitalist world, where the individual, alone, is the center piece. And it has brought about the current psychological state man finds himself in. One which can begin to be described by the blasé attitude that Georg Simmel identified in the beginning of the 20th century in “Metropolis and mental life,” but more radically exposed by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting – an exasperation of sorts with Metropolitan life – an absurd world, where anything can happen to anybody, randomly! There is no god making sure things work out nicely. Thus man finds himself for the first time truly alone, as a result of this inward driven Humanistic phase. Man living in today’s globalized metropolises has never been surrounded by more people, yet, and maybe accentuated because of that, has never felt lonelier!

The distractions, that today’s consumer culture provides, work, but only to a certain point. Capitalist consumer culture mottos like “life is short!,” and “enjoy life while you still can” all work with its agenda of selling ever newer goods, providing new challenges and new things to strive for, so that one never gets bored. However, this strategy is a short term way of fixing the problem of man having to struggle with his existence and apparent lack of meaning. After indulging capitalism, man realizes this at some point, and the now famous mid-life crisis sets in! The problem that capitalism tried to hide surfaces again – man’s existential angst takes hold of his mind, and he realizes how he is alone in this world.

I believe that this is what man’s current psychological condition (territory) has led to, and that to try and determine a new future for architecture one must find a solution for this problem, that is, predict where his mind is going to go next, what new “territory” it is going to occupy, and thus see how architecture could reflect the new needs that this territory would bring about. As Sartre and Nietzsche suggested, one must embrace one’s existential condition, and build up from it; only then “could man find a true foundation upon which culture could thrive.” So the advice, according to Sartre, is that man can and should define his own meaning.

From man’s current condition, of extreme loneliness in today’s mega-globalized metropolises, I put forward that if one can characterize the present Humanist phase as being inward driven, that is, of being focused on the individual and his intellect as being able to deliver answers to everything and bring meaning to the world, the next phase (given that the current has failed) will still be Humanist, except that this time with an outward focus, that is, man will turn to his fellow human beings as the source of meaning in the existential barren land he finds himself in. An existential condition whose key element is loneliness, thus a connection to other human beings solving the main and most immediate problem man is facing.

The burst of interest in the architectural/urban practice of Rem Koolhaas reflects this. One of Koolhaas’ main interests is in creating spaces of hyper densification. A culture of congestion, intensified by cross programming, where chance like encounters can take place, and social contact intensified – this had been the lesson he had taken from the analysis of Manhattan espoused in “Delirious New York.” However, as explained in Survival and Replication in Architecture, the way he went about it completely defeated the purpose. Koolhaas’ study of Manhattan and why the skyscraper was so successful in creating the so widely acclaimed congestion (variety of programs in very close proximity), can be understood to take effect by the reverse condition of panopticism, as described by Jeremy Bentham and expanded upon by Michel Foucault: discipline and order in a group or society can be brought about by oversight: one is less inclined to commit a criminal act if one knows that one is, or simply could be, being watched. This theory goes to explain why people are more likely to get mugged in dark places, than in places where there is a lot of light – because where there is a lot of light, although there might not be anybody present to witness a criminal act, the mere fact that the criminal could be seen (given the presence of light) deters him from committing the crime. A corollary of this is that people in the public eye behave like they are supposed to behave. Not necessarily like they would prefer to act. Or still further, that in the public eye there is a character one is supposed to portray, a moral code one is supposed to follow. A code that one mustn’t deviate from or risk punishment. It becomes easy to understand that people in the public eye are nothing but characters – their real intentions remaining maybe completely unknown. The Individual has no real freedom! Thus the Koolhaas’ suggestion, though tempting at first, acts to deter interesting or real social contact from occurring. The congestion of different programs in the skyscraper only occurs because there is a separation between them, that is, privacy is present. So, cross programming (interrupting one program with another, so that both are exposed to each other) is in fact the one thing one would do if one were looking to destroy the richness of the skyscraper.

Today’s public spaces, at least in the big globalized metropolises, are in fact a sham! And no real meaningful social interaction occurs in them anymore. In most of today’s public spaces the people in them are nothing more than spectators, voyeurs to a spectacle that they do not take part in. One can spend an entire day outside and say nothing more than ‘hi,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘bye:’ everybody with their Ipod on, giving the soundtrack to the spectacle being witnessed. The reason for this can be understood by an analysis of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma constitutes a problem in Game Theory. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence payoffs and gave it the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” name (Poundstone, 1992). In its “classical” form, the prisoner’s dilemma is presented as follows:

“Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (“defects”) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act? (Wikipedia)”

With certain assumptions, like for example – that the suspects are indeed ‘criminal,’ and that therefore their moral and ethical standards are not the most noble; and/or that the suspects don’t know each other very well if it all, the only rational choice for both suspects is to ‘defect’ and betray each other – as the theory goes on to explain – since because you do not know what the other person is going to choose and you cannot talk to him to arrange a deal, you would rather face 5 years in jail (in case the other also defects), or get out free in case the other doesn’t, than face 10 years in jail (in case the other defects), or only 6 months in case none of you betray each other. If however the two suspects were friends, and/or had common friends, and/or had a long history together and would probably end up seeing each other after they left jail, similar studies have shown that a majority of people would cooperate and not ‘defect.’

Translating this effect to today’s globalized metropolises one can understand how the pretense of the majority of public spaces today are nothing more than a pretty façade behind an empty building – with no real meaningful social contact taking place anymore. In today’s globalized metropolises one is able to know only an infinitesimal amount of the city’s total population. Therefore one is placed, more or less in the same situation as the prisoners. And thus the only ‘rational’ social posture for one to have in today’s public places is one of avoidance, given that the person walking next to you, or who you could talk to and bring into your life, could be a murderer, or a rapist instead of just a normal good person. Because of the character that one is forced to assume in today’s social spaces, and the moral code one must follow in order not to be punished (go to jail, or be fined), one can never really know if the person walking next to us in the street is acting normally, or if he is acting in the way that society expects him to act in order to avoid punishment. The risk of you talking to them and trusting them could cost you a great deal in the future if they turned out to be lying just to take advantage of you. Thus one chooses to ‘defect’ on them first, and avoid contact.

One can then understand why in today’s super globalized metropolises it is nearly impossible to establish meaningful communities and social interactions, since trust – the fundamental characteristic of communities that allows for meaningful social contact to take place – cannot be established anymore, since in the big, globalized metropolises, everybody is a stranger and the amount of people one knows is infinitesimal compared to the millions that already inhabit the same space, and the continual influx of new inhabitants that move in each day (either from another country, or from smaller cities, towns, or villages in the same country). If one could argue there is an ‘audience’ effect to neighborhoods, whereby one would feel more trusting and less paranoid in the neighborhood one was born and raised in, while the reverse in others, for example somebody who grew up in a small town, and somebody who grew up in South-Central L.A., would both feel untrusting and paranoid if put in each other’s neighborhoods, then one could argue that in cities one is almost constantly in this state of mistrust and slight paranoia – since a great part of the population in big globalized metropolises were not born, nor raised in the city they are currently living in. But also, even the people who did grow up in those respective cities, and might feel trusting in their neighborhoods where they know a big number of people (but not all since the population in big cities are always changing and moving around), know to not be as trusting outside their neighborhood (that is if they ever learned their ‘street smarts’ like not talking to strangers), since big cities are known to be dangerous, with many gangs, and crimes just outside or even in one’s own neighborhood.

Yet, the most interesting aspect of these big cities is their huge numbers of ‘foreign’ (i.e. not from that particular city) inhabitants. This has been rendered possible by the hyper globalization of our world today: Transportation being no longer an issue in physically connecting regions that before stood, practically, “worlds apart.” And language not being as big a barrier as it was before, given that with the internationalization of English, communication issues becomes greatly reduced. The famous adage in fact being that the entire “world has become a village” – which is especially true now given the new means of communication that in fact make it possible.

Notice, however, that today’s means of communication make it only a possibility! The good connotations of the village that are trying to be mapped to the globalized world, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, are far from becoming a reality!

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5 comments

  1. i agree and/or disagree. you?


  2. Very interesting read. It ended with a totally different point than I imagined, but I think that is a good thing. One comment that I would have is you might have to define “super globalized metropolises” a little further. Also, I am not sure if you have been to San Francisco, but I would say that things here(and places similar to SF) things are a little different. That being said, is SF a “super globalized metropolis”?


  3. wow Mr. Gomes,
    congrats. it is very well written! and the subject matter completely caught me by surprise as the other reader suggested… i will read the rest and give you comments later, got to get back to work..
    ttalk to you soon,


  4. Brent (or other people that might know), i have a question:
    how is San Fran different? It would be great if you could specify a little bit..
    And by super globalized metropolises i mean cities of several millions, where a gross number of the total population was not born in the city, but actually migrated in (eg New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, but i would think San Fran too…)


  5. Good lad! Make me proud, you hear?!



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