Green Technology, Transparency, Aesthetics, and architecture criticism

This is a quick and clumsy foray into architecture criticism, by way of a critique of a magazine article. Baby steps…

I have just been reading a feature in the Nov./Dec. issue of ‘Architect’ magazine (whose new graphic design I kind of like — perhaps because I don’t like graphic design). There is a feature on the new headquarters of the Kresge Foundation, in Troy, Michigan. The project itself seems fairly thoughtful, but the way the architect (Joe Valerio) and the author of the article (Edward Keegan) talk about it has — through the sheer baldness of its carelessness — helped me form a strong opinion about architecture and technology.

Here’s the quote that hurts me most: “You shouldn’t be aware of sustainable technology. It should be just a part of the air, a part of the ether that surrounds us.” Joe Valerio said it, but fortunately I don’t see this idea playing out in the Kresge HQ, where sustainable design ideas are explicit in many of the spaces (the ponds, the retaining walls, the light shelves, etc.). There are elements of the project that clearly celebrate the form-making necessary for a certain degree of green living. Unfortunately, Keegan choses to make this “part of the ether” statement the theme of his (admittedly brief) article. The title of the article says it all: “Transparent Technology”.

Now, I am all for transparency in the deployment of technology. To me this would mean the same thing as transparency in government — the public gets to see (experience, understand…) how it works. In fact, I am starting to be of the opinion that the most direct ethic to adopt in the practice of architecture is to strive wherever possible for this kind of transparency. The architect’s responsibility, it seems to me, is to help the public come to grips with modernity — with “living now”. I don’t see any way to do this without explicitly addressing technology and its effects on human culture. In fact I think we are in a desperate struggle to foster a stronger public desire for transparency at all levels of design, from digital interface design to product design to architecture.

So we’re dealing with somebody (the author — I don’t know enough about the architect to blame him too) who has not thought clearly about technology and architecture’s place in the world. Very well. The rankling goes to another level, however, when I read this: “Valerio eschewed overt ‘green’ features, integrating sun-shading devices within a sleek contemporary aesthetic”. I am not an expert on aesthetics, either in the way an academic might mean it or in the way a decorator (and the author of this article) might mean it. But I understand the danger in this use of the term; a ‘sleek contemporary aesthetic’ is the language of car sales. . I would call the argument I made in the preceding paragraph an aesthetic one, in that it makes a claim about how the way things appear relates to an idea about the world. The banal phrase I just quoted, on the other hand, makes a claim about how the way things appear doesn’t really matter at all, so long as things do at least appear in some way, because we all know deep down that appearance is a lie, and that nobody wants to know the truth anyway.

Why quibble over definitions? Because aesthetics in my sense of the word (and its many academic shades) is fundamental to making judgments about architecture. If we reduce the term to marketing lingo, it seems to me that ethical design loses one way of getting its points across to even the most prosaic of minds.

Given all this tension, I was relieved to find several inconsistencies in Keegan’s article; taken together I think they indicate that there is no strong (i.e. considered) opinion behind any of the writing. For instance, after the claim about how sustainable technology should just be part of the ether, another caption claims that the building has many features that ‘promote environmental responsibility”. How can something that is just ‘part of the ether’ promote anything? Other than through some kind of subtle ambient effect… which can’t be what Keegan has in mind. I suppose in the end the fault here is just wishy-washy architectural writing. If you are going to write about a building in an architecture magazine, you need to go beyond gee-whiz details, banal quotes from the architect, and clever wordplay for your title. You need to figure out in what way the building is good architecture, and then present it in that way.

One positive — the article ends with the project’s LEED checklist (a listing of green accreditation points that the project matches). This list is interesting as a specimen (here at least is some true transparency on the part of the magazine editors), AND perfectly supports the bald tone of the article. What could be more transparent than a checklist? Besides, with LEED certification, you (the expert) can bill more per hour. No wonder the building industry doesn’t want you (the client) to be aware of sustainable technology.

6 comments to Green Technology, Transparency, Aesthetics, and architecture criticism

  • Hear, hear.

    My question would be — is transparency an end in itself, or merely the avoidance of lying (=schlock)? Should architecture merely mirror the image of man in the modern world, or should it try and shape that image?

    I would suggest the latter. Otherwise, God forbid –

    a) we end up quibbling about what “modern man” is ad infinitum;
    b) things age and get left behind – become “so 60′s” etc.
    c) we end up in a logical spiral where the thing is what it is because it is what it is.

    So !

  • I’ve just been looking at the pictures of the farm project and, totally apart from the Grand Question above, doesn’t the thing strike you as a bit on the, ah, boxy side? (Is “boxy” a recognised critical term in architecture these days?)

    I mean, in terms of contours etc., the building doesn’t seem to me to sit very well in its landscape. Farms (and farm buildings) seem to me to be either rounded in some way or other (silos, barns) or sort of thrown-together-looking (with endless dormer windows etc.). I don’t associate the farm environment with long square tubes . . . And what about the animals? Shouldn’t there be some random crap lying around, piles of gas-soaked rags that could spontaneously combust, open wire, etc.?

  • George

    As usual, I can’t quite tell whether you’re mocking the project or my criticism of it! But your point about whether architecture should mirror or shape the image of man is certainly worth pondering. If we chose to shape, though, we still then need to chose what is an appropriate way to do so, and in what direction we want to push mankind.

    In the end, architecture isn’t really able to ‘program’ its inhabitants to any serious degree, but it can push at various boundaries related to habit, comfort, self-identification, group identification, and large public themes like environmentalism. So every thoughtful architect tries to use his work to ‘shape’ the general culture in that direction — I say ‘culture’ because it is rare that buildings are targeted at one specific person’s point of view. A private house will still really be ‘about’ much larger and more diffuse issues than the mindset of the inhabitant himself.

    The other tricky thing with architecture these days, which a magazine like Architect seems to be taking head-on, is the checklisting of all aspects of the profession thanks to the efficiencies of industrial production. Choices are made way up the supply chain and the individual architect can’t help but use certain products that will save the client X amount of money. In other words, the tidal wave of technological change is rippling through architecture as anywhere else, and architects need to be very careful to be able to surf on it. We need to constantly identify technologies that allow productive (for thought, etc.) differentiation from the norm, rather than the ones that reduce choices to decisions based solely on the optimization of industrial production.

    I’m probably babbling, sorry — my brain is fried from Go.

  • jd

    My initial reaction to the article’s title, “Transparent Technologies”: how unfortunate that term ‘transparent.’ I guess that we could hope that this was meant to problematize the condition of technology – transparent = not concealed vs. transparent = invisible. Unfortunately, this reading seems to be confirmed solely by the (assumably inadvertent) contradictions that George rails against. Regardless, and at the risk of beginning to sound like a broken record, what’s at issue here seems to be an epistemological problem, i.e., what can be ‘known’ through architecture in relation to the various performances of an architecture.

    It is a common trope in the history of architectural theory to index ‘truth’ or ‘honesty’ via degrees of alignment between sets of terms such as ‘form and function,’ or ‘truth to/in materials’, themselves conceptualizations, and hence generalizations, of what are specific conditions within individual projects. Projects bent on maximizing these ‘unifications’ tend to wind up following Claude Perrault’s axiom ‘the appearance of the truth is more important than the truth itself.’ The attention paid merely results in a clearer perception of the layering of ‘appearance’ on to ‘performance,’ opening up disjunctions left and right.

    I’ve recently had cause to review some architectural history, and at one point I found myself leafing through “Towards a New Architecture.” The radical differences between the industrial and information revolutions immediately gained a new clarity. LeCorbusier had at his disposal innumerable ready-made architectures which were clearly bound to the altered material and informational realities of the early twentieth century. What are the analogs today? The form, and especially the scale of technologies today means that they exist further and further below an ‘architectural’ threshold. Whether virtual- or nano-, the technologies of the near future will leave both architectural scale and material alone.

    We could do as Bill Mitchell suggested in “City of Bits,” and has subsequently done himself: leave the traditional realm of architecture altogether in favor of structuring ‘virtual’ environments. There is a certain reasonableness to this – if we have agoras today, are they not chat rooms? If architecture is mediation between human activity and the media (used very broadly) in or through which that activity occurs, maybe the action is in the ‘ether.’

    The de-coupling of performance and appearance in the physical world is not total, as George points out vis-à-vis the retaining ponds, etc, of the Kresge Foundation. Even here, though, is the utility of the pond being conveyed by its mere presence? There is to my mind a greater issue to be dealt with, the category of the aesthetic, which brings us to Jack’s comment about the ‘boxiness’ of the architecture.

    Although I generally disagree with Rudolf Arnheim, I do value his basic assertion; from the standpoint of the individual human’s cognitive psychology, appearance matters. To put it another way, appearance constitutes a flow of information which the individual integrates into her experience. So the ‘boxy’ question is, to my way of thinking, a bit off the mark. It’s not so much a question of a generalized formal vocabulary (which would be a ‘style’), but rather the specific qualities that the material/spatial formation evokes/embodies.

    One final point: there is among architects a strong streak of didacticism; the building should help the occupant ‘come to grips’ with one thing or another. Now here, admittedly, I find myself on very shaky ground. If an architectural configuration of material and space always/already participates in the construction of the individual’s perception of self in relation to other, is didacticism simply another way of saying that the architect is aware of how the project functions in this capacity? I tend to think that there is rather a fine edge here, at least it seems fine to me at the moment, between the creation of a subject-machine, an enjoining interface, and an a-subjective condition which engenders the creative practice of daily living:

    “So far as the best art defines itself by essentially “priestly” aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity that is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear – and then sent away.”

    Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence

  • George

    Thanks for your comments Jeff! I love the quote from Sontag.

    I haven’t read “City of Bits”, but I probably agree with a lot of it. I think architects should be engaging software environments and ‘interfaces’ as much as they can.

    I think architecture has always been about defining spaces and their boundaries in terms that are fundamentally political (well — about human communications… between one person and other people, between one person and himself, between one person and his environment). Sure, there are other aspects to the profession (e.g. the channel between the environment and itself…), but the historical output of architects is easiest to distinguish from that of other designers by its political intent. Well, certain weapon/industrial design might challenge this — but I think ‘intent’ is involved differently there.

    Perhaps that isn’t reason enough for architects to get into the virtual and to focus on ‘multimedia’; there may be other, new fields of design that can look after this. Given the output thus far of such designers as there are in digital media, however, I am constantly re-affirmed in my belief that architects have a lot to offer this field. Not that there isn’t great digital media design out there, but it tends towards the overly playful, overly escapist, overly fetishistic and product-focused, in my opinion. The vast potential for ‘emergence’ of new technological mutations out of any particular interface design, for instance, produces a “let’s just try it and see what happens” mentality that, while essential on some levels, gives up the notion of ‘trying to shape the image of man in the modern world’, as Jack put it.

    I think the vast, seemingly exhausted but in fact resilient metaphor of ‘space’ can extend it’s floppy tentacles into the virtual in far more intelligent ways than it has thus far. Along with it will come notions of ‘degree of publicness’ (*surely* there is a better word than this out there in the vast potential of English diction), and, of course, time. Architects have spent the last few thousand years nurturing a rich discourse on just these topics. They should not shy away from the radical new scales to which they find the need to apply these trusty modes of thought. Yes, a community may form around an hour’s research and dissipate thereafter, the space of two people conversing may span the globe, a ‘window’ may show every streetcorner in London simultaneously, an individual may leave traces of himself on a million computers, etc.

    Here a small boy says “what, space AND time?” To which we reply, “yes child, but not all at once!”

  • George

    This strange rant on Wired by Bruce Sterling about where video is going as a medium and artform gets into aesthetics and what I just described as ‘radical new scales’ of space and time. An annoying read because he was (I think intentionally) channeling a 13-year-old V-blogger as he wrote it.

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