Leftist leanings

Thursday’s shoot-out/debate between Jeff Kipnis and our own Bob Somol brought an interesting follow-up to my rant about the superficiality of the vision of architecture advanced at UIC. Both of the supposed duelists stood on the side of architecture’s political engagement through form, rather than the “leftist” and “functional” attitude of trying to change people’s lives through the built environment. Since both they and I see a political role for architecture, I had to think why I find their attitude dissatisfying and superficial.

The easiest way to explain this is to compare these to the way various political organizations engage in politics. I think that the Kipnis/Somol is most like that of a Washington lobbyist – lots of hot air, wheeling and dealing, pressuring politicians with public relations and publicity stunts, but with the sole aim of advancing the power base of a small group of interested parties (here their brand of architect and architectural critic) to allow them to engage in more hot-air blowing and political lobbying, since that’s the only thing they’re interested in. What I envision is more of an architectural Greenpeace (though not as an institution, but an approach) – where the public fireworks are aimed at a specific social/environmental agenda and aren’t simply an end in themselves.

Despite the Kipnis/Somol rhetoric, the underlying seriousness of this attitude doesn’t mean that it has to end up with the stuffy guidelines of a New Urbanism. The idea is for the work to think more about how it affects people’s experiences, both aesthetically and functionally, instead of leaning lopsidedly only towards the visual. In the end it’s about recognizing the fact that architecture is an an art that should not be compared to sculpture, as it often is, but rather to other applied arts that have to take practical considerations into account to maintain their very identity. You can’t seriously call yourself an architect if you design only the formal fireworks of mega-scale sculptures.

Dig deeper

I’m beginning to understand why I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye with most of the UIC faculty – they’re mainly concerned with finding new forms and new ways of generating form, while I’m interested more in the social engineering side of architecture.
This really came to the forefront at yesterday’s debate between Paul Preissner and Alex Lehnerer, in which they covered a variety of subjects, which all, however, revolved around form. Intrigued by the one-dimensionality of the discussion, I asked Paul (I don’t know that much about Alex’s work, but judging by what he said he’s as much of a formalist as Paul is) what he proposed to present to the new audiences he created with his slick and often beautiful forms. The gist of his answer was “nothing” – he has no ambitions for his architecture beyond the purely formal. None.
That’s more or less what I suspected, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment. The school purports to be innovative, but it’s still stuck in the Peter Eisenman mode of architectural autonomy of the 1960s. Architecture for architecture’s sake. Frankly, I find that pretty boring.
For me the promise of great architecture is the creation of a better world. That means architecture that doesn’t limit itself to museums, theaters and rich people’s houses. If it is to have any relevance in the future beyond providing eye candy for architecture fans, it has to deal with the street, with the city, and with the everyday environment. It has to face current issues, with environmental concerns chief among them. Without a deeper substance beyond the flashy facades, it cannot hope to stir a deeper interest, to keep the new audiences its bold forms may be gathering, and it certainly will not have a very significant place in history once the novelty wears off.