In America, it’s fairly easy to trace our cultural evolution. If we consider the American Civilization as an abstract machine, or a mode of production, we can trace it at least as far back as the founding of the first British colonies in the New World. As evidenced by competitive colonization and the fierce naval arms races between European nations and companies, capitalism on a global scale was already extant when the British founded their first American colony. The vast “wilderness” of North America provided a stage where capitalism could develop at the micro scale, relatively unhindered.
At first, American capitalism was agrarian, and not noticeably different from western Europe, but when unique conditions in Britain allowed the seeds of the industrial revolution to precipitate, a positive feedback loop was formed: Britain and America developed innovations that led to new technologies, the new technologies sped innovation, which led to new technologies… America and Britain secured a constantly accelerating technological advantage, followed by western Europe.
This technological lag had repercussions in the arts. Art Nouveau followed in the footsteps of the English Arts & Crafts movement and self-consciously reflected on the role of industrial production in the creation of utilitarian objects. Whether the practicioners of Art Nouveau embraced or abhorred the intrusion of mass-production into their craft, the forms of the movement were undoubtedly influenced by the sophistication of the technology. In France and Belgium, advancements in metallurgy allowed beautiful free-flowing ironwork, while countries such as Spain and Portugal, further from the epicenter of the revolution, lacked the complex supply chain and production technology. This is clearly evidenced by comparing the work of Gaudi to his contemporaries in France and Belgium.
Guimard and Horta had access to technology that allowed the wrought iron’s tensile strength to be expressed through complex vegetal forms. Gaudi was limited to stone and traditional Catalan brickwork techniques, due to the constricted flow of materials and methods from the heart of the continent down the Iberian peninsula. Spain and Portugal lacked the infastructure necessary for the rapid transmission of ideas. Of course, this disconnect may have been beneficial. Gaudi was forced to use the materials and techniques available and he forged a unique style. The biomorphism of Art Nouveau was expressed through the compressive properties of stone, rather than the tensile properties of iron, leading to stunning, skeletal forms.
This cultural and technological lag-time allowed Iberian modernism to evolve along a slightly different route than the International School. In a cursory examination of Alvaro Siza, we found a European high-modernist still working in the 1990s. We found work some would discount as dated, stoic and unchanging. I found Siza’s architecture fascinating. While Siza worked in the same formal language as the early modernists, his work seems much more connected to the sites, to nature, and to the possible effects of natural light and ventilation, attitudes which may have been innate, but may have been selectively learned from the failures of modernism. While whitewashed forms may be his trademark, these attitudes are best found in the tea house and swimming pool, in LeÃ§a da Palmeira, Portugal.
[siza - tea house]
It seems the Portuguese especially may have benefited from the cultural time-gap I suggest. Like Siza, the Portuguese culture seems to have been exposed to the modern world, seen its successes and failures, and picked only the winners. In Porto (pictured at top), the streetscape was comprised of clotheslines and light rail lines. The roofs were traditional red tile, but dotted with satellite dishes. Clean electric trains ran over manicured grass one minute, over a 100-year old Eiffel bridge the next.
Port wine and WiFi.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the open source software movement, and stirred by the idea that a group of volunteer collaborators, spread over both space and time, were able to build software packages and operating systems that rival their corporate counterparts in usability and security, not to mention end cost to the user (free).
There have been volumes written on the open source movement’s philosophy. The model is far too complex to cover here, as one could easily draw in many themes for discussion: collective intelligence, emergent properties of complex systems, network theory, psychology, etc, etc. What I find most interesting about the phenomenon is how each project is defined by a relatively simple structure, yet yields a very complex, yet coherent, result. I posit that many various projects are defined by the same underlying structure — let’s say: an abstract machine. By this, I mean two products as different as Wikipedia and the Apache web server are essentially the end-results of the same development process. Could that process be applied to architecture?
Naturally, the “open source machine” would not mesh well with “starchitecture”, as no one individual would deserve the credit, and in today’s business environment, no building meant to be even remotely iconic would benefit from this kind of model. No, I think where this model could be best applied is to the opposite end of the spectrum: low-cost houses, gas stations, big-box stores, hospitals, prisons, schools. Things Architects (capital A) don’t want to touch.
Say you’re a middle-class family, and you’ve decided to build a house in the suburbs. You’ve decided you don’t want a development McMansion, you want something unique, but you can’t afford an architect for the design. You buy a plan out of a book, make a few changes, get it code approved and hand it off to the contractor. Someone with a little skill could even draw up their own plans. As long as it meets code, no architects need be involved. But instead of picking plans out of a book, why not pick plans from a website, where architects and architecture students have collaborated on designs for cheap, unique, energy-efficient suburban housing, and made the plans available online for free?
The benefits of this method mirror the benefits of open source software. The designers are proud to see something they worked on come to fruition, can include the built project in their portfolio, and the end user gets something unique and, perhaps, better, than the corporate alternative. If these “open source” houses become popular enough, it could drive big developers to better design practice, much as competition from Linux has driven Microsoft and Apple to implement better security features, and as Firefox has pushed Microsoft to redesign Internet Explorer for enhanced usability. If open source practices force big developers to reconsider their designs, the entire industry stands to benefit.
Technologically, I think we’re almost there… combining programs like Revit with a simple CVS system and a Wiki would allow this kind of collaboration. It would not be that different from a software development team.
More on this later…
Anyone seeking a truly immersive, authentic introduction to a unfamiliar local culture would be well-advised to follow the example set by my transatlantic companions and I shortly after arriving in Lisbon:
After checking into our hotel and trudging up an out-of-service funicular track, we found a local bar, ordered a round of 1Â?€ bottles of Super Bock, and prepared for a night of karaoke in Portuguese.
Maybe it was the Super Bock, or maybe it was jet-lag, but when a classmate suggested that frequenting karaoke bars might be the best way to learn a foreign language, I was amazed at the sheer brilliance of the notion.
It’s widely held that immersion is the most effective way to learn a language, due to the complex barrage of audiovisual stimulus. While traveling abroad, it becomes obvious that to communicate effectively in a language, you don’t need to know how to conjugate every verb tense, you don’t even have to form proper sentences. If you can approximate ad-copy, you should be able to get by. With a long enough period of immersion, the subtleties of grammar and pronunciation will no doubt become second nature. This theory has driven the software package Rosetta Stone to worldwide popularity.
The program is not dissimilar from watching a round of karaoke. A sentence or phrase is displayed onscreen, and a voice reads the sentence aloud. You then pick the photograph the phrase best describes from four possible choices.
Expect more on this topic, as I continue my research, and begin drafting up a grant proposal for “Language Learning via Karaoke Abroad.”
[Port Columbus International Airport]
Earlier this summer I participated in a half-semester bus trip through western Europe. The trip covered major sites in five countries: Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
I’d seen Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and Brussels in late 2001 while studying abroad in Brighton, UK (making good use of the Europe’s amazing low-cost airlines), but I had never ventured outside the major metropolitan areas, and I had yet to travel Spain or Portugal. While the idea of five weeks on a bus with 40 other students was not immediately appealing, the prospect of a guided architectural tour outweighed any concerns I had about privacy or personality conflicts. Thanks to the research each student did in preparation, and due to the instructor’s years of experience, the academic program was top-notch.
Over the next few days, I’ll sum up my experience in each country, and try to draw some conclusions from the trip as a whole.
[Edit: Or, I won't!]
I realize that this blog will never be widely read. I won’t become rich or famous. The ads you see above will never make me any money (but, it doesn’t hurt to try). No, this blog is not for the public: it’s a personal exercise.
About a year ago, I started a three-year graduate program at the Knowlton School of Architecture, at Ohio State University. This followed roughly two years of what could only be described as “down-time,” and marked a radical shift in the level of discourse I encountered on a daily basis. After four years of mechanical engineering coursework and two years of unstimulating work, I was thrilled to be in a situation where reading and writing were once again part of the “grind,” where I’d be encouraged to hone my linguistic skills. In part, this blog is an extension of that initial elation. I realize that the only way to develop as a writer is by actually writing, and while architecture school provides more opportunity than, say, an AutoCAD drafting job, if I truly want to stay on top of my game, I have to participate in some extracurricular training.
Of course, if this excercise were merely technical, it would be boring as hell. I hope this blog will serve as a creative outlet where I can develop ideas. School projects seem to always require a narrative. It takes work to develop something that doesn’t sound like an art-school cliche, and it takes substantial work to develop something honest and believable, and to be able to talk and write about it with confidence. This blog is not a sounding board, it’s a dress rehersal.
So, why not simply keep a personal journal? The act of publishing brings the potential reader, and with that potential I’m subconsciously committed to a certain level of quality and professionalism. I hope with time I can begin to draw that level higher and higher, regardless of whether there’s anyone but myself to appreciate it.