While in Europe this summer, I realized that I don’t really care about buildings. This may sound odd, from an architecture student. I’ll try to explain.
It’s certainly possible to conceive of architecture as an art – as the creation of objects. As such, one could discuss architecture as one discusses sculpture or painting, or photography. In this mindset, architectural theory merges with art theory, and questions of habitation fall away. In Europe, our grocery-list approach seemed to reinforce an artistic definition of architecture. Buildings were considered primarily as objects to be studied. Occupation was secondary. A strictly visual reading can be extended to the other senses, and a tactile, auditory – say, phenomenological? – conception of architecture can emerge. This is all important, as concerns with the physical properties of a space are obviously of great import in architectural design, and the field of design in general is and should be concerned with the beauty and utility of objects and spaces. However, I feel that design concerned only with aesthetics is somewhat irresponsible.
Of course, many concerned designers are attempting a more responsible design method. Sustainable design is gradually entering the collective consciousness, and receiving mainstream attention. Obviously, energy conservation, reduction of toxins, improved environmental quality, etc are all important, but most “sustainable” projects consider these as goals to be checked-off, and the buildings remain firmly in the realm of engineers and code-writers. A quick read through the USGBC’s LEED 2.2 Rating System would bore even the most dedicated environmentalist, not to mention the artistically-minded designer. As such, most “green” buildings are ugly as hell.
I think the problem may be this: even sustainably-designed buildings are considered as discrete objects. They are often equipped with intricate sensing mechanisms, and the flow of energy through the building envelope is carefully measured and recorded. To prove the benefits of a sustainably-designed project, the energy flow must necessarily be controlled. The sustainably designed building envelope is in reality as rigidly defined as an air-conditioned office block. It is still a closed system.
Yesterday, my studio class visited Oberlin, Ohio, where we toured one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s later Usonian houses. Built in the 40s, these houses were decades ahead of their time, and could be considered the prototypical “sustainable” dwelling (at least, discounting primitive huts). The floors are radiant concrete slabs, the windows are oriented to maximize solar gain in winter, and minimize it in summer. The windows and ceiling heights are designed to encourage natural ventilation. The wood walls are constructed in a way that provided superior insulation for the time. These houses were not designed specifically to be “sustainable” or “green” – they were simply designed to be “good.”
The Usonian houses have an ill-defined building envelope. The building is a kind of mediator of flows: the wind is not blocked out entirely, it is directed through the house, and out. The sun is not blocked completely by shades, it is allowed in in moderation. The house is not a discrete object, opposed to natural systems, it is a confluence and attenuation of natural phenomena. In this way, the building is an open system. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but it looks good, too.
So, to get back to my original statement, I’m infinitely more interested in how buildings can be used to mediate natural phenomena – to be participants in ecologies and economies – than I am in the mere formal aspects of architecture.