Architecture is not the place to work through our collective guilt. Leave that to the poets and artists, says Leon Krier
Let’s imagine that Antoni Gaudi had not just designed the Casa Mila but the entire urban block of which the building forms a corner. If that doesn’t do it, assume that he designed every single block of Barcelona central and suburban, including all churches, schools, villas, factories, railway stations, airports, bridges and parks and, keeping the momentum, every single town and village of Catalonia, of Spain, of continental Europe, of the entire world, including the furnishings, tools and vehicles therein, private and public.
If you don’t shudder at the thought, replace the Catalan “master” by any of the recognised “modern masters”, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Gropius, the current star architects and weigh the consequences.
Change of scene.
Viewed from a certain distance and under good light, an ugly, dysfunctional city may appear like a promised land. I had this experience overflying at high altitude Novosibirsk, the desolate capital of Siberia, the sun rising over a frozen urban abstraction, a Soviet version of the Charter of Athens.
It is common knowledge that the atomic mushroom, rising over Hiroshima, was a revelation of immense beauty for American bomber pilots. It follows that, by holding the appropriate distance, a cruel spectacle can be appreciated, independently of its moral implications. Observing pointedly portrayed human suffering in plays and films we experience aesthetic pleasure. In literature, distance and detachment allow us to appreciate tragedy.
In architecture no valid aesthetic experience can exist without proximity, without the closeness to masses and details, without our experiencing the constructed artefact from without and from within. The intimacy of the inhabitant with his home, of the citizen with the city has to exclude all dominance of the tragic and the catastrophic from architecture and urban design. While this may appear self-evident, there is today a tendency in design that confuses literature and architecture. By means of unbalanced and disruptive plastic violence, arbitrarily reducing innovation to form rupture, this trend professes to express the tragedy of our times through architecture.
For its champions, the memory of the unprecedented Holocaust crime must impregnate all architectural design and, as a consequence, architecture must be in mourning and revolt. In my opinion, this attitude is understandable but unsustainable for, if the proposition were true, it would not merely concern architecture but would have to deconstruct all artistic and technical cultures, languages, object design, industry, agriculture, education, services etc.
We are dealing with an absurd mind-set that confuses the objective and the subjective, the means and ends of culture, technology and morality, or more simply of memory and remembrance, mixing up conscience and emotion.
It fails consequently to grasp the diverging means of literature and architecture. It confuses the roles of the reader-spectator and the actor-inhabitant. We cannot inhabit tragedy without being overwhelmed by pain, and we cannot be passive witnesses of architecture that aggresses and horrifies us.
Franco Purini, proposing a 1000m long and 500m high slab building for central Rome pontificates that “L’architettura deve far’ male” – “architecture must hurt”. Hurt who and why is the question, especially when the architect lives, works and teaches in a beautiful quarter of the capital.
For architectural design, memory is neither moral precept nor obligation; it is not an archive of deadly testimony; it is on the contrary an instrument of knowledge and know-how; it represents an inexhaustible inventory of practical and aesthetic solutions and techniques that respond to the recurring problems of building structures and places; it is the treasure house of the art of building.