arch-peace editorials

01 November 2010

Architectural education and the shared space: Agrado’s city

The city, where culture and the society’s realities are expressed, is described by Lewis Mumford in the following terms:

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. [1]
At the two extremes, I have been to magnificent cities of rather plain architecture and also visited mediocre cities with impressive pieces of architecture—pieces that do not contribute to give the city a coherent rhythm and which instead fight for attention. I was eager to travel to London and see with my own eyes those buildings that I had only seen in photographs, for instance Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building or Norman Foster’s Gherkin—prominent buildings that define the skyline and that, from afar, stand as a promise of a good city. Yet, when in close proximity the enchantment vanishes to expose the real self, a meagre and greedy architectural stance that interiorises anything that may be good about its architecture.

Figure 1 - One of the entries to Richard Rogers' Lloyds building. Photograph by author.

Because of this approach (which is not the making of architecture alone) [2] and under the buildings’ colossal shadow, they create a poor urban experience—perhaps reflective of our contemporary society. Where is the concern for the city and the public (those for whom the significance of those buildings is lost as they may not be the occupiers or may not have shares in the businesses that these buildings house)? It is not buildings or houses that are the elemental units to cities, continued Lewis Mumford,
...the elemental unit is the city, because it is only in terms of this more complex social formation that any particular type of activity or building has significance (…) the aim is the adequate dramatization of communal life: the widening of the domain of human significance so that, ultimately, no act, no routine, no gesture will be devoid of human value, or will fail to contribute to the reciprocal support of citizen and community.[3]

Figure 2 - Entry level to Norman Foster's Gherkin building. An ordinary interface between a massive “sculpture” and the ground—cold, lacking imagination and devoid of human appeal – an edge which could well house a supermarket of a parking lot. Photograph by author.

In an interview with Professor Hans Haenlein in London, I recollect him reaching for his pen and paper, and as he drew a pyramid placing the city at the top, he described two models in architectural education, Napoleonic (or European) and Anglophone. Both models, according to him, had something in common, “this is what the disciplines are concerned with, the city”, he stated. [4]

I thought this was beautiful, the drawing and the explanation, almost lyrical—the reason is that I had seldom heard anyone describing to me, with such clarity, the purpose of our work. Whether this is London’s vision, or Prof Haenlein’s own view of our role was not yet important. His statement made my own search a bit clearer. I am looking for that shared space, in which we all agree that the city is our objective, not architecture per se, or planning, or traffic management, none of those, but the city, as a mirror in which society’s intentions are reflected—and those of our professionals in the shaping of those intentions.

If the city is the objective, architectural education could be approached in terms of how it enables its professionals to understand their professional role in the context of the city and by exercising their expertise and knowledge with a public-spirited approach in mind.[5] However, a contemporary demise of the public is working against that view of the city and, as claimed by David Milne, is evident where...

Even a casual glimpse at the skylines of our cities shows how thoroughly stately and religious edifices are now dwarfed by the gleaming structures of the modern corporate capitalist elite. [6]

Architecture has always been political, argues Milne. However, in the contemporary world, politics has been displaced from the public realm and this has resulted in an impoverishment of the idea of politics, publicness (people, community and the public good) and with that the deterioration of the idea of architecture and its wider concerns.[7] The Lloyds and Gherkin buildings reflect that impoverishment, a clear cut between the interior and the public space—their significance is no longer the ‘public’.

Yet, could our education enable us to achieve a vision of a public-spirited city? How apt are we to discuss that vision, to make the city closer to that image? An image that changes with the demographics of the city, with climatic changes, ideas, technology and changing needs; the city, the space for cross-disciplinary collaboration, collective creativity, inclusive planning, conviviality and critique, of physical and intellectual dynamism.

Thinking of the city as the objective, Almodovar’s brilliant film, All About My Mother comes to mind. In this film, Agrado, a transvestite and aspiring actor, boldly and warmly tells her audience of the fortune she has spent in cosmetic surgery. "You are more authentic the more you resemble what you have dreamed of being,”[8] says Agrado as she describes and lists in detail the most important interventions in her body, including her breasts (right and left). She states that she is now more authentic, because she is closer to the image she had of herself. “It costs a lot to be authentic,” she concludes.[9]

Like Agrado’s image of herself, the image of the city is not static. Her image was in conflict with society, with her body, with other people’s image of her. The conflict she resolved, her admission, innate honesty and learning gave her the confidence to present herself and convincingly educate us about her progress.

Freezing a city by excluding the conflicting visions, by continually reiterating the same paths, by lack of generosity and in fear of realising its aspirations reveals the end of its authenticity. A patchwork of frozen images, as taken from glossy magazines, may intoxicate us with its glitter for a while, but it will not satisfy the soul of the city. The vibrancy we all like to talk about is not authentic unless it is a constantly improving image of what it wants to become, generous and inclusive of all conflicting aspirations. It is easier to freeze that aspiration so as not to have disruption, dissent and discussion, but what would have become of Agrado if she had not followed that dream? Most definitely, she would not have been addressing her audience.

Agrado represents to me the city, in need of a shared vision, of tension, discussion, in search of its authenticity, always a few steps behind its own dream. It needs intervention and surgery, always in need of reason and logical reflection, but also care and poetry. It is fabricated, worked upon, never reaching its completion. It is the space, the body that connects us, as citizens and as designers, to our ideal.

[1] Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (London: Secker & Warburg, 1938; reprint, 1946), 480.
[2] John Clarke claims that neo-liberalist ideologies have redefined the notion of the public realm to serve private interests and the rule of the market. John Clarke, "Dissolving the Public Realm? The Logics and Limits of Neo-liberalism," Journal of Social Policy 33, no. 01 (2004).
[3] Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 484.
[4] Interview with Professor Hans Haenlein, London UK, February 16, 2007.
[5] To John Dewey, education is concerned with morality and bringing about better society. Dewey, Democracy and Education, 95.
[6] Milne, "Architecture, Politics and the Public Realm," 139.. See also Van Schaik, "Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture."
[7] Milne, "Architecture, Politics and the Public Realm."
[8] Pedro Almodóvar, "Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother)." (Spain: Sony Pictures Classics 1999).
[9] Ibid. The name of Almodóvar’s character, Agrado, is an old Spanish name and a word that means pleasure, liking, agreeable.

Beatriz C. Maturana
Architects for Peace, October 2010


louissauer said...

I wonder how your emphasis on 'image', both at the individual and city scales in this reflection and writing, squares with your criticism of Australian contemporary architectural education's insistence on the appearances of form rather than focusing on the day-to-day realities of life and in architecture's production.

Beatriz Maturana said...

In response to your question Lou, I have built from what is evident to many; this is that architecture has a problem trying to prove its relevance to society. Some would ask why it matters and why should architects care about being relevant to society, after all architecture is an "art", and as such, aloof and reserved to those who can afford it. However, many (according to architectural literature and media) are concerned by architects’ lack of engagement with societal issues and complain that architecture and architects are not taken seriously. Many also complain that architects are not invited to take part in discussions affecting society in general and the city (for instance Melbourne 2030). It is here where it is important to reflect on what we are doing that make us (architects) and our work dispensable in the eyes of the public.

When I began my research on architectural education—more specifically, the design studio—I suspected that a lack of regard for the city was partly the reason for our disconnection with society. Further into the research I found out that our disconnection is even more fundamental—it is a disconnection with reality, not a philosophical reality, but a social/political reality—where disengagement with the city is just one important symptom. When lacking engagement with reality, an emphasis on imagery (imagination), “creativity” that does not respond to real issues or needs and proposals that have no measurable or testable outcomes become the basis of architectural education in the design studio.

Sorry it took me this long to respond to your question (good question), I just noticed your comment.

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