On Escaping

Architecture is the inescapable art, writes Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin. In his essay explaining why he takes his role so seriously—to help Chicago get stuck with better (inescapable) buildings than it otherwise might—Kamin reveals an awkward quality of the urban built environment: It lags the conditions that generate it by decades. Briefly fashionable architectural styles like art deco continue to define entire districts of American cities a full century after construction. Buildings can’t adapt to the world with a speed anywhere near that of other more agile disciplines.

In a world eaten by software, it’s surprising that anyone tolerates the glacial pace by which buildings respond to our needs. At the same time, it’s not surprising, because we have no choice—architecture wouldn’t be the inescapable art if it offered the option of not tolerating it—and because throughout history we’ve solved most problems at that same slow speed. As a form of technology, buildings’ problems still belong to the substantial universe of problems that can’t be solved with a software update.

Buildings move too slowly at every stage: they arrive late to the party and then overstay their welcome. The informal settlements that flourish on the fringes of every economic boom and in the center of every rapidly urbanizing country, from North Dakota to Nigeria, are examples of the former: Real estate markets can’t keep pace when growth exceeds a certain rate. The Rust Belt’s shrinking cities are cases of the latter, where the population and built environment outlast the economic raison d’etre of cities and regions by generations. China, trying to short circuit these limitations by overbuilding new urban districts during a seemingly eternal boom phase, failed more interestingly, proving the aforementioned rule with the resultant ghost cities (or “unborn” cities) found throughout the country.

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Maybe buildings move at the perfect speed, on the other hand, and save us from ourselves by not giving us what we want exactly when we want it. Like Congress as Jefferson imagined it, buildings stolidly filter our hysterical whims and produce a tamer version of them that we can actually live with. At a moment when instant gratification and generalized control over nearly everything continues to accelerate, when the laws of nature constrain less and less of experienced reality, we have at least one domain that refuses to dance to our flippant finger-tapped commands, that refuses to be hacked. Marc Augé describes how monuments humble the urban dweller and calibrate his perspective by reminding him that “they pre-existed him and will survive him.” Few of today’s most widely-used products provide such a reminder. The traditionally limited fields of social interaction, money, and information are increasingly dematerialized and escapable, but buildings still aren’t.

As a palimpsest bearing the imprints of bygone eras, the built environment offers an excellent record of static conditions over time, but little indication of the rates at which that environment is changing or the agents of that change. In Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House, he argues that bacteria, not humans, are the clearest case of evolutionary success by almost any criterion: ubiquity, quantity, durability, variety. Humans split the atom and produced The Sopranos, yes, but bacteria win in all the measurable categories. Gould goes on to suggest that complexity, where humans have the edge on bacteria, is an evolutionary disadvantage, and that from the broad perspective humans look more like a random accident while bacteria seem like “what evolution wants,” as numerous branches of genealogical history yield that result.

Gould presents success (in the evolutionary sense) as proliferation, abundance, and diversification. Success is specifically not a single outcome that the observer defines and then observes. The world is producing throngs of humans right now, but far more bacteria, as it always has. A broader perspective reveals that humans might currently be enjoying an impossibly brief lifespan, past its point of inflection and both preceded and succeeded by hordes of invisible organisms; that bacteria, not humans, are flourishing.

In surveying our contemporary environment, we can avoid the same fallacy that Gould diagnoses. The present is best understood by what we’re making more of, not what we’ve already built, although we will have to contend with plenty of both. This is where buildings, as the inescapable art, lead us astray: They tell us plenty about the past, but nothing about the future, except that many of them will be around for a while. In fact, the built environment misinforms us about the future through the lie that because it exists, it represents a force currently at work.

Keller Easterling calls those unseen forces shaping the future “spatial software.” Unlike the already-built—the hardware—this software is a better arena for architectural intervention, she argues, to anyone interested in affecting or improving the human environment. As the software of life is generating bacteria invisibly, the software of space is generating gated suburbs, golf courses, and free trade zones outside the purview of those who traditionally think about urban space. The built environment that most of us inhabit would de-emphasize the role of these phenomena, but the encoded rules generating the future environment, if they were monumental buildings, would make a much stronger impression on our sense of where we’re headed.

We need to understand the software producing the space of tomorrow because it’s what we can actually control, and what is actively generating the cumbersome sunk costs that might surround us for the rest of our lives. Winston Churchill said that we shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us. With this in mind, we need to decide what we’re currently creating that we shouldn’t be, what we need to be making more of than we currently are, and what we’ve inherited from the past that we should preserve. Much of the environment we’re freely and even casually shaping now will soon become a brick-and-mortar reality that, if executed poorly, will feel surprisingly inescapable as it continues shaping us.


2 Comments on “On Escaping”

  1. mtraven says:

    Are you familiar with Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn and the shearing layer model of change? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shearing_layers

    • kneelingbus says:

      I’ve actually had that book on my desk for the last month, I’m going to finally start reading it soon. Been meaning to forever. This is a useful concept – I guessed before writing this post that How Buildings Learn would contain some stuff that I’d later wish I had incorporated.


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