Saturday, July 24, 2010

Preamble through the Bramble

Why Architecture?
Reconciling the Pursuit of Aesthetic Value with Architecture's Economic Needs
(a tour de force of stating the obvious in a rambling incoherent fashion)

I was reading "Forgotten Philadelphia", a book about demolished Philly buildings, and sometimes it seems a shame that a building had to go. Why? Sure, it could be looked from the material might end -- lamenting that Philly now lacks the money, muscle and bustle to support a certain structure -- but I think what's more compelling is when the building in question has an aesthetic appeal and now that thing is gone.

How are buildings born?
How do they live?
How do they die?

Buildings are built and maintained through massive amounts of labor and materials. In our capitalist society, that translates to money -- gigantic sums of money which the building eats as its regular diet. Are there alternate ways to acquire labor and materials? People sometimes donate labor or materials for a place of worship; where there is no social safeguard labor and materials can be acquired through force; and I don't really understand the mechanisms of communism... but whatever the means -- as far as what's being discussed here (buildings), arguably any resource is never too distant an analog for money.

It seems crass and disappointing that the birth and survival (construction and maintenance) of aesthetic edifices is completely dependent on huge streams of money. But maybe if we break it down, this financial tether of reality has positive aspects.

Where do buildings get money to eat?

Use. That's yoose, not yooze; noun, not verb. The building has to generate money. There are many ways a building can be used to generate money -- for starters, residential (people pay to live in it), commercial (people buy things in it) and office space (people move money around in it, or handle the logistics of companies that make money elsewhere).

Government buildings don't directly make money, but handle the logistics of an organization that lives on tax money and presumably needs to provide some services to keep from losing its tax base. Custom residences don't need to generate money until sale (which may not be intended to happen until after the commissioner's lifetime) -- they provide housing for the commissioner who otherwise would have to purchase it elsewhere. There are institutions that live, at least partially, off of donations: churches, museums, and so on. They often have the support of tax breaks and such, though big business gets that too!

What if a building didn't need money, and therefore, didn't need use? What if it could exist as an aesthetic object free of this level of financial need?

Then it'd be a sculpture.

Why do I find architecture more compelling than sculpture (at least, right now)?

Function helps justify form: "Why does it look like this? Oh, because it does something."
Function helps justify scale and visibility, and the expense of scale and visibility.
Visibility is increased by scale (esp. height) and busyness of location.
Scale and visibility make a building loom large in people's minds (like mine).
Function limits possibilities in a way that can inspire creativity (like how the constraints of rhyme and meter can help one write a good poem).

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