In a fictitious dialogue with Siegfrid Gideion, the famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto said, “God created paper for architecture to be drawn on. Everything else is- at least to me- a misuse of paper.” In Aalto’s fictitious dialogue, he presents a prognosis of architecture as he foresaw it in the 1950s: “The horoscope of architecture today is one in which the words are negative- it does not make nice reading.” I, too, intend to read the horoscope of 21st-century architecture in a post-pandemic world from my own cultural and philosophical point of view. The picture I present of our time will not probably please everyone, but it coincides with the pronouncements with many cultural philosophers even before Covid-19 has struck us. This pandemic merely accelerated our continuous transition of mindless consumption as I present in this essay, it does not fundamentally change anything.
The Death of Architecture
Victor Hugo appended an enigmatic paragraph to the eighth edition of Notre Dame de Paris called “ceci tuera cela”(this will kill that); pronouncing the death of architecture. “In the 15th century, the human mind thought up a way to immortalize itself that is more durable and resistant, simpler, and easier than architecture. After the stone letter of Orpheus came the lead letters of Gutenberg.” Hugo further examined the thought through Archdeacon of Notre Dame, “The statement revealed a premonition that in changing shape the human idea would also change its form of expression, that the leading idea of each generation would no longer be associated with the same substance of the same form, that the firm and the lasting book of stone would give way to an even firmer and more lasting printed book.”
Hugo’s prediction that architecture would lose power to newer media as the most important cultural medium has undoubtedly come true. But the newer media displaced architecture not because of their greater strength and durability, as Hugo said, but exactly opposite reasons: because they are fast, fleeting, and dispensable. The fundamental meaning of architecture is integration and stability, and these qualities are often in open conflict with the ideology of consumption of our time. The strategy of consumerism, now further exacerbated by the pandemic, requires isolation, alienation from society, and the splintering of consciousness. A coherent view of the world would reveal this insanity of obsessive consumption.
In all areas of communication and artistic expression, our culture favors the quick, the forceful, and the overwhelming, rather than the slow, low-efficiency communication of architecture. In all forms of artistic expression, nuances and subtleties have been brushed aside by an increasing force of effect. Even within architecture, a commercially oriented image effect, a sort of image shock, has gained popularity in the competition of gaining the attention of citizens of Plentiville. Today’s architecture is a product of sensational visualization, commercialism, and image formation, “the tendency to let image determine form than vice versa.”
Before long, the architectural avant-garde of Plentiville will no doubt unveil buildings that have totally forsaken the primal function of a building, that is to protect its inhabitants. Instead as a subservient to the technology, architecture would become a tool of surveillance as few East Asian countries have already demonstrated in the pandemic stricken world. Technology would make use of smarthomes to monitor occupants’ behavior, routine and daily actions. It will perhaps even produce buildings designed to threaten and crush. The ritualized cruelty of comic books and music videos is a premonition to this reality.
Reality and Dream
In a society dedicated to the mass manipulation of the human mind, reality, and dreams have become interchangeable. As Umberto Eco has assumed, the hyper-reality we have created, with its forgeries of time and history, will become the new standard of reality. Consequently, the creative mind must conquer the real, authentic world, and the creative artists’ task undergoes a strange inversion; it has changed from broadening the realm of the imagination, the possibilities of being human, to defining and confirming our standing in reality.
The artificial reality characteristic of our culture is, according to Plato’s definition, a simulacrum; an authentic copy of an original that has never existed. Instead of creating a dialogue- between past and present, our present is devouring the past. We have lost our ability to “speak with the dead” as T.S Eliot regards as the nucleus of the living tradition. Our environment of new hyper-reality is symptomatic of our inability to dream. Even if much abused Modern architecture has not necessarily lost its communication capacity, perhaps we have become incapable of projecting meanings into it. A Disneyworld is the refuge of the culture that has lost its capacity for spontaneous dreaming and imagination. The seemingly perfect hyper reality has lost its plasticity, its depth, its three-dimensionality. Hyper-realism is the mirror of a culture that has lost its sense of depth.
The emergence of disposable architecture exploits the fashionable. Based on the idea of immediate satisfaction and almost as immediate disposal, such architecture enables a quick shift in our next cycle of image consumption. Built-in obsolescence, then, is even a characteristic of architectural style today.
The Eutrophication of Culture
In Plentiville, the central problem is muchness: too much of everything is produced, both material and cultural. When everything becomes sexual, political, or social, when categories become subject to cancerous overgrowth and sprawl everywhere, they also lose their significance. The result is a slump into inactivity, indecision, and insanity. This overgrowth, this eutrophication of culture and overproduction, will produce a kind of spiritual anoxia, a cultural Sargasso Sea.
In an over-productive society, art should not make more but make less. After the Postmodern, the time has again come for neo- minimalism, neo- asceticism, neo-denial, and sublime poverty. Quality, the dimension of spiritual depth, should be reinstated as the only criterion of art.
There is no denying that the disappearance of the spiritual quality of architecture from our environment is due to the disappearance of the collective intellectual ‘soil’ that produces architecture. Consequently, this makes the society of welfare, plenty, and guardianship a very dubious patron of architecture.
What will the architecture of this ultra consumerist society look like after the pandemic? The answer is inevitable. There is no architecture. When architecture disassociates itself from its metaphysical and existential basis, it becomes entertainment, amusement, and architectural muzak. The architecture that brought existential questions of life into our consciousness will be replaced by a building that, paradoxical to its nature, buries all significant questions under the paralyzing poultice of comfort and pleasure. This form of culture will construct a universal old folks’ home.
There is a sign of a split in our profession: on one hand, there is a design that executes consumer conventions and commands without protests, and on the other hand, there is a serious architecture whose function, following the essence of art, is to fathom the fundamental essence of our existence. This division of a whole field of art into an entertainment branch catering to cultural consumption on the one hand, and a branch offering serious art on the other has already taken place in music, literature, and film.
In a society devoted to efficiency and lacking the spiritual dimension of life, authentic architecture is served from the utilitarian foundation. To preserve its spiritual dimensions, architecture must come into conflict with its essence, which is tied to social reality. Ergo, to ensure its existence, architecture must deny itself.
This might seem a very pessimistic view of the future. The amount of pessimism, however, is in direct proportion to one’s expectation. I hope that architects could perceive our cultural reality as clearly as possible so that we can define the territory and ethical basis of our art. The task of creative culture remains to struggle against the mainstream of prevailing conventions- since otherwise, it would not be creative at all- and once we see which way the stream is flowing, we will know how architecture must orient itself.
In conclusion, I would like to freely quote Frank Gehry in an interview:” I remember when I was younger.” Gehry mused, “I was also optimistic…when you get older you become cynical sometimes…but younger people say: ’Don’t worry, pa, we’ll take care of it.”