Saturday, June 7, 2008

For Mary, on Art and Architecture

I want to respond at length about the importance of aesthetics, art, and architecture in any attempt to recapture life on a human scale--a topic inquired about in comments to my last big post. But work prevents me. Until then, here are two articles:

More Roger Scruton, on the topic of "New Urbanist" Leon Krier and his critique of modernist architecture; and

A post on an interesting urban life/peak oil blog outlining why aesthetics cannot be just a matter of taste, including a brief outline of another important personage in the field, Christopher Alexander.

Bonus: I found this discussion between Alexander and the well-regarded modern architect Peter Eisenman to be quite revealing about what the project of modern architecture is. But it takes some digging through a rather aclectic conversation to get to the meat of it.


Zoe said...

I'm going to have to take this a bite at a time--- I'm not going to get through these quickly. I think the first article makes some good points--- where modern buildings are bad buildings--- where they fail to withstand the tests of time or the elements, with basic maintenance, where they fail to serve the functions for which they are designed, then there's really no question, to me, about that. I'm also in favor of more sustainable community designs, where people can live, work, and address their basic needs without unsustainable commutes.

Where he loses me is in the "Where God is at home, so, too, are we; the real meaning of the modernist forms is that there is no God and that Big Brother is now in charge," argument. I disagree that non-traditional architecture is soulless and imposed from without. I know that you and others dislike Liebeskind and his design for the DAM--- I disagree that it was imposed on us--- there were public comment periods, there were opportunities to get involved. I like the building. I find that it enhances my experience of the art. Frankly, in my experience, the ideas that such things are possible, in defiance of all I think I know about architecture, brings me closer to God. I don't love all modern architecture--- I think the original DAM looks and feels a little like a prison, but I think that public facilities for the arts, especially, benefit from taking risks, from being more expressive than your average ranch-style. I don't think it's a big conspiracy, being imposed by leftist intellectual elites. But I'm not well read about architecture, I'm just a fan of it, so maybe I'm not qualified to argue the point. I'll keep reading your source material and maybe it'll change my mind.

Zoe said...

I found the second article more persuasive--- probably because it paints a modern concrete jungle emprisoning the starving urban poor and an industrialized agriculture cackling in the background. Emotionally, it's a little manipulative, and since I'm an emotional girl (not calling all girls emotional, just admitting that's where I am, most of the time), I respond to such things. I agree that concrete jungles are bad, that infusing areas with plants and life of many stripes is more preferable.

Let's say it's true, though. You as a conservative should recognize that a free market should take care of the problems of modernism. If it doesn't work, if it's bad for us, the market will develop alternatives. Or do you contend that this particular market is being controlled? My experience, limited though it may be, suggests that modern architecture is far from taking over the world--- it's cropping up in museums and libraries and such, but it's not broadly used for buildings of state or even the dreaded malls and strip malls, and the trend among new neighborhoods and developments seems much more like the mixed use that the second author is advocating.

I guess my sense of things is that it's like an herb in a dish--- a little of it here and there enlivens, challenges, and provides a little contrast. The use of a little pepper doesn't mean it's a substitute for or replacement for the substance of a dish. I think what I like about modern architecture is what I like about cooking--- there's a sense of experimentation, adventure, of seeing what's possible.

Just to further clarify my position, I don't just love modern architecture, I love many kinds of architecture. I don't just love modern art, but I can appreciate the contribution that it has made as a movement.

One of my concerns with the people you're citing is that they seem to believe someone is out to hurt them, and the proper response is to impose rules about what we'll allow. I get nervous about that level of interference in art and expression, even when, as architecture does, they intersect with common interest. I don't say that there are no rules, I don't say that there shouldn't be guidelines, but I don't like the idea that we'd never innovate, never experiment, never deviate from historical good in these areas. Not because what's come before is inadequate, though in some cases it is, but I'd like to allow for the possibility that what may come may be better.

I realize I'm probably arguing myself into a corner, because I don't think there should be no barriers to innovation--- I don't support embryonic stem cell research or cloning or any of the things that many in the mainstream see no problem with, corresponding closely with Catholic doctrine, just that I've yet to be persuaded, in this case, that those particular parts of the remedy (the conspiracy theories and resultant impulse to prohibit) don't have the potential to be worse than the worst of the disease.

Zoe said...

To address the conspiracy thing, I realize that one of the arguments these people have cited is that pre-Modern architectural theory is not being taught in the schools, an assertion of which I'm highly suspicious. I know a woman who was a successful architect here in Denver until she left her job to have her son a couple of years ago. She's in the process of writing a book on sustainability in architecture, not only sustainability of the green kind, but of families, of communities, etc. She's deeply conservative and Catholic. If modernism were a conspiracy, being indoctrinated in the schools, how do they account for the success of such a person? That's anecdotal? How do they account for the dissident voices they themselves cite? How do they account for the green movement (LEED certification, etc.) in architecture, which is reevaluating existing techologies with an eye toward building along the lines of what your second article is demanding?

Zoe said...

The third article is fascinating. I guess I believe, along with the analyst of the exchange, that Alexander's school of thought will ultimately predominate, which is why I'm not worried about modern architecture. I think it's a movement, a fashion, a trend, with a season like any other. I don't feel the fundamentally angst he describes, but I don't object to the expression of those who do. An interesting collection of ideas--- thanks for sharing them. I most certainly wouldn't have otherwise encountered them, and you've made me think more deeply about a topic I find interesting, which is also worthwhile. At the end of the day, I've moved a little and thought a lot. I still like what I like, and I still think that there are sufficient controls on public buildings to prevent the imposition of modern architecture on the unwilling, but I better understand your philosophical argument against this and why you keep including it with other conservative issues you discuss.

Zoe said...

Fundamental angst. Sorry.