For the vast majority of us, the general public does not have intimate relationships with our professional “outputs.” Even for doctors and teachers, whose work is deeply important to the well-being of our society, their day to day efforts have a tangible effect on a limited audience. Architecture is different. It is far bigger than the people that “use” the building on a daily basis. Without getting too literal, architecture is permanent. A building is there to stay. It imposes its will on the surrounding area. As a result, I question to what degree the architectural profession has a responsibility to the rest of us. Is the architect free to design exactly how he pleases or must he take into consideration its effect on society long after he is gone? Is architecture a gift for society or is it a statement to society? Is the architect the ultimate benefactor or the ultimate egoist?
In any discussion of creative liberties, I tend to scribe to the more is better philosophy. I have noted that architecture has a unique ability to break with convention and take the viewer out of a certain comfort zone. It has the ability to perturb, to provoke, to puzzle. It is not as simple as this, however. For me, it is a matter of intention. An architect should not confound nor discomfit his audience for his own sake. He should not derive pleasure nor beguilement from his viewer’s befuddlement. He must have the viewer's welfare in mind, and if in doing so, he confounds the viewer, then this is a small price to pay. Machiavelli has gotten a bad rap over the years, but his philosophy resonates here. If the end justifies the means, I am all for the means. Intention is what distinguishes the ultimate benefactor from the ultimate egoist.
I present you with two case studies.
The first is Frank Gehry’s newly constructed IAC building on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Its undulating and fluid form make it a welcome break from the ubiquitous glass box office towers of New York, but still, it somehow feels contrived. It suggests selfish intentions. It is as if he knows people are going to walk by and say “cool” and “wow?” But where is the substance? Where is the original thought? What challenge is he presenting? I am a huge fan of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, but the IAC Building seems like a lukewarm attempt to replicate this previous brilliance. It feels as if it is built for his own amusement, and in doing so, he shows irreverence and a lack of concern for his viewer.
In contrast are the works of Antoni Gaudi that can be found all over the city of Barcelona. Gaudi, from the very beginning, broke with the neo-classical and romantic architecture of his contemporaries in favor of a style that was uniquely his own. He eschewed the inorganic and monotonous for the natural and the vibrant. Take La Sagrada Famigilia or Casa Battlo as examples. These buildings have hallucinatory and magical qualities that leave us bewildered, confused, and inspired. He is telling us to put everything we thought we knew on the side because we aren’t going to need it for awhile. Only then is it possible to start fresh, open our minds, look around. His intentions do not feel selfish. They do not feel contrived. When I look up at one of his buildings, I feel fortunate. I feel like he gets that proverbial “it” and that architecture is his chosen method of dissemination. There is a fine line between the natural and the factitious, and he challenges us to decide to which category his architecture belongs. Benefactor, maybe. Egoist, hard to tell. But brilliant, hard to argue with.