By request: Architecture

By request of jacob_bru

One day, when I was in sixth grade, my teacher randomly pulled me aside and offered me a surprising opportunity: A chance to represent the school on the local news. The ABC affiliate had a weekly segment in which a student from one of the city’s elementary schools would come in and put together a brief local interest story. I was surprised, but I’ve never been one to turn down a chance to do something interesting and unique, especially if it involves being recognized (I’m cool with other people giving me a nod; I just feel nauseated at the prospect of self-promotion).

The problem was, I had no idea what kind of news story to create. Obviously I wasn’t going to cover any hard news about the local City Council or whatever, being 12 years old and all. So my parents took a pragmatic approach and asked what I wanted to do when I grew up.

“Be an architect?” I said. I have no idea where that idea came from, but it sounded kind of cool in the heat of the moment. In hindsight, I suspect I may have been thinking of Indiana Jones and got confused between architecture and archaeology. But in any case, I went with a news crew to the School of Architecture at Texas Tech and filmed a two-minute exposé on the program (undoubtedly some of the hardest-hitting journalism the local news had ever seen). Then I went back and wrote and recorded the script for the segment, which a video editor then cut together on some dark and ominous Betamax-based device that occupied its own eerie closet at the news station.

Years later, I ended up becoming a journalist, almost entirely by coincidence. But architecture always looked like more fun. I think it’s the little paper buildings.

Maybe ironically, in my years of art history studies, I always found architecture one of the most difficult areas of art to fully understand. Marcel Duchamp painting some made-up signature on a urinal or calling a series of flesh-tone triangles “Nude Descending a Staircase”? I get it. Mark Rothko putting together massive fields of solid color? Once you see a Rothko in person, you understand: They’re so big, so textured, so intricate in their seeming uniformity that they practically overwhelm you. Jackson Pollock spattering a canvas with a seemingly random array of colors? Beautiful. But architecture, man, that’s hard.

I suppose it’s because I’m intimidated by the engineering that lurks beneath the surface of architecture. I actually abandoned my brief flirtation with architecture the moment I realized how much math was involved. It’s not enough to have a vision of some sort of sculptural construct as an architect; that vision also needs to be structurally sound. You have to worry about materials, about stability, about costs, about zoning ordinances. Usability. Utility. How it fits with the surrounding neighborhood. Environmental impact. Do the wacky concave windows create a solar mirror that can melt cars parked on the street below? Who’s the contractor? So many factors you don’t have to deal with when you’re slapping some oils on a 3×5 canvas.

Which isn’t to say architecture isn’t art, just that it’s the sort of thing that becomes a work on a different sort of scale. Not just in literal terms, but in a figurative sense as well. So many people involved! But hey, if architecture can be art despite the processes and number of people involved, maybe video games can, too.

The real trick with architecture, I think, is in creating something distinctive without making a botch job of it. Entire movements throughout the 20th century became petri dishes for ugliness — deliberately so in the case of Brutalism, but probably more out of misguided pragmatism with the “modern” mid-century look that makes most buildings constructed in the 1950s and ’60s such a boring eyesore. It’s this style that I grew up surrounded by, living in the middle of the country in the latter half of the 20th century. So much of the substance of the cities was established during America’s urbanization after World War II and survived dully right up to the new millennium, when it finally began to give way for the more adventurous (albeit usually more cheaply constructed) styles of contemporary architecture. Farm automation and the rise of modernity after the war drove people into the cities and away from their rural roots, and the backbone of the nation’s mid-sized cities came into being then. And good lord, was that backbone boring.

But as with all art, it was a reflection of the times. Mid-century architecture came into being during the rise of the short-lived American Empire, and those works were constructed with a sort of weighty agelessness that echoed Classical architecture. This was the new Rome, was the idea. That style relayed a message, for better and for worse. I miss the World Trade Center’s twin towers, but at the same time I distinctly remember the second thing I thought the first time I ever saw them (as I rode the NJ Transit line on my first trip into Manhattan) was, “God, those things are ugly.”

Now, the first thing I thought was, “Oh my god! New York City!” — and those two impressions were related. There was something reassuring about the towers’ blocky lack of imagination, like a heavy anchor pinning down the island and making it somehow more stable, more concrete. More real. The buildings that have risen to take the WTC’s place are far more daring and sculptural, but they lack the twin towers’ gravity. They’re showing off, whereas the WTC did the opposite: They stood as monolithic monuments to the button-down conservatism of the most important financial district in the world. They were ponderous, not graceful, and they spoke to lower Manhattan’s purpose.

Sometimes, that era of architecture becomes remarkable in its mundanity. I find Kyoto an absolutely fascinating city because it looks so unlike Osaka and Tokyo; much of the city was rebuilt during the post-war era, and unlike in its sister cities, it all more or less stopped there. So when you fly into Japan and land either in Osaka or Tokyo, you see futuristic skyrises of concrete and steel and glass… and then you come to Kyoto, where everything surrounding the carefully preserved old town is boxy and built of earth-tone bricks. It’s the one place in all of Japan where driving down the street feels like you’re traveling through a Midwestern American town (except on the wrong side of the road, of course).

I guess this isn’t the sort of thing people think about when they discuss architecture; it’s so much more glamorous to focus on the flashy, beautiful, exciting things. Crazy record-breaking skyscrapers in Taipei and Dubai, or elegant Art Deco creations like the Chrysler Building. Or Frank Lloyd Wright and his remarkable ability to transform the dull lines of 20th century modern architecture into sweeping elegance. He invented the ranch house, that most unimaginative of American institutions, but he made them look so graceful and inviting. There was a man who could navigate the scale and complexities of the architectural process and create art. Whereas me, there’s no way I would have what it takes.

So it’s just as well I ended up going with journalism. If nothing else, journalists always make for cool protagonists in pop culture. Architects are… well, there was the dweeb from How I Met Your Mother, and… I believe that’s it. Man, that’s rough.

12 thoughts on “By request: Architecture

  1. Architect was always my go to answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I really wanted to be one. Till I got high school and discovered, for quite the opposite reasons than you that it wasn’t for me. I found out it involved a lot of art and drawing, not just engineering and math. I can’t draw a worth a lick so that was out. I suppose if there was better CAD back then accessible to me anyway it could have worked out.

  2. You can’t build an essay out of rebar, or write a house from words. But hey… you’re really good at words, so keep sharing them far and wide :)

  3. Other notable architects of the silver screen:

    -Wesley Snipes: Jungle Fever
    -Tom Hanks: Sleepless in Seattle
    -Charles Bronson: Death Wish

  4. I really enjoyed “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, which had an architect for a protagonist. I appreciate design that focuses on utility and minimalism above all else, which is definitely an art form. It’s funny how the bad guys in that book where the people championing dishonest design using gaudy facades, which really appealed to me since I could never put my finger on why Apple put out such great hardware(for instance). Really got me interested in the design process..but yeah, engineering is extremely complex whether it’s a building or a phone or a game console.

  5. I have a feeling that one of your difficulties with architecture is related to my own with regards to most art: the most famous people in it are usually full of shit.
    Of course, it applies to anything in life, really.

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