Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Architectural Reflections: What Our Buildings Say About Us

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” ~Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I was eight years old when I first pondered the meaning of the homes we lived in. I was swinging on a swing set in the playground behind Stafford Elementary School in Maple Heights, Ohio. My inquiring mind had made the observation that most of the animals in the natural world lived in holes in the ground or in trees or places where they could hide, blend in and not be seen. People, on the other hand, at least the ones in my neighborhood, lived in houses painted white or bright colors and very much out in the open. As I wondered about this, it seemed to me that the animals lived in fear and thus had to be wary, whereas the people here were not afraid. They lived in houses right out in the open. It was a very interesting sequence of thoughts.

Thus did I first reflect on how the spaces we occupy reflect the character of those who occupy these spaces.

In my recent readings a statement was made in passing as regards the building of the skyscrapers in New York City and how some people took offense because they dwarfed the cathedrals which were once dominant in the skyline there. There was a time when the cathedrals were the ultimate structures in every town in the Christianized world. The meaning of this depends on who interprets, of course. For some it is a clear example of exploitation in the name of religion. For others, these are monuments to the most vital component of the culture.

But in modern times this all changed. In the 20th century, as a result of advances in technology and building materials, skyscrapers emerged. Interesting term. Buildings that scraped the sky.

Not everyone thought this wonderful. Henry James thought of skyscrapers as “soulless commercial tributes to America at its worst, utterly inhuman in scale, objects that bullied rather than adorned their surroundings.” The central character in James Baldwin’s In Another Country compared the skyscrapers of New York to phalluses or spears.

Whatever the interpretation, New York’s churches and cathedrals were dwarfed by these vertical outcroppings of glass, stone and steel. It’s quickly evident that the former pre-eminence of the church has been symbolically replaced by the pre-eminence of the mighty engine of Capitalism.

I think also of Las Vegas and the extreme decadence of the Strip. The Bellagio, Venetian, Wynns. One billion, then two billion dollar casinos, built by the generous contributions of willing dupes throwing it all away for a moment of pleasure and distraction. These extravagant monuments also say something about us.

What this says about the pervasiveness of shantytowns throughout the world I’m not quite sure. Do our monuments to progress help people forget their plight, or only serve to mock them?

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