While addressing the House of Commons in 1943, Winston Churchill said “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” They were deciding how to rebuild the Commons Chamber after the blitz. He was making a case for the chamber’s classic rectangular design which lent itself to more intimate and adversarial debate. British MPs tend to advocate their positions in grand performative ways. Compared to the C-SPANified pontificating of the U.S. Congress, British parliament, though no more scrupulous, is much more alive and passionate. He knew the shape of the building would help maintain that.
Los Angeles is building and that’s a good thing. We’ve learned (in some ways, though not others) from San Francisco and are making a modest attempt to increase the housing supply. Complex problems like reducing the 60,000 plus homeless population or the inability for anyone of normal means to buy a house or condo in the city won’t be solved by a single silver bullet, but this will help. There’s a lot of smart people with a lot more numbers and facts, who know a lot more about this issue, and people should take them seriously. I, however, want to muse about something that isn’t often considered by the wonks or number crunchers and that’s the aesthetics of the buildings.
In 2010, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne released a TED talk about how music evolves to fit the architecture it's performed in and so tends to sound best in those situations. Gothic chants were written for gothic cathedrals. Operas were written for opera houses. Stadium rock takes advantage of sports stadiums. Punk-New Wave grew out of dingy black boxes in the Bowery. EDM grew out of drug fueled empty warehouse dance parties. Jam bands sound best in outdoor festival type settings. If our buildings and venues have a strong effect on the type of music we make, it’s safe to assume they also have effects on other things.
The top three international tourist destinations in the world according to Wikipedia are France, Spain and the United States. The U.S. is large, and it’d be interesting to see the numbers broken down by region, but for France and Spain, I’d bet a main part of the draw, aside from climate, is their distinct architecture. The buildings were built to adapt to the local environment. They use region specific materials. They preserve a significant periods of the country’s history. It’s not just the tourist attractions like Versailles or La Sagrada Familia either, it’s the normal buildings everyday people use. Who wouldn’t want to drink pernod at a random French bistro or run through the winding (bull-free) streets of Pamplona?
A more local example would be Palm Springs. Why do people in LA drive inward from the ocean to a little desert town? Is it just golf? Swimming pools and beautiful people? Probably, but it’s also the aesthetic. The mid-century modern style works well against the harsh desert backdrop, and provides a strong sense of time and place, even though, historically speaking, it hasn’t been around that long.
Aside from the economic arguments, there’s also quality of life. In her book Healing Spaces, Esther Sternberg M.D. from the University of Arizona makes a strong case for building design affecting health and wellness outcomes. A cluttered, confusing design can lead to the release of stress hormones. A dark lonely office, lit only by greenish fluorescent tubes, can induce alienation and loneliness. (There’s a reason the Matrix is tinted that color.) In the intro to her book she points to a study showing patients were discharged from the hospital a full day earlier if they have a view of greenery out their window. It would seem optimization for humans physiology should be at the core of contemporary building design.
The problem is most current buildings feel antiseptic. They aren’t, but they’re meant to feel that way. Bacteria on stainless steel, one of today's most ubiquitous materials, can last up to thirty days, where brass can disinfect itself within twelve hours because of ions released from the alloy. We’ve chosen modern aesthetics over science, and made our built environments less healthy, especially in food processing and healthcare.
Modern buildings also have no sense of place. A new office building or apartment complex in LA might as well be in Cleveland or Georgia or Frankfurt. The region defining features have been discarded. In a video by Youtube philosopher Alain de Botton, he lays out six criteria for building beautiful cities. One of them includes the use of local materials. Buildings built in Sedona, Arizona should look like buildings from Sedona. Buildings in New Hampshire, New Hampshire. Each place has an aesthetic that grew naturally out of the local conditions. We tend to ignore that and have homogenized the world. Though Sedona did force McDonalds to use a turquoise M, so I guess that’s a start.
Nobody walks around a decaying stucco mini-mall and feels better about their day. Modern buildings look terrible as they age. Good buildings, assuming we haven’t screwed them up, have something the Japanese call Wabi Sabi. It’s a description of how something ages. Think leather boots or worn in blue jeans. A crumbling temple or an over-grown garden. Our cities would look better even in disrepair if we put more thought into the materials and construction and less into either venerating the architect as a genius or treating the buildings as some economic asset. It’s not an argument for regression in design, but using the lessons of the past to innovate the future. No one really wants to live in a place that looks like this:
Consciously or unconsciously, things have a hierarchy of values. We embed those values in our buildings. Right now profit margin and builder efficiency are at the top of the pyramid. Those are short term considerations. Buildings have a long time horizon. They have a large effect on culture, health, politics and the economy for generations to come. We should be more mindful of that.
Thanks for reading. Please share with you anyone you think would enjoy. Peace!