Frozen Music (II)


In the previous post we saw how architecture embodies the dichotomy of holism versus reductionism, and how its ‘messages’ about the way we integrate with our surroundings – or not – surround and influence us.

Of course, the reverse is also true: our relationship with architecture is a dialogue, the communication is two way. Our events – political, cultural, environmental, also clearly shape the direction architecture takes.

Modern architecture

The post war era engendered a new era in architecture. The Modern Movement was borne of our need for rapid, large-scale rebuilding and was founded on a solid base of extensive industrialism and economic growth. Advanced technology enabled machine production of pre-fabricated components allowing mass standardization. Need for function over-ruled the need for form and aesthetic quality; large scale blocks, scientifically designed to functional parameters were hoisted into place, literally, to the delight of governments for these constructions were not only economic in terms of land use but also in terms of construction costs.

The theory was that in order to achieve a planned economic use of land and resources, people would have to abandon their traditional habitats, and government – with the help of architects – would educate them how to live!

Just as the structures Imperial Romans erected in their conquered lands sought to suppress the indigenous population and demonstrate the might of the Empire in direct contravention of local traditions and climate; just as the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe sought to strike fear into the general population as an embodiment of Heaven on Earth; just as Renaissance Palaces sought to mirror the wealth and power of those that lived in them (and so on), so, particularly in the west, the governments, ministries and administrative centres sought to symbolise and express their own power in the new world.

This was not unique to domestic architecture and city and suburban planning, however. Our cities today are festooned with imagery of business empires and consumer capitalism. These are the loud, clear, messages of the ‘modern’ corporate building. A fine example of this is the United Nations building in NYC. The council debating chamber, where representatives of each of the nations could come together and discuss issues with a view to achieving a resolution (despite this being far from collaborative working environments as I know them to be) is completely overshadowed by an administrative tower. The tower itself is a modern day ‘Tower of Babel’, symbolism of the bureaucratic nature of political power.

Let’s step back and look at these monolithic structures – already historical relics in today’s world (even though many are still being built, taller and louder than ever). They have effectively become obsolete. From a technical perspective the Modern Movement has failed us; society is having to support building failures through their repair, renovation or demolition. Similarly, the advanced technology to support these buildings in terms of climate control, lighting and sound for example has failed us. Socio-culturally it has been a disaster. In attempting to define a new language the Modern Movement served to create the antithesis of architecture, alienating human experience and denying the freedom of choice, of individuality and, most importantly, of being alive. Regardless, their legacy messages continue to influence us as they are still a part of our everyday experience.

The wake of Modernism has brought about all sorts of similarly artistic movements; post modern, neo-vernacular, neo (neo) classical, high tech and so on. None of these seem to have evoked the richness of experience that we see, hear and feel in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, with the possible recent exception of biophilic design. Biophilia means the love of life or living systems, and the biophilia hypothesis is that human beings have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Edward O. Wilson popularised the idea in his 1984 book Biophilia.

In the context of our workplaces, from the corner office drenched in light to the plant-filled lobby, this is not a new idea, but biophilic design, whilst still nascent, is a growing discipline that takes the concept much further. It adopts a holistic approach, looking at whole systems, and evokes the idea of a biophilic space that facilitates our work – making everything easier and, in the way it communicates with us, actively improving our physical, emotional and mental health.

Anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle will understand that there is a lot to be said for this approach, and it’s a principle that we take forward with us as we look at the workspaces we build today, the ‘frozen music’ we play.