The Evolution of the Old, the New, and the In-between by: Melissa Meyer
In his essay Architecture as Environment: Architecture as Habit, Paul Tesar ponders an architecture that is an integral part of a greater whole and an intrinsic piece of a naturally evolving transcendental composition inspired by the common good, as opposed to an arbitrary, self-determining architecture that exists solely for its inhabitant. Tesar considers a public, civic architecture of community that he refers to as “Architecture of Environment” versus a private, personal, subjective and idiosyncratic architecture. The tautological “authentic reproduction” in architecture is an oxymoronic and unnatural attempt to compensate for what should be allowed to evolve naturally.
Tesar asks, “How should we think about architecture if we want this environment to be our environment, not just an accidental sum of personal statements, but a collective expression of who we are?” And he asks, “How should we think about architecture if we want this environment to embody meanings we share, rather than those that tend to separate and divide us?” An architecture that expresses the tendencies of a naturally evolving culture, addressing the needs of society along the way, using naturally occurring construction methods that took centuries to evolve, will inevitably produce an architecture of integrity, high quality buildings that stand the test of time and represent a cultural identity. The compulsory urge to reject the natural progression of the built environment over the course of history represents the egocentric impluse to innovate for innovation’s sake and will likely result in a curious if not shocking outcome, hence the architectural one-liner.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his essay, The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How it Wrecked the Century, writes that “no new work of art comes into existence (whether consciously or unconsciously) without an organic link to what was created earlier.” The act of defying the precedent created by that organic link in time in an attempt to create something new is itself an acknowledgement that it existed and rejection becomes the foundation for the autonomy that robs society of a cultural identity. Solzhenitsyn writes that, “Nothing worthy can be built on a neglect of higher meanings and on a relativistic view of concepts and culture as a whole.”
But Solzhenitsyn points to a happy medium, “remaining equally sensitive to the old and to the new, to venerable and worthy traditions, and to the freedom to explore, without which no future can ever be born.” He acknowledges that without “a responsible organizing force” the structure, meaning and value of a work of art are diminished. The master plan and definitive architectural design guidelines can provide a unifying framework in which scaled, proportioned, and well-crafted artistic innovation can occur. Such a framework can become a uniting force in which multiple cultural identities can be expressed, resulting in an engaging aggregate of forms and textures; perhaps a viable response to Tesar’s inquiry about how we should “think about architecture if we want an environment that radiates a beauty that speaks to us on the level of our shared humanity, rather than merely to that of our personal preferences and tastes.”
Solzhenitsyn, proclaims that, “art has not grown toward the highest achievements of craftsmanship and of the human spirit.” He writes of “the disintegration of art into a frantic and insidious novelty. To decorate public spaces we put up sculptures that estheticize pure ugliness – but we no longer register surprise.” Paul Tesar’s “Architecture of Environment” gives the negative space “in-between” equal footing with the architecture itself, denotes it as “public,” and reserves it for an inception that can aspire to the level of civic art. A well designed negative, in-between space can raise the expectation of a work of art that might occupy that void. The ordinariness of a traditional master plan that consists of repetitive and uniform patterns provides opportunities for unforeseen creativity to emerge.
N.J. Habraken, in his essay The Appearance of the Form – One: Sharing, Habraken reminds us that most towns in history came about without designing. He writes that, “Many just grew incrementally following paths that in turn found their way among riverbanks and slopes. It is a long way from the organic growth of settlements, via preconceived layouts, to the idea of professional town design.” Habraken conveys that the first “designed” town plans, early renaissance Florentine towns, were layed out by surveyors who took instruction from town officials. These early repetitive and uniform patterns were extensions of earlier organic, naturally evolving compositions, but they nonetheless provided a framework for public and civic activity to take place and to flourish. They also provided a physical base from which a social structure could grow and organize itself, where the production of artifacts could occur, and where knowledge and expertise could be cultivated. As knowledge and expertise in crafting artifacts was passed down from generation to generation within this solid framework of social structure that was firmly rooted in a physical, patterned, geometrical core, high quality conventional forms emerged. According to Habraken, in order for the successful cultivation of conventional form to occur, “there must be time for knowledge of the form to take root in the social body that shares it.”