As designers, we often find ourselves pursuing the creation of a masterpiece, an architecture so refined that it asserts itself as a totality. This is the architecture which one approaches, which one recognizes as essential in its identity, a thing beyond questioning by its sheer audacity or integrity. We see this almost as an act, something inherently temporal: that recognizable moment where the designer finds their passion, the precipice at which the design assimilates a degree of freedom or autonomy from everything prior.

Unfortunately, we must also accept that this is as much a claim to truth as any other. Though we seem to detest the dogmatism of regulatory boards, ADA codes and competition briefs, what we encounter in the architect qua artist is no more than another guised assertion of ideology. Far from liberating, it is the instance very much at which an architecture encompasses the ultimate degree of authority over its occupants. What we have come to valorize is less the most exquisite, polite design, but the one which yells loudest in a room already overcrowded. We find ourselves unable to hear our own languished screams over the ear-piercing ring of a thousand brazen voices.

What we loose in the crusade towards a masterpiece is the acknowledgment that architecture is itself a multivalent entity that relies as much on intricate sets of social, political and financial conditions as it does on our creativity. This, of course, runs perpendicular to the tradition of the renegade artiste we so fervently fetishize. The convictions that we ought to fight the planning commissions, enlighten the client and rewrite the brief function therapeutically insofar as they isolate us from the ultimate realization of our own impotence, self-medicated endeavors to avoid the reality of the situation.

This is not to indicate that architecture itself is inconsequential. To the contrary, if we reframe our sights – if we turn only for a second away from the narcissistic mirror of artistry we so adore to stare into – we find that buildings have indeed enacted monumental changes. That hundreds of French revolutionaries found themselves willing to die storming the Bastille, all the while aware that it held little tactical significance, speaks to great lengths about the power an architecture can attain. Was it the finesse of a corner detail that provoked such vehemence in the protestors? The Medieval stereotomy of its cylindrical towers? No. That these people would gather, nearly one thousand strong, to dissemble the royal fortress brick by brick marks the ascension from building to idea, from material to notion. Is this not the heartfelt yet neglected aspiration in our quest towards the masterpiece?

We hold so dearly the will to enact something that defies the immediacy and transience of the human presence, something that eclipses the petty conditions (the building codes, the budgets, the property rights) before us, and yet our sheer relinquishment of these issues leaves us isolated and irrelevant. If we forgo this delusional veneration of idiosyncrasy, we might instead harness the essential righteousness of architecture. Buildings are serious things, and thus the architect must be prudent in forecasting their authority. It can no longer be about the masterpiece but rather the masterful (i.e. appropriate) enactment of a space that advocates change, that inches humanity forward ever so slightly even if by the naïve hope that it can do justly for its world.
Architecture is a Serious Thing

Connor Gravelle
April 2016