I’m a big fan of architecture. I’m no good at it. In fact, I probably couldn’t design a chicken coop to save my life. But it’s a fun thing to look at and learn about. Architecture can be a window to history.

Art and architecture reflect society and society is a product of its people. Walking through an old city can give you clues about what people valued at a given time in history, and how they approached the social and physical world they occupied. An easy example would be the proliferation of cathedrals in medieval Europe.

Let’s take a look at modern architecture—not modern as in it’s happening right now, but architecture that was a product of the modernist movement in art, philosophy, architecture and a wide range of other social products.

Modernists saw themselves as separate and distinct from history and context. They ignored their historical precursors and opted for what they considered totally new and appropriate for a new, “modern” world transformed by industry, urbanization and booming capitalism. Buildings were made to be functional, not beautiful. You see it in skyscrapers—giant towering boxes, jutting out of the ground and cutting a jagged, unnatural line across the horizon. Or perhaps the Bauhaus “red box” house that is just is what it is—a red box, totally distinct from its surrounding environment with no regard for the people who would be living in it— could typify modernist architecture.

Bauhaus Red Box House

As one architectural critic, Charles Jencks, said: Modernist architecture is “dropped, unceremoniously, like an urban bomb” into its surroundings.

Then, as is natural in artistic movements, a new wave came along in total rejection of its predecessor—the post-modernists. These folks wanted their work to be integrative, to “fit” its surroundings, to “fit” the people who would use it, live in it, work in it. Post-modern architecture became collaborative. Historical movements were synthesized with it with a focus on new materials and creativity. Context became highly important. Post-modern architects acknowledged that what might work for Spaniards in Barcelona might not work for Americans in Denver. One example might be the Denver airport, designed to mimic the surrounding Rocky Mountains. Or recent trends of ergonomic workplaces and Feng Shui homes might exemplify post-modern thinking in architecture.

Denver Airport w/ Mountains

It occurred to me that the post-modern attitude is perhaps more useful to society with its acknowledgement of individuality, social identities and its understanding that people’s emotional and social needs are important. Simultaneously, it occurred to me that many of our social institutions haven’t caught up to what (as is so often the case) artists had already been doing for years.

Take the social sciences for example. Political scientists calculate how certain groups of people will vote. Psychologists designate us “type A’s” or “type B’s.” We are presented as tools, reacting only the stimuli the world provides for us, not necessarily engaged in it. These classifications are supposed to tell us how we’re supposed to act? Behave in a given situation? This might all equate to a deterministic worldview—you’re born a certain way in a certain situation and your future is spread out before you. What about context? What about individuality? What about history and culture and the fact that people create their own realities?

Inch by inch, forward-thinking scientists are coming to grips with these issues. Science can be integrative and contextual. Its job is to present reality, not prescribe a course of action. A new view of science, societies and people can help us create a world fit for people, not people fit for the world. That’s old, modernist stuff. Of course, it must be precise, but universal so that a person in Shanghai can benefit equally to a person in small town Kansas.

THEE is these things. Take what suits you, leave the rest. Apply its principles to your life. Others will apply the same principles differently to their life. Understanding it helps you be dynamic in a dynamic world. You can become the driving force in your immediate context, not the other way around.

The world is changing. You didn’t expect science would remain the same, did you?

blog comments powered by Disqus