Category: Architecture

Fantastical Places and the Ethics of Architecture

Lemuria was a hypothetical answer to the problem of lemurs in Madagascar and India. It was a connective tissue for the naturalism observed during the formative years of naturalism itself. Only a few years had passed since Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out and the patterns of observations that drove Darwin’s daring hypothesis were resonating throughout the European intellectual landscape. Years later, the Pangaea supercontinent would replace the temporary placeholder of Lemuria and the concept would be relegated to mythologized abstractions alongside Atlantis and, well, Hyperborea.

I’m in Lemuria right now, but it is a different fantastical place. In this case, I’m in the Lemuria Earthship Biotecture near Taos, New Mexico. I rented it out on a whim. I needed to travel to Colorado to drop off some birthday cards for our son and thought I might come by and observe this ongoing architectural experiment that I’ve been tracking for decades but never visited. I was surprised to find that I could rent a unit.

First, though, you have to get here, which involves crossing the Rio Grande Gorge:

Once I arrived, I encountered throngs of tourists, including an extended Finnish family that I had to eavesdrop on to guess the language they were speaking. The Earthship project has a long history, but it is always a history of trying to create sustainable, off-the-grid structures that maximize the use of disposable aspects of our society. So the walls are tires filled with dirt or cut wine bottles embedded in cement. Photovoltaics charge batteries and gray water (shower and washing water) is reused to flush toilets and grow food plants. Black water (toilet water) flows into leachfields that support landscape plants. Rainwater is captured from the roof to fill the gray water reservoirs. And, amazingly, it all works very well.

Here’s my video on arrival at Lemuria. There is wind noise when I’m on the roof, but it dies off when I get inside.

Architecture and ethics have always had an uneasy truce. At the most basic, there are the ethical limits of not deceiving clients about materials, costs, or functionality. But the harder questions build around aesthetic value versus functional value. A space that is sculptural like a Calatrava train station or Frank Gehry music hall is a space that values aesthetics at least as highly as functionality. There is no reusability in curved magnesium panels.

Where experiements like the Earthship thrive is in finding a weighted balance that gives functional and sustainable solutions precedence over the purely conceptual aspects of architecture. What could be is grounded by ethical stewardship.

Lemuria is standing up to a heavy downpour quite well right now as the monsoonal storms lash over the high plateau. I think I can hear the water flowing into the cisterns and an occasional pump pushing water through filters. It almost seems more fantastical that we don’t build houses like this.

Novelty in the Age of Criticism

Lower Manhattan Panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ tonight.
Lower Manhattan panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ as I write this, with an awesomely aesthetic view.

Gary Cutting from Notre Dame and the New York Times knows how to incite an intellectual riot, as demonstrated by his most recent The Stone piece, Mozart vs. the Beatles. “High art” is superior to “low art” because of its “stunning intellectual and emotional complexity.” He sums up:

My argument is that this distinctively aesthetic value is of great importance in our lives and that works of high art achieve it much more fully than do works of popular art.

But what makes up these notions of complexity and distinctive aesthetic value? One might try to enumerate those values or create a list. Or, alternatively, one might instead claim that time serves as a sieve for the values that Cutting is claiming make one work of art superior to another, thus leaving open the possibility for the enumerated list approach to be incomplete but still a useful retrospective system of valuation.

I previously argued in a 1994 paper (published in 1997), Complexity Formalisms, Order and Disorder in the Structure of Art, that simplicity and random chaos exist in a careful balance in art that reflects our underlying grammatical systems that are used to predict the environment. And Jürgen Schmidhuber took the approach further by applying algorithmic information theory to novelty seeking behavior that leads, in turn, to aesthetically pleasing models. The reflection of this behavioral optimization in our sideline preoccupations emerges as art, with the ultimate causation machine of evolution driving the proximate consequences for men and women.

But let’s get back to the flaw I see in Cutting’s argument that, in turn, fits better with Schmidhuber’s approach: much of what is important in art is cultural novelty. Picasso is not aesthetically superior to the detailed hyper-reality of Dutch Masters, for instance, but is notable for his cultural deconstruction of the role of art as photography and reproduction took hold. And the simplicity and unstructured chaos of the Abstract Expressionists is culturally significant as well. Importantly, changes in technology are essential to changes in artistic outlook, from the aforementioned role of photography in diminishing the aesthetic value of hand renderings to the application of electronic instruments in Philip Glass symphonies. Is Mozart better than Glass or Stravinsky? Using this newer standard for aesthetics, no, because Mozart was working skillfully (and perhaps brilliantly) but within the harmonic model of Classical composition and Classical forms. He was one of many. But Wagner or Debussy changed the aural landscape, by comparison, and by the time of tone rows and aleatoric composition, conventional musical aesthetics were largely abandoned, if only fleetingly.

Modernism and postmodernism in prose and poetry follow similar trajectories, but I think there may have been a counter-opposing force to novelty seeking in much prose literature. That force is the requirement for narrative stories that are about human experiences, which is not a critical component of music or visual art. Human experience has a temporal flow and spatial unity. When novelists break these requirements in complex ways, writing becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend (perhaps a bit like aleatoric music?), so the efforts of novelists more often cling to convention while using other prose tools and stylistic fireworks to enhance the reader’s aesthetic valuations. Novelty hits less often, but often with greater challenges. Poetry has, by comparison, been more experimental in forms and concepts.

And architecture? Cutting’s Chartres versus Philip Johnson?

So, returning to Cutting, I have largely been arguing about the difficulty of calling one piece of what Cutting might declare high art as aesthetically superior to another piece of high art. But my goal is that if we use cultural novelty as the primary yardstick, then we need to reorder the valuations. Early rock and roll pioneers, early blues artists, early modern jazz impresarios—all the legends we can think of—get top billing alongside Debussy. Heavy metal, rap, and electronica inventors live proudly with the Baroque masters. They will likely survive that test-of-time criteria, too, because of the invention of recording technologies, which were not available to the Baroque composers.

Evolutionary Art and Architecture

With every great scientific advance there has been a coordinated series of changes in the Zeitgeist. Evolutionary theory has impacted everything from sociology through to literature, but there are some very sophisticated efforts in the arts that deserve more attention.

John Frazer’s Evolutionary Architecture is a great example. Now available as downloadable PDFs since it is out-of-print, Evolutionary Architecture asks the question, without fully answering it (how could it?), about how evolution-like processes can contribute to the design of structures:

And then there is William Latham’s evolutionary art that explores form derived from generative functions dating to 1989:

And the art extends to functional virtual creatures:

Arcosanti and Private Language

We (meaning my family) visited Paolo Soleri‘s Arcosanti in the high desert north of Phoenix today. Arcosanti is an attempt at an “arcology” meaning a dense urban structure that lives in harmony with the ecosystem around it. The term is a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology,” and the original motivator for the site was to prove that dense urban living without cars and yards could be ecologically sensible and could inspire a sense of connectedness and community that has been lost in the suburbanization of America.

The facility is both amazing in its vision and somewhat dated in its approach. The limitations arise from its beginnings in the 70s and the available technology at that time. Only recently have photovoltaic panels been introduced. There is no real exploitation of wind power. Food self-sufficiency is only beginning to be addressed with greenhouses. It’s no biotecture but, arguably, it is a primary intellectual bedrock for new urbanism and green building.

We hiked out to the observation platform, we toured the ceramics facility and foundry, we bought bells and T-shirts, and I picked up a copy of Paolo Soleri: What If? Collected Writings 1986-2000.

It’s a flawed book filled with a unique form of craziness. I remember that Teilhard de Chardin-style abstract craziness from my late teenage years when I read Omega Seed, but early on in this new compendium there is an admission by the compiler that there very well may be a private aspect to the ideas that fuel the Soleri way of art that are inaccessible to rational thinking and imperfect in any linguistic rendering:

For the best artists, thought runs on a track alongside art and does not touch it, does not converge, leaving for the art the nondiscursive, the ineffable part that cannot be treated adequately by thought, by ratiocination. But belief is another matter. It is private…almost beyond confession.

We sense that immediately as the compiler tries to frame Soleri’s aesthetic philosophy with Continental notions of Eternal Return, and then invokes Universal Turing Machines to try to attach a mathematical underpinning for the idea of progressive improvement of the human condition. It’s an odd cult of change that is grasping for justification in a private language of design and aesthetic realization. At its best it provides motivation for the forms and functions that we observe, but at its worst it was fuel for the kind of egotism that Soleri’s mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, was so famous for.