Saturday, July 23, 2005


Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier, one of the High Priests of architecture
Kyril Faenov recommended Christopher Alexander's new opus to me: The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order. Beyond the subject matter, the reviews are fascinating for the way they reveal architects as the ultimate cultists. That's ironic, since Alexander has always expounded an approach which is supposed to replace brain washing by a reasoning and understanding.

Reactions range from "book of the Century" and "magnificent", to "arbitrary and very personal pseudo-metaphysical remarks about architecture" and "flawed". Any book elicits a range of reactions, but this reminded me how architects are carried away by fads. They love movements and messiahs: modernism, brutalism, neo-classicism, post-modernism, ...; Kahn, Foster, Liebeskind, Calatrava, Gehry, ...

All culture is constantly swept by fashions, but the populus cannot avoid looking at and "wearing" what entrances architects. Couture and paintings are avoidable, but buildings aren't.

I suspect architects are particularly susceptible because they operated in the borderland between disciplines. They are neither sculptors nor engineers; their work isn't celebrated at the Venice Biennale, and an engineer has to sign their plans to certify that the building won't fall down. They don’t originate the idea to build something (developers do that), nor do they drive it to completion (the builders do that). They are supposed to be pragmatic enough to come up with something that can be built and used, yet idealistic enough to concoct compelling visions that can rally a city.

When you're on the margins, you have to live large or cower. It helps to have larger-than-life role models - hence the hero worship.

Architects have to navigate the complex terrain between a client's dream and the practicalities of building something usable. As Kyril pointed out to me,
"It is a place where you quickly realize that no amount of logic and analysis can help you make decisions, help get people on the same page, help you even get started. Something else that comes from inside breaks the inevitable paradoxes and deadlocks. The arrogant among them root their vision from which the design is built in their ego, the reflective ones seem compelled to dig deeper, which inevitably leads to philosophical/psychological questions. "
I suspect software architects may be in a similar situation to building architects, though their heroes and grand ideas are less visible to the public. Here's Kyril's comment:

"I think that software architects are in the same situation as the building architects when they have to and do take into the account business needs, as well as customer realities. That is a small percentage, from what I observe. Many are more like artists, find their rooting in the purity and rationality of a software idea, and avoid staring into the dark void of the business/customer/product nexus. I think entrepreneurs of any kind come closest to living in that nexus, with the added complexity of having to satisfy the irrational needs of their employees in addition to customers."

I just love that image of the dark void of the business/consumer/product nexus... small wonder that many architects need a little messianic motivation to keep them sane.

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