Aspirational Aesthetics

by by By Alexandra Corrigan

illustration by by Becca Levinson

What kind of spaces do we make now? And how are they made? Architecture teaches, more purely than philosophy, what our society or state holds most important. Buildings are aspirational aesthetics. Architecture links the past (what we hold important and want to remember) with the future. It doesn’t capture a single time, but an imagined future space. The present becomes a fertile reference to understand the future.

This past month, two architects came to Brown University to present very different ideas. Both presentations spoke to the question of how we build spaces and places that have a better relationship with our contemporary world. In the first, on March 5, Swiss “nomad” Not Vital gave a presentation on his life’s work entitled “When Architecture is Sculpture.” Primarily an artist, Vital works to expand sculpture to an extreme—and absurdist—scale. He represents a particular tension of the role of the artist and the necessity of the subtle. Unlike many other popular artists in his field, his sculptures and architectural elements have no evidence of any hand or craftiness. Instead, the works’ ideas are crafty: one of his outstanding pieces is a “House to Watch the Sunset” in Agadir, Niger.

His speech echoed loudly three days later when Bjarke Ingels, of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) spoke to a packed audience of 600 in Brown’s Salomon Center auditorium. Both architects had the wildly optimistic appeal of a speaker at a TED conference, pointing towards a future in which we fix our way of life onto our surroundings. It is as if interior life is inherently incongruous with the material world, and they have the cure. As opposed to Vital’s subtle, quiet nature, however, Brown professor Dietrich Neumann calls Bjarke Ingels the “rockstar” of the architectural world. Neumann nearly aligns Dutch Ingels with the late 20th century’s controversial “starchitects,” whose extravagant and extravagantly-priced buildings have been slowly deflating in value in the private market. Post-modern and post-colonial scholars’ preoccupation with space influenced the starchitecture phenomenon more than ever, creating a generation of architects with theories and grandiose commentary on contemporary society, which translated into grandiose buildings. As starchitects, deconstructivists, and the buildings of their peers (think: Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas) age, BIG takes over.

BIG’s firm has a larger-than-life presence. Ingels read through descriptions of giant structures including museums in ditches, buildings over highways and parks that were entirely black. He did not frame his dialogue in the language of compromise, however. Instead, Ingels’s speech first set up impossibly opposed ideas: a highway system and a safe apartment building, or a museum that must take up no space above ground. He then managed to forge the seemingly impossible out of existing surroundings. In one example, he presented an apartment building on the west side of Manhattan that couldn’t afford to have a courtyard, green space, and still be a safe place to live. He then showed a video of plans approved to be built this year of that exact building as Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” played in the background. He and his design firm confirm that what we want is okay, and even can be seen and lived in the future. Ingels’s creation of large-scale urban design for communities is design-panacea to capitalism. One of his main categories for framing his designs is “hedonistic sustainability.”

BIG’s rigorous questioning of the possible proves that architecture is the megalomaniac’s art. The architect, unlike the artist, must create something that makes possible the inhabitants’ way of life. The slow processes of designing, funding, and building structures requires the architect to decide on his or her insight into the future. Like elected officials, the drafting of a blueprint is akin to drafting a constitution: what kind of structure should we and our society live in? What kind of morals do we aspire to? The decisions about how we live are also aspirational. Distant ideals of the future are envisioned spatially. To find the blueprint of the future, we only need to seriously consider architecture without limitations of utility or aesthetics. Architecture once lay in a middle ground between pure aesthetics and pure utility, which limited spatial structures to traditional aesthetics and traditional utility. This is now changing.

With the advent of new technologies and communication, globalization seems to suggest that we’re entering a “placeless” world. Scholars who disagree exist in fields as disparate as literary theory, politics, urban planning and film theory. The list could go on, but the point illustrated is that the concept of architecture as between therefore not accountable to aesthetics or socio-economic-political reality. This might explain new fields that connect these ideas of spatiality: psychogeography, urban studies, anthropological theories of art.
From starchitects to BIG and beyond, new architects’ all-encompassing attitude shows that they understand just how powerful architecture is to choose the philosophies they make concrete. Ingels showed his hand in administering social justice in his redesign for Copenhagen parks that only included input from Arab immigrants in the city. As Ingels remarked, “We don’t eat Indian food to be nice to Indians. Therefore, we don’t use Moroccan architecture to be nice to Moroccans.” Both encouraging hyper-competition and eschewing old, dated ideas of design, he shows his hand in reworking entire social structures of his home city.

BIG and other firms embody this realization of architecture’s relationship to philosophy and its ramifications of designing our entire world. Le Corbusier’s famous description of architecture, the “machine for living,” derives from and should be held accountable to larger philosophies and understandings of space. Our world isn’t becoming placeless. Rather, the places are inconstant and definitively express new aspirations. The creation of new spaces, from installation art to public projects, are a rich field for understanding what the human condition is today.

Compared to Ingels’s rockstar notoriety, Not Vital is an enigma. He speaks in a quiet Romansch accent. Romansch, as he loves to explain, is what he speaks at home: a derivative of Latin only preserved in the unreachable, inhospitable valleys of the Swiss Alps. His name appears crafted as an ironic, aloof artist’s gesture. But Not Vital is, simply, a traditional Swiss name.

His works range from small sculpture to giant buildings to an entire island in South America (made of crystal!). His houses are titled: House to Look at the Moon, House to watch the Sunset, House that sinks into the snow so deer can play.

Vital’s work appears child-like in its optimism, but inflicts a stark view on society’s spatial state. It asks, as do many anthropologists and other scholars, how and for what purpose the globalized world has been made. Have social, economic or political conditions gone so far as to make some forget to look at the moon without a material reminder? Vital’s buildings are impractical, and yet he lives in them. More than a “lifestyle,” his way of life begs the same questions as his art. Is there something disturbed about the natural order that this hope and creativity are relegated out of utility to art?

Of course, part of Vital’s work speaks to not only a phenomenon of experiential art but also to the current importance of minimalism in Europe. Swiss Minimalism is today most famously embodied by Peter Zumthor and Herzog & de Meuron, who use organic materials to create large-scale, peaceful structures. They avoid the vernacular, ornamental, or kitsch in favor of the sustainable and refined. However, even as building materials get cheaper, labor and the label of an elite design firm have become more expensive. Minimalist structures give the appearance of simplicity and frugality in a visual lie of omission. Not Vital’s works mimic this minimal look, but show its absurdity through the play with its own necessity. Do we need a House that sinks into the snow so deer can play?

Vital’s prodding of the false-superficiality of design is onto something. Architectural criticism can help to explain philosophical and cultural implications of minimalism. In a recent editorial, Columbia professor Thomas De Monchaux compared Europe’s politics of austerity to architectural minimalism. He wrote, “Those who, consciously or not, exploit the aesthetics of austerity as a way of framing a debate on public ethics may discover, too, a hidden cost.” Once the epicenter of a seemingly seamless progression of architecture and philosophy, the EU now shows its fractures. Like statesmen, architects BIG and Not Vital seem to feel the need to fix their home continent through design. Bjarke Ingels assigns himself large-scale social problems, revitalizing public space and discourse about responsibility of urban structures. Vital also takes on this role of a citizen of the world by humanizing the European legacy of minimal architecture.

Both architects are European through and through, embodying a certain tension in the decline of the continent. To look to the future, we can look at who is building it today. Which is what the committee for architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, did when it shocked architecture observers in February. By announcing the winner as a subtle and unknown Chinese architect, Wang Shu, they embraced the fact that the most spectacular, society-constructing design is not in Europe. The first Chinese national to win, Shu makes large-scale buildings with an emphasis on local, sustainable materials. Architects are still trying to design the future by bridging architecture’s timeless and timely gaps: aesthetics and utility; hedonism and social justice; exciting and sustainable; small and big; the new and the old.

ALEXANDRA CORRIGAN B’12 is dreaming of invisible cities.