By Timothy Hullihan
Humility and architecture are unlikely partners. We general accept the architecture of today as being grand and boastful; more about itself than the community in which it will reside or the people that will see and use it. This may be consistent with the 21st century ethos defined by impersonal forms of dialogue and surrounding ourselves with symbols of our personal achievements (real or exaggerated), but an architecture born from arrogance, however, falls short of greatness, for humility, as a pathway to transcendent beauty, is the common thread of all great works.
Architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel is the Pritsker Prize. It has been awarded annually since 1979. Its second recipient, Luis Barragán of Mexico, suggested such a pathway in his acceptance speech in 1980. In thanking the committee for recognizing his life’s work he said, “I am only a symbol for all those who have been touched by beauty.” Beauty, as Barragán’s work shows, can be found in something novel, daring, and vibrantly colorful, but not if it is self-referential. Beauty is connected to a broader universal notion that touches us all when we see it. To Barragán, beauty already existed. It is an everyday experience we all understand and share. Connecting to it is all that he needed. Acceptance of this humble pathway is what all great works of art and architecture have in common.
Writing for the Journal for Architectural Education, Professor Emeritus Gerald Walker from Clemson University suggests that architecture began to lose its way when it reduced its mission to that of “problem solving rather than artistic creation.” In Walker’s article entitled Architecture, Method and the Poetic Image he argues that much of architectural design has evolved in step with the scientific age to become a more rigorous discipline, abstracted from our common everyday understanding of beauty that is now less likely to be about the creation of art. Art is emotional and passionate, and the beauty it should capture surrounds our everyday lives. The necessarily objective methodologies of science cannot allow for such intangibles and cannot be the methodologies of art.
Walker uses Louis Sullivan’s discussion of the “mournful Southern Pine” to contrast the scientific view of a pine tree. Louis Sullivan, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright who practiced in Chicago in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, is considered by many to be the father of modern architecture and the creator of the modern skyscraper. To write and speak poetically in recognition of the beauty that surrounds us shows Sullivan’s humility and sensitivity was similar to Barragán’s. Although their styles are dramatically different, their architecture connects to the everyday, humble essence of beauty in similar ways. In science, and in a process-driven design Walker feared, the Southern Pine is no longer mournful and it becomes merely pinus palustris. In science, things become classified, categorized, objectified and wholly stripped of any meaning or subjective value.
In a more rigorous and objective development of buildings, beauty is hypothetically the result of a perfectly refined process rather than flowing from the emotions and experiences of the everyday that all humanity can share. The suggestion that “form follows function” is the ultimate excuse for the selfish aesthetics and dehumanizing effects of utilitarian, process-driven design. The mere suggestion the beauty is hypothetical makes one aware immediately that the beholders of this theory fail to recognize that beauty need not be discovered. It is all around us.
West Palm Beach is in danger of falling victim to 2 projects that fail to capture the beauty of our City and gather it into the design. When I look at the renderings of the Chapel-by-the-Lake Condominium, I see nothing but blind arrogance. I wonder how anyone could
overlook the beauty of our city’s precious waterfront, and replace it instead with an enormous monument to greed. Beauty already exists in abundance there. The architecture on that site should be humble and sensitive enough to become part of our city’s incredible waterfront and re-present its beauty to us in a new and exciting way. It should not be arrogant and try to create beauty as if it were lacking, or privatize it for a select few.
Our future train station is the very height of arrogance. All Abound Florida’s we-can-do-whatever-we-want-attitude has combined dangerously with an out-of-town architect. The arrogant owner cares little for the ramifications of formulaic success, while the out-of-town architect is spiritually disconnected from the essence of our city. Hence, a contingent-less aesthetic whose crisp and place-neutral design allows for it to land
equally well in any place or time, is the result. I cannot imagine anything more foreign and inappropriate to our City’s future than that illustrated above (a view of Quadrille Boulevard looking south). We, the people of West Palm Beach, would be better served by a design that was specific to our city and responsive to its unique beauty and sense of place.
Look closely at the rendering and you will see it includes numerous pedestrians making a harrowing walk along a narrow sidewalk that divides Quadrille Boulevard from a high-speed rail line. It illustrates a frightening pedestrian experience one would chose only accidentally in a desperate search for how to walk to City Place or the new station from the east now that the once familiar and comfortable streets are closed.
I can understand how it would be difficult to be humble when huge “transformational” projects are in your charge, but I cannot understand how we fail to find architects with the sensitivity of Louis Sullivan or Luis Barragán to balance an owner’s arrogance with humility and the genius to make these projects great.
I, for one, believe those types of architects still exist.
Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer living in North Palm Beach.