Taking Stock



Volume 3, Issue 00
August 31, 2017


Critic, Yale School of Architecture

Kyle Dugdale was asked to comment on why he asks incoming Vis. I students to take stock of their convictions by writing an architectural manifesto, “a public declaration of principles, beliefs and objectives.”

In 1921 Le Corbusier wrote that “a man who practises a religion and does not believe in it is a poor wretch; he is to be pitied.”[1]

He was talking, of course, about architects.

That his statement should use the vocabulary of religion to discuss architecture comes as no surprise—today we’re accustomed to this particular appropriation.[2] And yet . . . on closer reading, it’s a curious assertion. After all, it’s not the conventional indictment of the man who doesn’t practice what he believes; rather, it’s a critique of the man who doesn’t believe what he practices.

I don’t always see eye to eye with Le Corbusier. But occasionally it’s worth uprooting a Corbusian aphorism from its natural habitat. In this instance the words are more resonant in French:

_Un homme qui pratique une religion et n’y croit pas, est un lâche; il est malheureux. Nous sommes malheureux . . .[3]_

Goodman’s recent translation of Vers une architecture is more precise than the classic rendition of 1927. The lâche of Le Corbusier’s critique is not merely a poor wretch. He’s a coward. And that’s worse. The wretch may be the hapless victim of circumstance; the coward must bear responsibility for his own cowardice. But more disconcerting still is what follows: “A man who practices a religion and does not believe in it is a coward; he is unhappy. We are unhappy . . .”[4] Suddenly the focus of critique shifts. We?

In fact, Le Corbusier goes on to criticize the great national schools of architecture. By their pedagogies they produce, he argues, a disingenuous profession, disenchanted and unemployed, boastful or sullen (désenchantés et inoccupés, hâbleurs ou moroses).[5] Such architects evidently do not believe in what they practice.

Practice without belief. Architecture void of conviction. Unhappy architects. Paprika! is no stranger to such topics. To quote a disputed article from an early issue on pedagogy, “one of the fundamental qualities needed in order to be a good architect is to know deeply what one believes about architecture. . . . The longer I am involved in architecture the more I am certain that to be successful one must have conviction about [one’s] work.”[6] These are fighting words.

Of course I cannot begin to answer for the consistency of my practice with my belief unless I know what I believe. At Yale School of Architecture, that belief is not imposed from on high. YSoA is light on doctrinal certitudes.[7] “The School adopts as basic policy a pluralistic approach to the teaching of architecture.”[8] But that in turn shifts the responsibility to the student. And to know what I believe—let alone to work out its implications for architecture—is not easy. We live, after all, in a disenchanted age. To extend the analogy with architecture, religion has been relegated to the domain of private affairs, and our society is only now realizing the effects of having abandoned a healthy public discourse on matters of belief. And yet every building, no matter how undistinguished, represents nothing less than the materialization of a set of beliefs. Those beliefs may be incoherent; they may be downright indefensible; or they may simply articulate the values of our contemporary consumerist culture—no doubt much of America’s built environment is today predicated on nothing else. It’s a strong culture; and to resist it requires a corresponding strength of conviction.

So if, as a discipline, we are to nurture our continuing devotion to architecture with a clear conscience, we should (as St Peter advised in his first epistle) be prepared to offer a coherent response to those who would question our practice. To write a manifesto is a hazardous endeavour that requires practice and demands courage, not least because our first attempts are typically fraught with pious banalities, bombastic hypocrisies, simplistic approximations. We’re hesitant, for good reason, to make definitive assertions. And if we pause for long enough to take stock of our convictions, it’s always possible that we might dislike what we discover. To articulate our beliefs—in the classroom as in studio or in print—is to expose our convictions to critique, to condemnation, perhaps even to correction.

And yet—in architecture as in religion—sincere disagreement is a sign of respect for the significance of what’s at stake. No?

[1] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (New York: Payson and Clarke, 1927), 14.

[2] Equally interesting is the corresponding use of the vocabulary of architecture to discuss religion.

[3] Le Corbusier-Saugnier, “Esthétique de l’ingénieur, Architecture,” L’Esprit nouveau 11–12 (November 1921): 1329.

[4] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman, ed. Jean-Louis Cohen (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 94.

[5] Le Corbusier-Saugnier, “Esthétique de l’ingénieur,” 1329; my translation.

[6] Daniel Luster, “Thoughts on the Pluralism of the YSoA,” Paprika! 2 (January 2015): 7. For the corresponding conviction that accompanies “relevant knowledge worth teaching”—deemed “rather tenuous in our academies”—see Rem Koolhaas, “Advancement versus Apocalypse,” in Ecological Urbanism, ed. Mohsen Mostafavi (Baden: Lars Müller, 2010), 61.

[7] Possibly excepting its staunch belief in the rejection of doctrinal certitudes.

[8] Yale School of Architecture, “History and Objectives of the School,” http://architecture.yale.edu/school/history-objectives. This statement has been circulating for at least forty years: see, for instance, the school’s entry in the 1976 Peterson’s Guide to Architecture Schools in North America. For the school’s longstanding commitment to pluralism see Robert A. M. Stern and Jimmy Stamp, Pedagogy and Place: 100 Years of Architecture Education at Yale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), passim.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

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Volume 3, Issue 00
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