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ARCHITECTURE: IN SEARCH OF LOST VALUES

"And your children shall ask in times to come,
What mean these stones?' "

The Bible's Old Testament, Joshua 4:6

It has been more five years since the 20th century vanished behind closed doors, and at present, it is evident, that mainstream architecture of this century is characterized by the demolition of the architectural culture of the Western - i.e Ancient-Judaic-Christian Civilization created for the duration of three thousand years. Furthermore, this demolition is but one aspect of the general destruction of fundamental cultural bases of Western Civilization in the 20th century: religious, moral and family values, norms of behavior, the arts... In this century, this demolition was followed by a train of social shock, and sexual and other cultural revolutions.
Certainly, for understandable reasons, the damage of architectural culture proved less fatal, than the destruction of popular music. In the beginning of the 20th century, popular music culture was marked by precious pearls of folk and religious music, which had been nurtured throughout centuries in the shells of national cultures. However, by the mid-century, the most "progressive" trends of popular music, which reached an international status, had rolled down to the level of the Stone Age. And later, they progressed to the level of what one may presume to be one of the Neanderthal Era. Architecture undoubtedly falls behind such "advancements". Although, if one thinks about it, such "advancements" are significant enough in architecture, as well.
Born in the twilight preceding the thunderstorm of World War I, the Art Nouveau style had already abandoned the traditions of Western architecture. Resembling a sensitive seismograph, it had foreseen the future agitation of social and cultural bases of the Western civilization as a result of WWI. This was the War, which akin to some mustard gas, would poison Western culture for decades to come. After WWI, the historical arena was stormed by aggressive social movements, which had rejected the values of Western civilization altogether.
The mentioned social movements produced a tide that brought about equally radical cultural tendencies, which rejected traditions. Among these, possibly the most resolute, global, and well-thought were new ideas in architecture loosely united by the term "International Style".1 The aim of International Style was to completely reconstitute human-made environment - from teaspoons to systems of settlings - according to a set of very rigid rules and concepts. In the 20's and 30's this style marched triumphantly across countries and continents.
But, by mid-century its anti-human character, as well as the anti-human character of the social movements that had brought it to life, became clear.
Dislike for any rules and concepts in architecture, induced by the "International Style", was so strong, that Post-Modernism, which arose on its ruins, not only refused to re-establish bases of the Western architectural culture, but actually completely rejected any rules whatsoever. In fact, Post-Modernism became in the works of its leaders a purely formal style with a taste for shocking society and playing with architectural forms ranging extensively from deliberately boring or even deliberately ugly buildings, to so-called "kitsch" - provocative tastelessness and the strip-tease of sewer and other sorts of pipes.2
As for recently constructed buildings resembling random objects enlarged 100 times their size (abstract desktop figurines, parts of mechanisms, mattress springs or likewise junk), we see that these "creations", devoid of all tectonic and scale characteristics, stand outside the realm of architecture itself.
And yet, perhaps what became the most damaging trend in new architecture was pure buffoonery: illogical distortion of traditional forms of architecture, of its tectonics and composition, of its proportions, as well as distortion of scale in this Theater of the Absurd.
Since more than half a century ago, all this has been flowing down the streams of the "progressive" mass and elite culture, which continues to repudiate one after another, rules, stereotypes, and prohibitions of the Western civilization.
Evidently, buffoonery proves to be pointless in architectural context, because an infinitely observed architectural joke has the same effect as an infinitely repeated funny story. However, what is worse is, that in architecture, creation of the environment for the people, buffoonery can be simply dangerous. As I observed with tears in my eyes the walls of the World Trade Center towers disintegrating, I couldn't help remembering buffoonery projects published in architectural magazines of skyscrapers with disintegrated walls and mock ruins of buildings entitled "The Best".3
Unfortunately, the ruining of the WTC was executed at its best.
Minoru Yamasaki dreamed that his creation would bring people joy. Instead, his WTC skyscrapers brought death to thousands, suffering to tens of thousands of their relatives, and became nothing short of the symbol of national grief. These buildings, perhaps two of the best in the 20th century, at the same time along with others strayed from traditional architectural culture in their scale, composition, and proportions. Before 9/11 they were not only symbols of the country's economic wealth and power, but also of the entire Western civilization and its culture.
It wouldn't hurt to ask ourselves again: "Why was it a symbol of culture that became the target of the attack?"4
The weapon of cultural demolition launched at the beginning of the 20th century turned out to be a boomerang. Having devastated the cultural space of the West, it then struck the cultural space of the Orient and at the turn of the 21st century returned to the West, and hit hard.
Not so long ago Western civilization seemed immune to any shaking of its cultural foundations. Times of these light-headed delusions are past and gone. The WTC attack marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Western civilization - an epoch illuminated by a red light of danger. In this illumination it becomes clear that the "time to cast away stones", as the 20th century was, must be over. We have to gather the stones of the demolished culture together now - and do it in all spheres of life, including architecture, too. For us, the prodigal sons of architecture, who get lost in the stage setting of our own Theater of the Absurd, it is time to return to the eternal values of architectural culture.
I believe that among the most important of these values are the following:
- regional specifics of architecture;
- its aesthetic and emotional expressiveness;
- the use of well adjusted volume-spatial, layout, compositional, and tectonic solutions; of systems of its proportions and scales; and architectural forms themselves.
REGIONAL SPECIFICS OF ARCHITECTURE have always been determined by local climate, relief and natural resources, as well as by the psychology, social life, culture, and daily routine of a regional population. This was the way by which various organic regional architecture was born. First of all, there was various folk architecture with its wise volume-spatial and planning solutions, its masterful use of structural and decorative materials, and its richness of forms. Akin to the creation of nature, this architecture was adjusted ideally to local conditions and conformed to the basic natural law - the law of minimal expense of energy. Similarly, local conditions have always influenced and shaped the development of seemingly more universal, professional architecture. This was the way by which, world architecture with its richness and diversity came into existence.
In the early 19th century, Washington Irving wrote, "Trade caravans have not yet stomped out local uniquity". Alas, in the 20th century this was accomplished by various contemporary means of transportation, and later, by the establishment of a cobweb of TV and Internet communications with a "spider", the world standard, in the center. This is the "spider", which has sucked out the living juices of regional cultures. Regional architecture (including strange as it may seem, architecture of developed countries) also fell victim to this global "spider".
Standard industrial methods of construction; standard structural, insulatory, and decorative materials; standard heating, cooling, and ventilation systems; polarized glass and vacuum windows - all of these elements allow for the building of identical buildings in the North, South, East, and West. And this is how everything is built nowadays. One would think this economical and progressive, but in fact, primitive, wasteful of natural resources, and ecologically barbaric "technologism" has replaced the subtle art of designing with due regard for local conditions.
This "technologism" not only leveled various regional architecture, turning their richness and diversity of "languages" into one standard "Pidgin English", but to a large degree it also lowered the level of professional skill. The most universal indicator of the fallaciousness of this process is the significantly increased expenditure of energy for the construction and maintenance of buildings. This expenditure has become one of the main currents of global entropy of energy in modern times. This energy loss follows millions of years of energy accumulation, and it reflects general problems facing the Western civilization, including cultural energy loss.
Clearly, one of the ways to recreate modern architecture is to recreate various regional architecture in a manner compatible with modern methods of construction. Recreation in this case would mean more than just restoration of traditional forms, determined by the most important and stable local conditions (including stable cultural traits). It would mean bringing the building into harmony with local conditions by means of architecture itself. This approach may prove especially necessary and fertile in residential housing construction, which has particularly strong ties to the most stable local specifics, such as natural environment, social psychology, and daily habits.
In my opinion, the quality of these efforts should be estimated by the amount of expenditure of energy needed for the construction and maintenance of buildings. This will provide a new indicator of architectural quality: the energy index.
AESTHETIC AND EMOTIONAL EXPRESSIVENESS has always served as one of the most important quality indicators of architectural objects. Nowadays, this expressiveness has been largely lost. This has happened for a number of reasons, and in my judgment, the most important of them: 1) industrialized construction involves repetition of identical elements, and this provokes the effect of monotony; 2) increasing sizes of architectural structures complicates their perception by humans. To improve this situation, we must modernize the existing means of expressiveness and create new ones.
Apparently, large sized structures call for more distinct tectonics, as well as compositions with emphasis on intense light and shade contrasts, which are proper for distant viewing. This can be done, for example, by bringing out the essence of the structure "in all of its menacing nakedness", as K. Melnikov once wrote. Proportions also need to be defined more clearly. Their powerful effect on human perception was demonstrated by Mies van der Roe - perhaps the most refined and gifted artist of the "International Style" - in his ascetic buildings. Finally, I am convinced, that large or, at times, grandiose structures, call for specific organization of scale characteristics with distinct depiction of human scale.
If we want to resolve the problems of buildings' plasticity and proper architectural forms, we cannot afford to remain content with the usual method of concentrating on plastic expressiveness only at the first and last stories of a structure. The large size of contemporary buildings makes this emotional pause too extensive. Perhaps, it is necessary to ensure a clear perception of the plasticity of the entire building rather than simply the top and bottom.
As for the problem of monotony resulting from repetition of identical elements, I believe the solution is in the enrichment of composition, tectonics, and plasticity of buildings, as well as the use of more sophisticated industrial methods. Moreover, history shows that reiteration of cleverly designed details may serve as a incredibly strong means of architectural expressiveness.
One specific task would be to develop a modernized version of architectural order - a powerful source of scale and tectonic characteristics of buildings. Application of architectural order in modern architecture, which was established in the works of O. Perrais, P. Berens, and I. Fomin, is limited to extremely simplified and straightforward forms, inevitably deprived of such order of tectonic expressiveness. However, both F.L. Wright and P. Nervy demonstrated that industrial construction allows for the creation of tectonically expressive order. Moreover, structure assembly from pre-fabricated parts, paradoxically similar in its methodology to that of Ancient Greeks, allows for the recreation of order in all of its tectonic intensity. It goes without saying, that order should be a powerful structural system rather than a surface decoration.
Hence, I believe that traditional means of emotional and aesthetic expressiveness in architecture can be recreated in modern structures and enhanced by modern methods of construction.
We tend to consider our situation unique, while it is nothing but specific. All this is nothing new. Ancient Romans took Greek architectural systems, applied new construction techniques, and made them more effective and universal. On the basis of these techniques they also created new grandiose systems of architecture. Modern techniques are no less promising.
For example, modern construction allows for the building of wide-open interiors to the outside. This method enriches both the interior and the facade of the building. This can have a stunning effect. But, for this there is one condition - both the interior and exterior space must be beautiful and impressive.
There are even more opportunities in the creation of architectural allusions to objects of natural and artificial environments (a method used long ago by Claude Ledoux). Enlarged to a size of buildings, these objects (when possessing tectonic and scale characteristics) become a means of enormous emotional expressiveness. This has been proven by the great E. Saarinen and J. Utzon. There are many other possibilities of this sort.
Compared to single structures, building ensembles have even greater potential for emotional and aesthetic expressiveness. But, here there is one very important problem: nowadays, new buildings are predominantly erected within previously developed areas. Therefore, it is extremely important to incorporate the new building in the existing ensemble without disrupting it barbarically by discrepancy of scale characteristics. This is something similar to what we call "counterpoint" in music - harmonious sounding of several melodies at a time. This is the highest level of professional skill.
Such are some aspects of the problem.
THE USE OF WELL ADJUSTED VOLUME-SPATIAL, LAYOUT, COMPOSITIONAL, AND TECTONIC SOLUTIONS; PROPORTION AND SCALE SYSTEMS; AND ARCHITECTURAL FORMS has always been the work method utilized in the field of architecture. This method has aided to solve the challenges of satisfying and harmonizing numerous contradictory demands in the extraordinarily serious business of developing artificial environments for decades and centuries ahead. Most importantly, this method ensured high quality of architecture.
In folk architecture, the mentioned characteristics and certain types of buildings were fine-tuned for centuries similarly to the method of trial and error which occurs in nature itself - by means of natural selection. And similarly to all creations of nature, creations of folk architecture ideally satisfied all of the requirements.
In professional architecture, an architect has always worked within the framework of architectural schools and styles purposefully developed over decades and centuries. Each school developed a limited set of building types; very specific volume-spatial, layout, compositional, and tectonic solutions; specific proportion and scale systems; and forms. Even when the history of architecture took sharp turns, new schools were developed and established gradually, step-by-step, by ways of introducing small innovations. Even the greatest architectural giants created within the framework of well adjusted solutions. Iktin, for example, used the concepts of a peripheral temple and its architectural order system to create Parthenon. By his time, these concepts had been well adjusted both in general and detail-wise. The greatest masters of Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicist architecture - even the eclectics of the second half of the 19th century - worked in the same fashion. They were driven not by "creative trance", but by knowledge.
It was knowledge, which guaranteed the high quality of their creations. It was the way in which talent created a masterpiece. But, what is perhaps even more important, was, that in this way an ordinary architect was able to create common architecture of high quality.5 Knowledge prevented him from making grave mistakes. This knowledge placed architects at the level of scientists and engineers (as well as other masters of all forms of art). This knowledge was their greatest treasure and the backbone of their sense of dignity.
The 20th century changed everything.
In Art Nouveau, one can still deduce traces of a moth-like, short-lived school. The school "International Style", created in the 20s by a group of very talented and purposeful people, completely cut itself off from the past.6 Grown, as a clone from a cell of very limited number of methods and forms in the nutrient solution of odious social ideas, the International School thundered around the world and threw around a handful of similar-looking buildings, and became extinct shortly thereafter, like some unsuccessful clone. In the 40s, Le Corbusier, an architectural genius, who not unlike many of those with identical views, fell victim to his own unfortunate tendency to shout out his primitive slogans to the entire architectural world, attempted to humanize this school with the help of the system of human proportions. (Paradoxically at that time he worked in a Nazi state which was antagonistic to the "International Style" school). His attempt failed, and Le Corbusier, creator and captain of this sinking ship, was the first to desert it.
When the "International Style" school eventually became extinct and the Post-Modernist era arrived, architects, like schoolboys during recess, set out to do whatever they wanted, leaving behind all limiting rules.
This included the most complex and subtle ones - the rules of artistry - which by that time had been thoroughly forgotten. This era produced a new, previously unheard of mythical image of an architect who is capable of designing building in his own unique style, drawing ideas from nothing, but his own outlook, skill, and experience, and conforming to nothing, but the ever-changing architectural fashion.
Imagine this architect as he starts a new project, sitting alone in front of a sheet of draft paper - or in front of a computer screen. He has to deal on his own with the entire mind-breaking package of contradictory issues involved, such as: structural and functional tasks; engineering and equipment related tasks; economic issues; and artistic tasks of composition, tectonics, proportion, and scale. In addition to this, he has to create architectural forms from scratch...
Yes, during his career, every architect develops his own unique techniques, while more talented and purposeful ones even develop their own styles. And yes, large architectural companies operate by using a set of prepared, functional, structural, and stylistic solutions. And yes, private architects, as well as companies, specialize in certain types of buildings. Thus, the range of buildings they are capable of designing is not unlimited. Nevertheless, volume-spatial, layout, compositional, and tectonic tasks, as well as issues related to proportions, scale, and architectural forms, which modern architects face at the start of each new project, greatly exceed in number and complexity the problems, which faced architects, who had worked within the framework of certain architectural schools.
The disappearance of schools created a situation unprecedented in the history of architecture - this most precise and most responsible kind of art.
Incidents where architects are able to overcome this situation remain rare. In dwelling housing design, it helps to bring about stability of function and small number of building types. On the contrary, in the area of public, service, and office buildings, with their plurality and versatile functions and types of building themselves - buildings of various purpose and size, from small to grandiose - this problem of achieving multiple tasks becomes especially complex.
The consequences of this situation are too sad to discuss them further.
Apparently, to create high-quality modern architecture we must revive the phenomenon of the architectural school with once again, its refined building types; its well-adjusted, volume-spatial, layout, compositional, and tectonic solutions; its systems of proportions and scale; with its forms. Such a school would, as it always has, lean on everything valuable which arose in this so unfortunate for architecture (and not only), 20th century. And, I believe that it is necessary, as it was in previous times, to begin with a purely practical task of development of building types. As I.Zholtovsky said, "If there is a layout, there will be a facade".
Let us not fear uniformity. Moreover, let us not be afraid of losing our professional dignity and recently acquired, absolute creative freedom. By relieving architects of the monstrous burden of having to start every time from scratch, schools give them great creative freedom in project designing of concrete buildings. Not to mention, the truly professional joy of refining pre-existing methods and forms, and developing new ones on their basis.7
And, I do not believe that the masters of the past, who worked with the framework of architectural schools, for example, Iktin, Sangallo, or Cameron suffered the complex of the wounding of their professional dignity.
As for the so-called uniformity of architecture, resulting from working within the framework of school, one might reply, that stylistic unity of architectural ensembles and even whole towns has always been one of the most powerful means of architectural expression. And in general, "unified beauty is better than varied ugliness".
The real problem is: what is the way to develop many types of buildings in a short period of time? The volume of construction is huge, and time is short - unlike in the past, we do not have decades to establish new schools. I believe, that in this case, one could rely on computerized factorial analysis which I regard to be generally the most acceptable method of design of architectural objects as complex systems.
I am sure other methods can be found. However, we must actively search for them. Time is running out. As it has been said, "Knock, and it will open for you".
To support the aforesaid, I have developed a series of projects for different types of buildings. Some of them are attached to this article.
In my designs, I attempted to achieve full-value functional solutions and to use the most modern structures. Not having been able (as all modern architects) to work within the framework of a full-value modern architectural school, I leaned on volume-spatial, layout, compositional, and tectonic solutions; and principles of proportional systems developed by historic schools. This is true even for my most avant-garde projects. In some projects, in forms development I employed reminiscences of historic architectural forms, while avoiding literal citation. One of my main goals was to create distinct scale systems, especially as applied to large and extremely large buildings. Additionally, I attempted to combine the impression of grandiosity with the preservation of human scale (in its 'heroic' or 'real-size' version depending on the type of the building) as the unit of measure, and as a starting point. My goal was also to create regionally specific designs for specific local conditions. I also attempted to create emotionally and aesthetically expressive architecture. For this purpose, in my designs I used methods of revealing the structure of the building, of opening the interior outward, and the method of allusion. In certain projects, I followed the tasks of the incorporation of the building into a pre-existing ensemble. Finally, I took the liberty of designing contemporary structural architectural orders.


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And finally, let's mention the problem of creative freedom, the problem poignant to every individual more or less involved in the creative process. I suspect that desire to simply frolic and play at time in blessed fields of creativity is known to many not excluding myself. However, of all definitions of the great word "freedom", I choose the following formula: "Freedom is the sum of all limitations". And they are established by yet another old formula: "The artist is responsible to his nation". In our days of integration of relative national cultures, he becomes responsible to his civilization. This means that the Western artist is responsible to Western civilization.
One famous Russian poet of the 19th century wrote: "It is not for us to foresee how our word will echo". Yes, in details we cannot, but in general, we can. One can foresee that movies containing scenes of violence and pornography, will lead to the breakup of society's moral basis, and that deliberately ugly or buffoonery buildings will cause breakup of the society's aesthetic basis. Both lead to the destruction of the Western civilization's culture. Sly statements that these architectural opuses enrich the language of architecture will deceive no one. Every more or less literate professional can tell where there exists real enrichment of the architectural language, supported by fundamental culture of architecture, and where this culture is being demolished.
Let us look again into the dignified faces of the architects of the past. These people were aware of their responsibility as demiurges of the artificial environment. Giorgio Vasari wrote: "Filippo Brunelleschi left behind an aroma of his kindness in this world". Capella Pazzi...San Lorenzo...Innocenti...

What kind of aroma would the architecture of the 21st century leave behind?

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1 The pathos of denial of traditional architectural culture can be judged through the words of K. Melnikov, "Classical architecture and Art Nouveau style are two architectural jades."
2 "Can you play a nocturne on a rain water pipe like on a flute?", wrote a famous Russian poet in 1913, who was one of the antagonists of traditional culture. Unlike in those unforgettable times, naively labeled the "Belle Epoque", nowadays it is not only a flute of rain water pipe that they play. Now, they play on entire organs of sewer, rain-water, water, steam, vent, influent, and other pipes. And what they play is far from nocturnes.
3 They have nothing in common with the romantic ruins of 18th-19th century park pavilions: this was nostalgia for Antiquity.
4 Is there a reason, that the program of what they are building in place of TWC is, let's say, pretty strange? There seems to be no clear plan, nor is there a clear idea. I believe this is due to a lack of understanding of what had really happened on 9/11.
5 The powerfui impact of the force of architectural schools will strike you if, in the midst of abundantly decorated and clad in valuable finishing materials 19th to the beginning of 20th century development, you run across a humble, devoid of all embellishments plastered Classicist house, built by some unknown architect And you will be astonished by beautiful form, harmonious proportions, and noble appearance.
6 Characteristically, two out of three geniuses - the great chiefs of the "International Style" school had no professional education. This school, to a large extent, really was born out of nothing.
7 The history of architectural schools provides vivid evidence of the great variety of architectural solutions for buildings of one particular type. This applies to any school that conies to mind, be that Gothic, Renaissance, or even a branch of Baroque, such as Latin American Baroque School. I remember how happy I was working on the project of expanding a 19th century suburban villa built in the framework of one of the most charming branch of Classicism.

VIKTOR MASHINSKY
ARCHITECT
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