Every time we pass Spain’s most famous building, we have something to say.
“La Sagrada Familia. More like La Sacada Familia. La Chingada Familia. La Putada Familia.”
“It looks like someone bought one of those nozzle attachments for cake icing and decided to just try all the settings.”
“There was a time when you had one of everything: one spire, one entrance, one rose window… and they were special. This thing has SIX rose windows. On this side alone.”
“Are they ever going to actually turn it into a cathedral once it’s done? Or would they rather keep making money? Because right now, it has no purpose. It’s just a monument to itself.”
“It’s like the Pepperidge Farm Bread of Catholic cathedrals. You finish it, and it still ain’t finished.”
“The construction cranes have now just become part of the building. Another style in the eclectic mix.”
This last one was my favorite. We wrote these down in a private place because we knew the world would scoff at us for not appreciating one of its wonders. Criticizing La Sagrada Familia sometimes feels like ordering tea at a bar: you won’t be rebutted logically, you’ll be overruled dictatorially. I had accepted this. But then, I noticed something: in many of the depictions of the cathedral in postcards, advertisements, and graphic designs around the city, the cranes were included! Most interestingly, in graphic designs. I wasn’t taking for granted that just because they were photographs that the cranes had to be there, since photoshopping has now become such common practice that a company with enough enthusiasm for La Sagrada Familia would take the extra time to spiff an image of it up by removing the cranes. So why have some artists chosen to remove the cranes, and some chosen to include them? Is this project a monument? A folly? A cathedral? The contradictory contours of Spanish pragmatic melodrama are briefly illuminated.
Picture you’re crossing a crosswalk, taking broad confident New York strides. The sidewalk curb up ahead is a full foot above the road, so you fix your eye on it and prepare to take that step up, knowing that failure to plan ahead will cause you to trip and look like a fool in front of all the taxis and tourists at a busy intersection. You’re only about 10 feet away now. Just a few more strides. Suddenly it clicks in your mind: left foot. Your left foot is going to be the one making the step up. The certainty causes your left leg to tingle. And surely enough, three strides from that first sensation, your left foot steps up onto the curb.
How does your body know so far in advance which foot will land on the curb? It’s all due to proprioception– the sense your body has of its own parts, especially while those parts are in motion. The more you use your body, walk around, and cross intersections, and particularly once you stop growing physically (at the end of puberty), your body settles into this constant awareness which includes not only its own appendages, but also an invisible sphere spreading out from your body. Your body seems to know a lot of useful measurements within that sphere using its own body, such as how many steps to that thing over there, how far will my feet hang off the side of this bed if I lie down, even how loud to speak so that person over there will hear. Is this a leftover from pre-civilization when we had to remain constantly aware of our surroundings, how far this bush was, how close that cave was, how many strides you’d have to take before leaping over that ravine? These are all measurements that your own body is calculating constantly.
Los Angeles enchanted me from the beginning because of the majestic scale of its urban sprawl. It wasn’t all quite as filthy as Blade Runner made me believe- many parts of it are beautiful mini-valleys and desert stretches which gave me an impression of a city much more collided with the natural landscape than I imagined. I took full advantage of this by visiting (that is, driving) to the Sepulveda Wildlife Recreation Area in Van Nuys, and doing something of a dérive with a 21st century twist. The bizarre hybrid of a lake too-perfectly-curved, barren ballfields, shanty-settlement underpasses, and golf clubs gave the whole landscape a surprising sense of resilience- the feeling that it could endure for another 100 years no matter what global changes will come about. After once chance turn I found myself walking on a long, long, long, straight, straight, straight dirt road that was caught right between the LA River and the Balboa Golf Course. Some way along that road I encountered a golf ball that someone had struck over the fence. Since no one was watching (let along even nearby for hundreds of feet), my childish instincts took over strong, and I approached it with strong strides and kicked it with all my might.
And I remember that, within three strides, my left leg started to tingle, signaling to me that I will strike the ball with that foot. As I continued to kick the ball along the road, my body guessed every time which foot would be the striking foot.
For the past couple of years I’ve been proudly cultivating a theory of architecture and sustainability which I believed bridged all of the gaps between my various interests in the field and which could usher in a truly new way of seeing things to unite designers, engineers, and the inhabitant. In essence, it espouses physical closeness to nature and celebrates common building systems which mediate the relationship between natural resources and dwelling, all in order to elevate the status of ‘sustainability’ in our consciousness. One basic example that follows this instruction is a green roof, since conceptually, moving the ground that would be displaced by the building footprint up to the roof preserves the total surface area of the ground (if viewed from above, a house with a green roof would blend in with its surroundings). Another variation of this example is earth-sheltering, where instead the building itself is partially sunk into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s high R-value. Both of these approaches force the designer and builder to consider what they are displacing, and continuously strive for balance and homeostasis as nature does.
The Centre Pompidou in Paris does this as well, embracing the building’s lifeblood and turning it out for all to see. When we learned about this building in architecture school the upshot (to be memorized for the final exam) was that it’s the apotheosis of postmodernism, which may be true, but it’s much more than that. In light of the sustainability struggle, the Centre Pompidou takes the important first step of bringing us in direct contact with the elements that flow within the earth itself: water, gas, electricity. Forcing us to confront these elements directly will hopefully lead us to value them more– so rather than shoving them out of sight, we put the space allotted for them on equal ground with the space allotted for us. All this serves to bind our fate as a species with the fate of the planet. Therein, my core principle of what it is to be human.
But in April in Mexico I picked up a book of Buckminster Fuller’s lectures, and my mind was changed. There are other ways to be sustainable– in fact, there are situations in which the act of ‘digging in’ and immersing oneself into the earth does more harm than good. In those situations, one has to do the opposite. Instead of assuming that he needs to directly contact the earth to dwell in it, Fuller instead is interested in “touching the earth lightly,” floating above it, creating space between us and it (like the inevitable gaps you get when you fill a jar with marbles). In Fuller’s worldview, the next stage of human evolution will discard the old violent instinct of displacing earth in place for a more aerodynamic lifestyle, controlled by those invisible forces that we’ve learned to manipulate like magnetism and gravity, closer resembling the greater cosmos itself. He also predicts we will have prefabricated houses installed by helicopter and that our resources to be used for the benefit of 100% of mankind.
And what follows that? The cosmos, naturally. Buckminster Fuller sees no reason why humans shouldn’t begin inhabiting other planets once technology allows it. He is binding humanity to scales both atomic and cosmic.
I mentioned this flip in my mind to Justin, and he said that his structural engineering firm is becoming more and more interested lately in design for disaster relief. He traveled to Kathmandu shortly after the earthquake in 2015 and was struck by how the overwhelming majority of houses were built of unreinforced masonry (practically the worst construction type to resist the lateral forces of earthquakes). Simply switching to lighter timber frames with moment connections would make the population a degree of magnitude more resilient. Furthermore, if an when a disaster does strike, the first thing most relief organizations do is air-drop food and shelter. Touching the earth lightly suddenly becomes a most valuable asset. I’m unsure if Buckminster Fuller specifically had disaster relief in mind, but it’s certainly becoming a reality for a wider and wider range of people than ever. Geodesic relief domes, delivered by helicopter, assembled in two hours by two people, may by necessity become the dwelling place of the future.
WALK UPRIGHT COUNT TO TEN
DRAW A LINE GO TO SLEEP
Syllabus atop a stool
Memento mori, unwillingly.
Yorick’s skull just now set down
(Like your hand once weighed ideas)
Warm erasers, smeared and dark
With residue of angel’s wings
Wood and steel and acetone
Bloodless, in the background
Nothing breathing, nothing cold,
Smoke escapes beyond the frame
(Sometime before, you fixed your eyes
Blasting forth that loving beam
Some lost limbs, were sliced like plans,
we lost our heads. New York burned down).
Shards of paint from fallen skies
If nine columns were to buckle,
Pushing out infesting life was
A nightmare you told us to have.
A headache in our gilded minds
Ideas, like voids, kick and scream
To be released from custody
back to mother’s arms.
Perfect stillness. Strain to think,
cease to be an architect,
fill the studio silence
which none of us admit:
that for this perfect still life
a frame of perfect death.
We wish we could continue
The same the same procession
That’s been performed since eighty two:
Us, in pointless black, weeping,
bearing monoliths with nothing inside
but ideas, nightmares, acute angels.
Bring this queen to her grave!, we sing,
Williams’ O mother of flames!, but
OMNIA CAMENAE IN VANITAS EST.
Now that you’re not here anymore
Will our world become… inhabited…
And everything unravel…?
Very rarely do two chapters of my life confront one another directly. Most of the time I pass my days evolving, hoping that things I have done in the past that became pieces of me will just fade into memory and not have to be repeated. But two of the great things about Charlotte is that she makes me want to open that wunderkammer of my past AND analyze it in the fresh light of my present self.
And so it happened that one evening after coming out of the Cinemex on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City. We had just seen Wonder Woman, about which there was much fanfare, specifically the debate about whether or not it was feminist. Our analysis of it boiled down to: the first half does indeed touch on numerous good topics for feminism, but the second half leaves them all undeveloped for the sake of tired superhero-movie cliches. Referring to the CGI’d and over-the-top final battle scene, Charlotte wondered aloud if it had jumped the shark.
“Jumping the shark” is one of many phrases of American English I learned from her since we started dating almost ten years ago. Every couple of months or so she will say something like “bull in a China shop” or “as the crow flies,” and I will have to ask her to explain. In this manner I learned what “jumping the shark” means, that it originated with the show Happy Days, where, in the fifth season, The Fonz (a character close to my heart for coincidental reasons) literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis– a scene which signaled that the show had exhausted all possibility of development and therefore had no other recourse but to do something truly over-the-top to maintain viewership.
I understood what Charlotte meant: like many superhero movies (both from DC and Marvel), Wonder Woman suffered from trying to cram too much plot into one feature. Attempting to fit an origin story, a love story, and three villains into 140 minutes, they dug themselves into a hole by the end, leaving no cinematic way out for Wonder Woman to defeat the bad guy other than with a kind of cataclysmic explosion. Using her mysterious powers (which we only hear a cursory explanation of) combined with the power of love (for a character which she had only known for a week), she absorbs the lighting-like energy from Ares into her wristbands, stores it, jumps (or flies) high into the air, then releases it back at him, causing a huge explosion. All that is left when the dust settles is a crater. The movie ends.
Seeing that scene, in conjunction with the phrase “jumping the shark” which was fresh in my mind, suddenly set off a whole train of thought which is the subject of this post.
As a teenager I was an enormous fan of the Akira Toriyama-created Japanese manga-turned-anime series Dragon Ball Z. This is the first time I am even publicly announcing this. Why it has never surfaced up to this point is most likely because of embarrassment in retrospect, since it is widely accepted that Western consumers of manga and anime are dorks to the maximum degree. Between about the ages of 12 and 17 it occupied much of my life, including that of my parents whom I regularly asked to leave work and come home to record new episodes on VHS while I was at music school. And like riding a bicycle, certain parts of the show have simply lodged themselves inside me, pegged to the pinboard of my brain like old postcards. Thus the story’s plot crossed my mind as I thought of Wonder Woman.
In short, Dragon Ball Z is about a Superman-type alien protagonist with superhuman powers who lands on Earth as a child and spends his entire life defending the planet from various enemies. The whole series sees no less than twenty main villains, and totals 291 episodes across 7 sagas. Think about that for a moment. For perspective, Lost, the ABC TV show which everyone agrees went on for too long and got too complicated, had only 121 episodes in total, less than HALF of DBZ. Eventually, a television show with such an ambitious scope has to run into serious narrative challenges developing the characters, making them stronger, making the stakes higher, etc. At what point does a show like DBZ jump the shark?
DBZ begins with the arrival on Earth of the protagonist Son Goku’s malicious older brother Raditz, who has come to kill the former. After 4 episodes, Son Goku sacrifices himself to defeat Raditz. That’s right: in episode 5 of 291, the protagonist dies.
What’s next after death? Akira Toriyama employs a storytelling method like many stories before and since. He suddenly zooms out of the story’s time and setting, introducing higher and higher dimensions in an expansive multiverse of which Earth exists on only the lowest rung. Once those higher dimensions and larger narrative frames are introduced, you can throw the old rules out the window and explain yourself out of trouble with brand new rules. To me, these dimensions have always been a cop-out, since the moment you learn that a hero goes to an afterlife and can be resurrected, the significance of fighting and dying in the Earth realm is irreversibly diminished.
But in most of the early stages of the story, we only know of one rung above the Earth realm, and that a person can only die and be brought back to life once. In other words, the story still imposes limitations on itself, and these limitations make the battles more exciting. Being impaled through the torso by an energy beam (in Raditz’s and Goku’s case, above) or being fatally dismembered by a sword (in Vegeta’s first case, below) are real, violent acts with real consequences.
However, as the story expands, the characters get stronger and stronger and quickly we lose our sense of reality. By episode 78 we have our first fighting power level (the universal measure of a character’s strength) of 1,000,000, a number which I think more than anything is usually employed to signal an amount beyond human understanding. This power level is reached by Freezer, one of the show’s most iconic arch-villains, who happens to be an alien who can not only destroy entire planets with a single attack, breathe in the vacuum of space, but also survive being dismembered by an energy disc in episode 104 (remember that in episode 35 Vegeta was about to be dismembered and killed by a regular metal sword, but was spared).
Before Freezer, we had villains like Vegeta, who, though powerful, also had weaknesses and were characters with depth. With Freezer, the precedent was set for villains who had no depth, who all fit the “Evil Chaotic” mold in the Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Chart. The Joker in the world of Batman fits this mold as well: a villain with vague origins and motives, who simply IS evil beyond any analysis, and exists only to destroy life. Where to go from there? Sharky waters loom.
The Android and Cell Sagas that followed took the same mold of Chaotic Evil villain and erased any possible remaining weaknesses. The Androids had unlimited energy (they could shoot energy beams all day long), and most notably, Cell possessed all of the heroes’ moves, including the ability to regenerate entire portions of his body. So much for dismemberment. Now, the only way to destroy Cell was to completely vaporize him with an energy wave (this was never explicitly stated, but everyone simply understood it). That, to me, is the ki equivalent of proclaiming a power level of one million: it signals that we are beyond the scale of human understanding.
In episode 189, even after self-destructing (!), one of Cell’s cells survives and mitotically restores him to his fighting form. He returns to the battlefield and charges up one last energy wave to destroy Earth as we know it, but is miraculously defeated (for real this time) by Goku’s son Gohan, with an almost identical energy wave.
But there remained something deeply unsatisfying in that vaporization of Cell. It felt like DBZ had painted itself into a corner. By creating an all-powerful, multidimensional, self-regenerating, alien-android hybrid supervillain, the show had to resort to nothing short of a cataclysm to make the good guys win. It was dealing in things beyond real human experience. It had jumped the shark. For the remainder of the show, the villains repeated this basic mold, the battles became drawn out and famously cut+paste, the story had to introduce multiple dimensions to justify complex plot lines… the series generally plateaued.
The energy waves in DBZ even resemble the beam that Wonder Woman absorbs and fires back at Ares: a linear, bright blue, plasma-like beam which, presumably like gamma radiation, simply vaporizes whatever it passes through. Was it even necessary for Wonder Woman to have this epic CGI battle with Ares? How do you follow that up? Will Wonder Woman’s enemy in the next movie be just a glowing cloud or omniscient God which so many Marvel villains seem to take the form of (see: Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; X:Men Apocalypse; Dormammu in Dr. Strange)? Wasn’t it exciting enough when she ran out into no man’s land and headlong into machine gun fire? Couldn’t the movie have made that the only battle scene? There felt to be more at stake in that first battle scene, precisely because the consequences were still within the realm of real human history and experience.
Introduce CGI villains with no apparent weaknesses at your own risk, because then you leave yourself no choice but to jump the shark, and splash right into the tepid pool of chlorinated water you yourself have filled.
GRASS COURTS: You are a purist. You enjoy tennis the way you enjoy a gin martini or a Japanese rock garden: traditional, tranquil, and as nature intended. Your most valued athletic qualities are agility, balance, and creativity– the quieter the atmosphere, the shorter the points, the more you feel like you’re witnessing something that’s been around since the dawn of time. However, you overlook that this is false nostalgia: grass courts and lawns in general are not pure nature, they are humankind’s aborted and artificially manicured image of nature. In fact, the great tradition of most British lawn sports (golf, cricket, croquet, bowling, even billiards) involves a disproportionately large area of land being occupied by a disproportionately small number of people for a disproportionately long period of time. You cling to the glory of past empires, when land ownership was the prime signifier of wealth. Nonetheless, this clinginess also means you value sportsmanship, civility, and the rule of law. You are a proud minority.
Rain Resilience: *
Chance of Injury: ***
HARD COURTS: You are enterprising and resourceful. Eager to get the job done, you set out for modern, pragmatic solutions that make sense to you, the everyman, rather than the tried-and-true formulas of unknown origin. Your most valued athletic qualities are power and charisma. Instead of pretending to control nature, you wipe it out entirely, replacing it with something simpler. However, in prioritizing short-term gains, you willfully ignore the inevitable moment when nature reclaims its domain. At that moment you will be forced to replace your replacement of nature, since it is patently inflexible and impossible to maintain. But this is the New World Order, where there are clear boundaries between opposites, like hot and cold, black and white, mine and yours, fit and injured… Hell with your body. The road to heaven is paved with concrete… and topped with a fine acrylic membrane.
Maintenance (short term): *
Maintenance (long term): *****
Rain Resilience: **
Chance of Injury: ****
CLAY COURTS: You are unpretentious and open-minded. Taking inspiration from the Earth itself, you strive for a solution that is soft, carefully layered, undeceptive, and encourages the user to maintain it him or herself (as opposed to hired staff) using basic tools. Your most valued athletic qualities are grit and patience. You often refer to your work in nuanced terms, unable to single out a superlative weapon or a preferred pattern, rather utilizing the full range of terms: power, speed, stamina, intelligence…. Minor impositions of nature such as drizzle, unpredictable bounces, or laundry do not bother you. In fact, these assets make you quite adaptable and attractive to many climates and cultures around the world, especially poorer ones. Moreover, most of the world’s best grew up playing on clay. You are global. But this also means you suffer from a crisis of identity: are you red clay, crushed brick, metabasalt, or sand? Are you old school, or the future? Are you popular, or imposing yourself? Are you original, or living in compromise?
“Jackie, that’s my daughter’s name. She just left for college in Europe. Wasn’t half a decade before we were best buddies, her in middle school, me working 20 hour weeks. That’s the time every kid starts to beat her dad at everything. Always been giving her sports to play and riddles to solve. First to the top of the tree, fastest to eat a hamburger, how much wood can a woodchuck chuck… or like this one I made up, as we sat watching the San Antonio River outside our house back in Floresville:
“Hey, Jackie. You see that shadow of the tree on the water? Is the shadow moving?”
Jackie smiled. “Of course not! The river is moving, but the shadow isn’t. Easy trick question.” She threw a pebble into the river, and it passed right through the tree trunk.
I smiled back. “Wrong. It is moving. Because the sun is moving. All shadows move, just very slowly.”
Jackie’s smile changed into a sneer. “That was a trick-trick question.”
Teenagers hate being trick-tricked. Especially when the trick is slowness, since as far as she was concerned the world wasn’t spinning fast enough. Soon enough the time came that she started solving my riddles, throwing the football farther, eating more hamburgers.
We set up an obstacle course in the yard with tires, ladders, and took turns completing it as fast as possible, while the other timed with my wristwatch. Jackie went first and finished it in 55 seconds. Then I went. I stumbled to the finish, touching the wall of our house and nearly smashing a hole in it.
“56 seconds!” Jackie yelped.
“Wait,” I huffed. “That can’t be. I was counting in my head, I got 55.”
“No. I got the watch. I was counting ticks, and I got 56 ticks.”
Well, here was an old man’s moment to prove he was still smarter than his kid.
“That’s wrong, Jac. A second is the amount of time in between ticks. So if you counted 56 ticks, that means 55 seconds.”
“No, you’re wrong, dad. The seconds are the ticks!”
“What, you think that a second is the amount of time it takes for the hand to jump from one tick to the next? Those don’t matter. We count the pauses in between those, in between the jumps.”
But she wasn’t hearing me. “It’s the total opposite! A second is the time it takes the hand to jump from one tick to the next.”
“Come on, Jackie, you know that’s not true. Look for yourself.” I showed her the watch.
“Yeah! One, two, three… that’s the seconds! You’re just being a sore loser.”
We went back and forth for another five minutes. She went inside. Normally she’d come around by dinnertime, but this one got her goat for the rest of they day. Next thing I knew she started high school, outside town, came home every day with hours of homework, weekends she spent with new friends, boyfriends, then summer camps. That was really the last summer we spent together. Though I’m sure she forgot that argument completely, I still shouldn’t’ve used the word true with her.
When she left I suddenly had so much free time I thought the world stopped spinning. Surely your folks had the same, huh? What’s a man like me to do, aside from take a trip somewhere? Came here, sent my ex-wife an email, tried to see if she still lived here. But she never answered. One day my legs couldn’t take the walking no more and I just collapsed onto a bench in front of a church. There was a park behind me and kids were playin’. Above the entry to the church, where you normally got a stained glass window, there was a big round carving, of one of those Aztec Gods. Body of a snake, head of a man, wrapped in a spiral, and the scales of the snake body had letters or numbers next to ‘em. In the middle of the spiral there was a metal rod stickin’ straight out. Then outta nowhere a man walks up to me holding a plastic chain and starts to talkin’ in Spanish about some trick he was gonna do, and raising his eyebrows at me, and I had to tell him no thank you ‘bout five times before he left. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up I had no idea what time it was, till I looked up at the church. The shadow of the metal rod had moved from one scale on the snake body to another. By God, I realized I was lookin’ at a sundial. That’s when I realized that Jackie was right. We were both right. Some clocks got jumpin’ hands, and a second is the pause between jumps, but some clocks got smooth movin’ hands, like that sundial, and a second is the slow jump from one tick to the next. A second is the jump.
In my version of the Hippocratic Oath for architects (which I decided should be called the Vitruvian Oath), I noticed a challenge: if architects and doctors are equals, what is the former’s analog for “healing” and “sick?” What is the core action, the operative verb, without which architecture wouldn’t exist?
Not an easy question to answer. Thinking about it only for a second, one realizes that “sheltering” may be the closest thing (which I chose to use), but that word is like a machete to most of the profession. Essentially any architectural endeavor that is cultural, commercial, industrial, sculptural, outdoors (that is, not residential) is excluded.
So what could the core principle be then? Doug Patt, with his book How To Architect, makes a strong case for turning the word “architect” into a verb, and using that. But I think this is heavy-handed, and brings up another problem which is teaching the layperson what “architecting” even implies. No, one must find a word that already has meaning to the Average Joe. I propose “placing.” That is: cultivating a sense of place for an inhabitant. For Average Joe, what does “being placed” mean? It means an awareness of and connection to one’s environment, a desire to visit it and participate in its life after construction, a pride and pleasure in it. This definition would include all types of works: outdoor & indoor, renovations & new construction, cultural & infrastructural, permanent & temporary, monumental & incremental, and all the rest.
The core question an architect should ask is “is my solution cultivating a sense of place for the people it will affect?” The Vitruvian Oath would then read something like:
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unplaced… may I long experience the joy of placing those who seek my help.
Doctors and architects all too often lumped together as roommates in the penthouse of the apartment building of educated society. One particular quality they share is the obligation to serve the public, to improve the livelihoods of others. Doctors, for various reasons, are more front and center in the eyes of the very society they serve than architects. Part of this is that life-and-death struggles are laid more bare in the emergency room than in the design studio– which makes doctors’ stories easier to transform into soap operas and other commercial enterprises. But part of it comes from the inside– doctors, upon receiving their MD, must take a verbal oath. This oath was originally conceived by Hippocrates in Hellenic Greece, and has taken various forms, the most common of which was written by Louis Lasagna in the 1960s. I won’t write it out here, for reasons below, but it’s available on the Johns Hopkins website (where Lasagna was Dean at the time he wrote his version of the oath).
It begs the question: why do doctors have this oath, and architects don’t? The latter are certainly made exhaustively aware of the responsibility because printed versions of this oath, none of them official, cross your eye at every stage of the path to licensure. Are architects too shy? Not a chance. Louis Sullivan and Hugh Hardy, who have each taught me quite a few things, brought a performative quality to their work. Sullivan lectured broadly and bombastically on this topic of architects’ code of conduct one hundred years ago. Hardy was a glittering personality who always sought to bring out the theatrical qualities of architecture– in both the built form and the emotions of its inhabitants. It remains a mystery why an official version of an architect’s implicit code of public conduct is missing from our records, and why we never take an oath.
It therefore occurred to me to simply write one, in the exact mold of Lasagna’s Hippocratic Oath. Below is that same oath, with certain words replaced and emphasized to address architecture instead of medicine.
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those architects in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the unsheltered, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overdesign and cookie-cutter solutions.
I will remember that there is art to architecture as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the architect’s pen or the engineer’s calculator.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a problem’s solution.
I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to build something, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to demolish something; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not serve a floor plan, a contract, but an unsheltered human being, whose dreams may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the unsheltered.
I will conserve the existing environment whenever I can, for conservation is preferable to replacement.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unsheltered.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sheltering those who seek my help.
“Unsheltered” here was used to replace “sick,” “infirm,” and terms like that. It might sound funny because the reality for some architects is the design of housing for the already-sheltered (high-end residential, I’m looking at you)– but I think this oath helps remind us of the “public service” part that is fundamental to the practice. Providing shelter is really the leading candidate for the most essential, basic service that architecture provides. High-end residential may be lucrative, but one should use it as a vehicle to get to design public housing. See Alexander Gorlin.
Many might recoil at the idea of taking a verbal oath, because it smacks of religion, of adherence to a belief or dogma, a notion that many young people today are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. In response to that niggle, I invoke David Foster Wallace. In his wonderful commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College called This Is Water, he said:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
I find it very hard to participate in this complex yet organized society, much less ascend to the higher, more respected, and burdensome positions in it, without having chosen something to steady the rudder, be a guiding light, or whatever metaphor you wish to use. I would say that, for the most part, architects already carry this guiding principle in their minds. The only difference I’m proposing is for some ceremony to exist, just like the MD’s donning of the white coats or the hand-on-heart when becoming a naturalized citizen. A ceremony would give the architect community some extra glue, and remind us of the responsibility we all share.