Thursday, November 25, 2010

Architecture and Thanksgiving

1. The Parthenon.
Today is the American Thanksgiving holiday. On this day we think about those things for which we are grateful. Family. Friends. Good health. Comfort. Etc. Those are the typical thoughts we express. Maybe there is room in our thoughts for architecture: the architecture we may be fortunate enough to inhabit or public architecture we might see in our daily lives. Such thoughts may seem too materialistic for the holiday, but I don’t see it that way.  

No doubt: architecture is a luxury. Sometimes community-minded people try to force it into some other category. “We need better architecture for the poor.”  Or, “Architects need to solve the homeless problem.” Such admonitions are really about shelter, not architecture. The solutions to these problems are, more often than not, political, economic, social, and, at times, structural. They are not really architectural. Architects may choose to devote time and effort to finding solutions to these serious problems; that is a good thing. And they may craft clever designs to meet the needs of those less fortunate. But the root cause of such problems is not fixed by architecture, no matter how fervently academics and idealists may wish it so. 
2. Baths of Diocletian, Rome.
Architecture is a luxury. Yes, it can be sustenance for aesthetic hunger, but that hunger only exists when real hunger is at bay. Architecture -- how buildings look and feel and elevate your thoughts -- is only important after we are clothed and warm. When we have shelter against the elements. If we are concerned about the appearance and arrangement of our environment, then our environment must already be providing us with food and shelter.
3. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow popularized the concept “hierarchy of needs.” In his theory of human psychology, architecture (as a creative endeavor) is not important until all baser needs have been satisfied. It falls under self-actualization, at the top of his schematic pyramid.  
4. Calatrava library, Zurich.
Architecture is only possible when something is going right. It is a sign that not everything in the world is collapsing. For those of us fortunate enough to experience architecture in some way in our lives, we should be thankful. For those of us who are architects we should also be grateful for the patrons that support our work. Few people in this world are able to afford the cost of architectural services, so architecture is a rare commodity. It is almost frivolous. Architects do not save lives like surgeons. We do not, as a result of our profession, feed the poor. Architects do not provide some essential service such as unclogging your drain like a plumber or plowing your street when it snows. Architecture only happens as an extraordinary effort to reach beyond the minimum. Architecture is a luxury. We need such luxuries. Why do surgeons save lives? Why do the poor need to be fed? Why do we need plumbers, maintenance crews, a good economy, world peace, and happiness? We need satisfaction in these areas so we can enjoy life. And when we are equipped to enjoy life, we start expanding our hierarchy of needs into the realms of art, literature, spirituality, song, and, sometimes, architecture. 
5. Lotus Temple.
I am thankful that in a world with a dire economy, climate change, and multiple wars we still have the means and time to create and experience beautiful architecture. I would like to believe that the more good architecture we are able to create is an indication we are solving some of our more important problems. If we have any good architecture at all, something is going right.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Photo Credits:
1. Thermos.
2. Anthony Majanlahti.
3. Wikicommons.
4. Wouter Homs.
5. Vandelizer