Growing up in Southern California, it dawned on me long ago cars here were not unlike clothes among well-dressed urbanites in cities like New York or that capital of fashion, Paris. That, for an LA person, our clothes weigh one or two tons sounds impractical, but what people will do for self-expression is not about practicality. No, far more important in the scheme of things, almost Life or Death in fact, is the meaning we give life, and arguably nothing is more key to that than who we think we are. Our identity becomes the kernel of self-expression in the context of our larger social group. We have a primal urge to know who we are and express it. And, there’s a strong aspirational aspect to self expression. We often express who we’d like to be, and, like renting that Ferrari 308 for a weekend, we hope and pray our reality catches up before the credit card bill comes due.
When you think about it, buildings are like clothes too. Yes, they keep the rain out like a good raincoat should, but they, too, present themselves to the street as an owner, a corporation, or a homeowner would like to express themselves to their larger social group. When done well, the inside is not only comfortable like a trusty old sweater, but becomes a launchpad for a good life by serving as a good physical template. If life is like a lucid dream, good architecture has the power to facilitate that dream life we’d all like to have.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been considering the distressed state of cities like LA and San Francisco and have written extensively about it. What I’ve only just realized is the story our buildings have been telling us for decades prior to the state we’re in. As it turns out, it’s very telling.
Going back to the heyday of Postmodern architecture circa 1975-1985, intellectuals in our field of building design like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown told us it was o.k. to learn from Las Vegas, that buildings can serve a more purely messaging function in a similar way to an advertising billboard, or a big box casino that is little more than gingerbread on a giant shoebox. What would have been thought of at the time as schlocky bad architecture was celebrated as schlocky good architecture, even if it was a purely accidental byproduct of trying to create billboard buildings on the cheap.
Fast forward a decade or two and the quality of our commercial buildings went hand-in-glove with uber-capitalism. The problem to solve was not how to make our cities more beautiful, nor was it to facilitate a good life. No, the focus was, and still is, how to get the most bang for the fewest bucks. And the “bang” was bucks, in other words, how to get the most bucks for the fewest bucks. Look behind the building façade and did you notice the soul was missing? After decades of rinse and repeat on this track, did you notice American cities, emblematic of our social group, largely lost their soul?
It is arguably the disconnection of the individual from soul which leads to mass shootings, shoplifting, looting, rampant substance abuse, hunger, and homelessness. I believe people, at their core, are born with limitless potential but something happens to them along the way to adulthood: the vicious cycle of poverty, a missing parent, living in a soulless city where money is king, a psychological void being badly filled by self-medication, or constant exposure to violent vengeance being celebrated in mass media and computer games whose intention is not necessarily evil, just soulless. No one is deliberately trying to create an apocalypse. Just like the gangster who says to his victim before pulling the trigger, it’s just business.
Some 21% of CEO’s are purportedly sociopaths, a higher percentage than in the prison population. This should tell us the system is sick at the top and needs fixing. We building architects can see ourselves as victims of the sociopathy rather than facilitators–just following orders from the top. Or some of us can take the initiative to inject soulfulness where none exists, even if it cuts into our bottom line when we spend more time for the dollars we get.
I think we’ve finally hit a fork in the road. As a society, we need to carefully consider our way forward from here. Buildings, like clothes and cars, are emblematic of our self-identify, but they are aspirational as well. They can be the byproduct of soullessness or the kernel of creating soul by the force of our intention. God willing, a good future may await if we choose wisely.