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The pursuit of genius in architecture is what has most contributed to the unstitching of our urban fabric, giving us those buildings in outlandish shapes and unsightly materials that take a chunk of the city and make it into somewhere else…

Cooper Union New Academic Building

For the truly great projects, architects are necessary, and can take credit for magnificent structures like London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Istanbul’s Suleymanyie Mosque. Nevertheless, most architects of the buildings we love remain anonymous, and those who designed the great Gothic cathedrals owe their achievements as much to the guilds of stonemasons as to their own astonishing plans. Moreover, by far the greatest number of buildings that we admire had no architect at all. Think of the medieval houses that compose the hilltop towns of Italy, the great stone tenements of Edinburgh, the backwaters of Venice, the thousands of village churches scattered over Europe, and just about every other building stitched into the fabric of those places that we visit because they provide the soothing experience of a deep settlement and a shared home.

Reflecting on these matters I long ago drew the conclusion that the first principle of architecture is that most of us can do it. You can teach music, poetry, and painting. But what you learn will never suffice to make you into a composer, a poet, or a painter. There is that extra thing, which the romantics called “genius,” without which technique will never lead to real works of art. In the case of architecture, not only is the part that can be taught sufficient in itself, but also the belief that you need something else—genius, originality, creativity, etc.—is the principal threat to real success.

The pursuit of genius in architecture is what has most contributed to the unstitching of our urban fabric, giving us those buildings in outlandish shapes and unsightly materials that take a chunk of the city and make it into somewhere else, as Morphosis did with New York’s Cooper Square, or Zaha Hadid with the Port Authority Building in Antwerp.

These buildings that stand out when they should be fitting in declare the genius of their creators, with no consideration paid to the offense suffered by the rest of us. China is now littered with this stuff, and, as a result, there is no city in that country that has the remotest resemblance to a settlement.

In response, it will be said that we need to accommodate our growing populations, and to make efficient use of the land available for building, and how can we do this without architects? The refutation of this lies in the garden shed and the trailer. Almost all of us are capable of designing such a thing, and placing it in agreeable surroundings and conciliatory relation to its neighbors. The trailer park usually achieves a density of population far greater than the estate of tower-block apartments, and leaves the residents free to embellish their individual holdings with agreeable details, flower pots, even classical windows and doorways, along the edges of incipient streets.

In my experience, the most poignant illustration of these truths is provided by the gecekondu (= built in one night) around Ankara. An old Ottoman law, inherited from the Byzantine Empire and therefore from Rome, tells us that, if you have acquired a piece of land to which no one has a proven right of ownership and if you build a dwelling there in one night, you can assume a permanent right of residence. When Atatürk declared the ancient city of Ankara to be the capital of the new Turkey, he set the architects to work, building tower blocks and modern highways in regimented patterns that chill the heart and repel everyone who is not obliged by his work to reside there. Meanwhile, all around the capital, on the bare hills to which no one had a claim of ownership, there arose by an invisible hand some of the most harmonious settlements created in modern times: houses of one or two stories, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood, corrugated iron, and tiles, nestling close together since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside and with tracks running among them along which no car can pass.

In time, the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water and light their paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like grounded galaxies. They join together to form charitable associations, so as to build mosques in the ancient style and neighborhood schools beside them.

These suburbs are the most unpolluted (in every respect) that the modern world has produced, and contain more residents per square mile than any of the architect-designed banlieux around Paris. And they are produced in just the way that sheds are produced, by people using their God-given ability to knock things together so as to put a roof over their head.

Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (September 2018). 

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Photo credit: Beyond My Ken/flickr

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