Saturday, 23 March 2013

What Makes Architecture Humane

Omar Ahkbar, the Afghani who directed the Dessau Bauhaus creatively for several years, posed a question I’ll not soon forget, at a recent Berlin Conference on Urban Design: “What have our starchitects done for the common man?” Longish pause, before his solemn answer. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Because he is a thoroughly decent man, I’m sure he would be as thrilled as I am by the Pritzker(Sur)Prize choice of 2013: Toyo Ito of Japan.

With tiny (but rapidly growing) exceptions like Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity, our architectural geniuses hunger to be the Frank Lloyd Wrights of their generation. Sinclair’s “bible”, ”Design As If You Give a Damn”, urges his generation to use their talents in abolishing the scandal of the favela in the fastest growing Latin American economy. Or employing the energies of unacknowledged prefab geniuses like Charles Goodman of National Homes, Lafayette, Indiana to bring American families out of utter urban darkness. Or the two million Syrians scrabbling out of their hellhole to whatever tent town will take them. 
So cheer the good news of our newest Pritzker, who when his fellow Japanese were suffering from the homelessness of a tsunami in Rikuzentakata, he responded by forming “Home-for-All”, a coop that innovates to contain the pain and waste of the tragedies of their coevals. It all started at the Venice Biennale of 2012 when his collaborator Takamasa Yoshizaka designed “Architecture: Possible here? ‘Home-for-all’”, the dashes signifying the togetherness of their thinking. Toyo Ito curated the exhibition with the participation of architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, and Akihisa Hirata—visualized by the photographer Naoya Hatakeyama. Group aid, to ensure the future.

The photographer illustrated Rikuzintakata, before and after the tsunami. Models illustrated solutions to the new crisis. (That magazine—new to me, by the way--is a marvelously accessible way to keep on top of all such architectural innovations.) When their exposition won the Biennale’s Gold Lion in 2012, the jury noted that “the presentation and the storytelling in the Pavilion are exceptional and highly accessible to a broad audience. The jury was impressed with the humanity of this project.” Or in other words, humane architecture involves more than a slide-rule!)

It takes a visionary like Toyo Ito: "Immediately post-quake I proposed a project known as Home-for-All: an attempt to provide places where those who’ve lost their homes can enjoy a little breathing space—a place to meet, talk, eat and drink together. Those living in the temporary housing erected in the disaster zone may at least secured a minimum of privacy, but having lost their former communities, are compelled to live an isolated existence. Dwellings are small and thus unsociable.
Even just to talk to the next-door neighbors requires standing outside on a bare gravel road. It struck me that we could supply small wooden buildings, places for people to gather, in a corner of these temporary housing sites, and I launched a campaign to do so. Soliciting funds from companies and organizations around the world, the idea is also to have manufacturers supply the materials free of charge.” (Arch.Daily, op.cit.)

Toyo Ito is not only gifted physically in his work, but metaphysical as well: "Home-For-All” may indeed be a small project, but this process by which the buildings come to fruition is actually hugely significant, because it questions the very meaning of ‘individual’ in the modern sense. Since the onset of the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its individual originality. As a result the most primal themes—those of why a building is made, and for whom—have been forgotten.” 

AMEN! But not by Louis Kahn’s greatest protégé, Ricky Wurman, who in the 1970’s created a curriculum on architecture for the Philadelphia School System, currently lost in some long forgotten desk. We must recover it from ideological collapse of our educational system. Wurman went on to write a bookshelf of guides to our major cities. Then, he devised TED, that media genius that used the NPR empty Sundays to remind thoughtful Americans on why we are foundering! 

I’m going to recommend to Danny Miller, long the silent genius of the Terry Gross operation, that he get Wurman and Toyo ITO together on TED. We need their wisdom, not to mention their pizazz. (Go to “ArchitectureDaily” to learn about Toyo Ito’s superbly diverse achievements.) No SurPrize there!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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