November 08, 2007

Dharmic Architecture - The Wisdom of Glenn Mercut

Juan Pablo Bonta warns in his 1979 book Archtecture and Its Interpretation "Architects are deluding themselves if they believe that they are addressing submissive audiences, eager to communicate; that their public wants by all means to understand (even to decipher, if necessary) the meaning of architecture as seen by the designer…What people want is to see their own meanings in the environment – with their own systems of values, from their own frames of reference, shaped by the expressive systems that they share with their community but not necessarily with the designer."

Perhaps then, there is something very, very important to learn from the 2002 Pritzker Prize (the Nobel or Pulitzer for architects) winner, Glenn Mercutt. The New York Times author Jim Lewis writes in his 2007 article "It may be easiest to explain who Glenn Murcutt is and what he does by explaining what he isn’t and does not do. To begin with, he doesn’t build outside Australia — never has — and so many of his fiercest fans have never actually seen his work. He has no staff, no draftsmen or model-builders, not even a secretary."

“Think of the building as an instrument that’s picking up all these sounds. So it’s addressing the hydrology, it’s addressing the geomorphology. It’s addressing the typography, the wind patterns, light patterns, altitude, latitude, the environment around you, the sun movements. It’s addressing the summer, the winter and the seasons in between. It’s addressing where the trees are, and where the trees are will tell you about the water table, the soil depth, climatic conditions," Mercutt told Lewis. “Our early survival was entirely related to observation. Listening, seeing, smelling, touching. We learned to read the water [when swimming]; to read the depth of the water, the way our bodies work in water. And air and water work in very similar ways. So to understand this was to understand currents and wind patterns. Then you understand topography, because topography defines the way wind will go.”

This is why Mercutt has turned down numerous offers for projects outside Australia, urban projects, big, flashy office compexes and skyscapers. In his 70's, he claims to only just started to understand the rural outback where he practices, and couldn't dream of trying to design elsewhere.

This semester I have met architects from firms which have thousands of employees and hundreds of offices. They boast opportunities to travel, in the US and internationally, which I would dearly love. Yet, Bonta's warning rings in my ears. The sollution I see is the path of Glenn Mercutt - as he quotes Thoreau: “Since most of us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important thing is to carry them out extraordinarily well.” Coming to know my client so as to intimately understand those meanings, values, and references they desire to see in their environment. And, more importantly, discovering a client with whom I share those values. That is a driving force behind my exploration of a "Dharmic Architecutre."

Mercutt: "Any work of architecture that has been designed, any work of architecture that has the potential to exist, or that exists, was discovered. It wasn’t created. Our role” — and the “our” seemed to refer to everyone on the planet — “is to be the discoverer, not the creator.”


TK said...

Well, alright, you convinced me that architecture is really a bunch of BS.

Seriously, Mercutts position does make some sense to me. In poetry, we also talk about "discovering" the poem. But your "dharmic architecture" seems something different. Mercutts speaks of discovering/revealing the form that is already placed there by the environment, but not yet seen. I don't think there is any role for the client in that discovery, other than for his functional needs. You, on the other hand, seem to speak of discovering the client's interpretation of his environment.

If you are to prepend "dharmic" to your approach, I'd think it should mean "the way it is" rather than "the way it seems to my client".

Monica said...

Well, of course architecture is BS. My degree isn't called a BSD because anyone actually thinks that stands for Bachelor of Science in Design.

I don't think Mercutt is refering to discovering the form already in the environment. He's not like a sculptor chipping away at the block of marble convinced there is a statue already inside it and ending up with David. What I believe he refers to the pre-existence of all possibilities.

Think 2+2=4. Did we invent that? Or did we just figure it out? And then come up with a way to express it in abstract language?

So a beam can rest on a two posts without falling down. Did we invent that? Or did we discover that would be the case through trial and error? We already had the beams and posts (tree branches) and we already had the natural laws (like gravity).

Did we really invent the wheel? Or did we just discover that round things roll?

It has nothing to do with "the way it is." It has everything to do with "the way it could be." That's where the client comes in, the users, the human beings who will dwell in the structure. Because architecture could be anything.

But what should it be?

TK said...

I think the difference between a sculptor and an architect is that a sculptor has nothing but his imagination to guide his creation, where as an architect has the environment and function to guide him in "discovering" the form around/in them.

If you are letting your client guide you in the discovery, then your client is the real architect and you'd be a mere architectural consultant. Tho, Gehry might have avoided the law suit and Chris Bangle loved by BMW drivers if they took that approach. But then, their works would've become just another safe me-toos.

Perhaps you meant that you would learn the environment through the client's experience in/of it. But then the question becomes, can you really discover the real thing without the first-hand experience of the environment? Without having listened the creek babble in the middle of the night as well as at noon? Without having breathed the stifling haze of the heat wave? Without having felt the terror of cyclone bearing down on your house?

Jorge Mejía said...

An alternative indeed, these "periphery" architects. Another Alvar Aalto Medal laureate (Murcutt was awarded in 1992), was Latin American architect Rogelio Salmona, who worked very much like Mr. Murcutt; always in his own country, with only a small crew of young architects for draftspeople. He always talked about architecture as a "revelation", something that "appeared", or that the architect was able to make apparent even though present before, but generally invisible. He also located this revelation between two stong forces: geography and history: between geography and history, he said, there is a line where architecture is built. Mr. Salmona died last month.

Monica said...

Jorje, I've hear Mr. Salmona's name occasionally, though I am not familiar with his work. I'll have to look him up.

TK, I think I object to the characterization as a "mere" anything, but that is just a gut-reflex, knee-jerk, ego-driven reaction. By the same token, I don't think an attorney would admit to being a mere legal consultant, even though if the client were as well versed in matters of law as the attorney, they would become superfluous.

It is often lamented that while other professions receive their due accorded to them by society, architecture is often underappreciated due to familiarity. People do not experience law or medicine on an every day basis, therefore they maintain their mystique, but we dwell constantly within the subject matter of architecture. After all, everyone lives in a building, works in a building (at some point), goes to school in buildings, etc. Therefore people often think they are qualified to design a building by simple familiarity. That is like saying that since we all watch movies we could all be actors or directors.

Also when one seeks out a lawyer or doctor, it is usually because something is most definitely wrong and when their services are over it is (hopefully) because they have fixed the problem. If an architect fixes a client’s problem, it is seldom noticed. Oh a new building might garner attention for a fleeting fifteen minutes of fame, but during the course of its life cycle, should it work well it is scarcely noticed. Often one cannot even compare it to similar building in order to draw judgment, since it is rare to switch homes or offices or gyms or anything else on an often enough basis to provide enough material for comparison.

All that being said “can you really discover the real thing without the first-hand experience of the environment?” – No. “Without having listened the creek babble in the middle of the night as well as at noon?” – Well, I don’t advocate 24 hour surveillance of a site due to the simple factor of exhaustion, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had the time and energy? “Without having breathed the stifling haze of the heat wave?” – I definitely think there is no substitute for first hand knowledge of all the seasons of a site (one of the reasons I am enjoying the Shambhala project so much is precisely because I do have that knowledge for a change), but humans have this amazing ability to learn from the experience of others if they are only willing to truly listen. It is a skill sadly underemphasized in our professional education. “Without having felt the terror of cyclone bearing down on your house?” – Personal experience of danger is often one of the few things which will make us take it seriously, but I refer back to the above answer.