Sunday, August 12, 2007

i pity the fool

My good friend Mr. T left a comment on my last post that made me realize that the brevity of my comments may have been misleading. The full text of T's comments are below, with some interjections by myself:

A critical and possibly obvious distinction between branded building materials or components and branded complete environments or buildings is that components, no matter how innovative, will consistently be arranged and assembled according to old notions of space and comfort. Maybe this is the most reasonable and careful route to the “future.” It is certainly the most fluid and it’s not as though one could realistically argue for its end.

However, to submit completely to this kind of slow progress would, in fact, be a real break from history. It would also signal the validation of Tafuri’s grimmest assessment of the architect’s position in a capitalist society. The design of pre-fabricated homes as a supplement to the market’s new components has the potential to expand our ideas of home and even community at a broader scale than a new glazing system or refrigerator ever will. Without a comprehensive reexamination of pre-manufactured space, the use of new materials will effectively amount to “pimp my house.”

While I'm always a bit leery of applying Tafuri to contemporary problems in architecture, I completely agree with this. To flesh out my argument a bit further, I foresee the "pimp my house" situation as a status quo to rise above; domestic spaces are now being commodified in ways more complex than the simple application of "style". These hybrids of furniture, decoration and architecture must be exploited by architects if we are to maintain any agency in popular residential architecture.

While new products represent technological advances, new product-houses represent the synthesis of this technological growth along with cultural shifts. No, the pre-manufactured home is not new, but its continued development cannot be seen as the mere prolongation of a fad or trend. It has become established as a component of our built environment and, therefore, deserves further investigations.

This is as elegant and concise a way of presenting my current attentions as I can think of. Mr T., this is my new thesis statement.

Furthermore, while the market does innovate, it will only ever innovate in ways that sustain the market. For this to be a critique with any merit, the architect must, of course, have real aspirations beyond the market. So with this important condition in place, an architect can offer new ways of constructing that move beyond what the consumer will have otherwise. This is not a denial of the aegis of the consumer over the built environment, but it serves to reaffirm and validate the accumulated knowledge and trained effort of the architect as designer.

Rybczynski's main point seems to be that today’s pre-fab homes are just too expensive. This may be true, but as with any modern product innovation, costs decrease with increased production and market driven competition. Today’s consumer also sets a higher hurdle for the design of his home. As income gaps grow and the cult of the wealthy is fueled by widespread media reassurance, the poorest American has higher or more pointed expectations of comfort. In a hyper-commercialized society such as ours we must recognize that change requires effort.

Italics are mine above. That is a very good point about the dangers of free market determinism, and was the main reason I felt the need to address T's comments here. Architecture has many values beyond monetary value or status or anything related to commodity; the primary reason for the existence of architecture probably lies beyond the realm of calculable value, a fact is consistently overlooked. However, for architecture to regain any agency in residential and popular design, value- and product-driven concepts must be reintroduced into the architectural vocabulary. It is this synthesis that I am struggling to understand and project into the future.

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