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Big reply to The Big Rethink

The AR’s campagin sets such a high bar it may be impossible to satisfactoraly fulfill it’s manifesto

I have hugely enjoyed the initial essays in The Big Rethink. The glorious permission these frank articles have been given to nip at the hands that typically feed contemporary architectural journalism suggests that the editors believe a nominally hypothetical tone and green paper stock forgive much. These infectious articles delight in all of their prominent zealous idealism and a rigorous philosophical depth which Generation Y are said to have forgotten. The expectations you raise by your critique place a possibly unattainable demand on your subsequent articles to provide means for a promised alternative. I have desired the integrated architecture you espouse; and the following are some of the challenges I find.

A digital version of Peter Buchanan’s 4th The Big Rethink essay in last month’s issue

‘Pathological polarisation of wealth’ (Jan, p75): I am a rich young man, I am the one per cent, even without car or pension, I have clean running water, a tertiary education, a personal computer; I need your future articles to tell me how to live up to, and what to give up to enter, your integral architecture − perhaps illustrated by fewer Oxbridge college projects, and no inordinately expensive private houses or vehicles of corporate and state power. According to the footprint which you and Michael Sorkin described at the Future Frontiers lecture, please illustrate your Rethink with the Ghanaian Guatemalan standard of delightful but achievable architecture such as the meeker 99 per cent will inherit.

‘Integrating externalities’ (Feb, p87): the externalities that I can discount are my competitive edge. As 10p for sustainable carrier bags fails to convince the unwilling and even threatens to fatigue the willing by such a bombardment of religious bullying, your future articles need to cover the cost and demonstrate workable incentives on issues of capital outlay (eg, Rifkin’s hydrogen cells, Feb, p97; Mar, p24), rootedness (Feb, p87) and obligation to descendants (Feb, p87). Architects cannot predicate an Integral theory on the limitless charitable beneficence of their client, and, as Kevin Rhowbotham (Your Views, March) warns, you risk a tyranny of sentimentality to achieve the ‘all joined up’ vision (Mar, p25). And yet … I have seen architects working for the joy alone. I have worked for the joy and it was joyful, but these are too few and far between, the theory you propose needs to quantify a time-scale of urgent adoption commensurate with the doom mongering you are motivated by.

To this end, I also need help with the problem of the selfish human heart, which I remain to be convinced is evolving in any ‘huge evolutionary leap’. As the Villa Savoye is ‘self-contained and selfish’, I too am selfish, I am incorrigible, I do not do the good I want to do, and ultimately I should like to be self-contained, I would like just a little more space, as a buffer between me and the world. The paranoia of the Smithsons is a valid reaction to violence and so this selfishness is self-defence against a dangerous world.

By contrast, a world in which ‘lonely’ (Apr, p78) people could lower their defences and drop their distractions is a beautiful design, especially given the environmental cost of these wallings-off. You propose that ‘We defended ourselves against a meaningless, dead universe … but once we understand … the cosmos is alive we will want … to better embrace … this ever-evolving being’ (Feb, p91). However, not all spirituality is good spirituality, as ‘transmoderns’ we need to discriminate; if you are suggesting that we could open ourselves to a spiritual reality, you must argue that the living cosmos or Gaia is benign (my own experience of such communities has been marked by fear).

Furthermore, anxiety related to ‘rain and harvest’ (Mar, p73) persists in drought today and is not really assuaged by the development of a higher spiritual consciousness that would distinguish a ‘Pre-Trans Fallacy’ (Mar, p71), we are still finite knowers in a volatile world. To coax your readership out of their defences, future essays need a convincing risk assessment.

Such a cost-benefit analysis seeks an inspiring vision of ‘what the good life would be’ (Feb, p89) which I think you offer an answer to within the essay. The good life comes by right knowing (as Corb knew the classics − Mar, p78), right thinking (as Einstein, on a higher level − Mar, p68), right doing (in accord with one’s values − Feb, p92) and ultimately right being (as in a ‘City of Being’ − Mar, p77). A ‘City of Being’ is assuredly preferable to a ‘City of Doing’ but it did not attain a quality of ‘being’ retrospectively, the builders had learnt to dwell before they built, and so must we first learn how to Be. But how? Surely Being is a given into which we are thrown? At its most active, Being is a posture, perhaps future essays could assist our posture. And if, as I would agree, the posture is to be one of ‘gratitude and reverence’ (Apr, p66), future essays need to direct us to whom we are to give our thanks.

Concluding, I would like to be helped in the application of the decompartmentalisation you propose. The appeal of an integrated future is universal, however, the intermediate steps need to be translated for diversity of participants in a building’s genesis. For example, the promised happiness of integral architecture’s ‘ceiling heights’ (Apr, p82) needs to offer builders a tangible value such as would eventually offset the sacrifice now. Likewise, the ‘broad external stairs’ (Apr, p82) need to exceed ‘access’-related tokenism to more than satisfy legitimate litigation anxiety. Otherwise such utopian writing serves to fan the flames of miserablism among architects who seem to relish the futility of their disempowerment. In this way, the question of ‘who we want to be’ (Apr, p79) needs to be offered to each member of the design team, actively freeing them from the ‘who’ in which they are presently imprisoned and giving them the means to change.

Finally, TBR’s gospel of quadrants needs a cosmology, that is, it needs to be shown to have independently and actively existed before knowledgeable New Age authors voted for its wisdom. Somewhat in the manner of St John’s Prologue, which could be rendered in quadrants thus: ‘In the beginning was the UL, and the UL was with the Holon, and the UL was the Holon. The UL was in the beginning with the Holon. And the UR, LR and LL were made through that. In the UL was Life and that Life was the Sustainability of humanity. This Life shines through The Big Rethink, though the readership may not recognise it.’ (John 1:1-4) And in this vein, I would argue that TBR then needs to become incarnate in our ‘living room or piazza’ (Apr, p78). As Alain de Botton needs to build his Living Architecture (and his temple of humanism), and as Christopher Alexander has needed to realise his Nature of Order, and as Christ, the decompartmentaliser par excellence, demonstrated the sacred and abstract in among the sweat and dirt of the here and now: ‘And the UL became flesh and dwelt among the LRs.’ (John 1:14). So TBR must step off the pages of AR over the next few months and build.

Phil Jackson, London, by email

The Big Rethink

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