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April 2012, 1382. Volume CCXXXI

Catherine Slessor

If we are to reconceptualise architecture, we need to re-evaluate what sort of lives we want to lead. Read this issue here

What are the true purposes of architecture? And how can we reconceptualise our understanding of these purposes to give greater meaning to our lives? Architecture, the self-styled ‘mother of the arts’, occupies a curious yet crucial position in human history and consciousness. In effect, it is the most resonant manifestation of what it really means to be human, embodying how we conduct our relationships with each other and the planet.

Architecture crystallises the essence of human civilisation in ways that art, literature, music and science do not. The archaeological remains of Egypt, Greece and rome poignantly illuminate the lives of its long dead citizens. And over the centuries, architecture has been a bellwether of the human condition, an evolving expression of the political, social and cultural spirit of the age. Today, it still gives physical structure and colour to our existence; each of us can doubtless summon up a personal chronology of particular buildings and places that have orchestrated a lifetime of experiences.

Yet architecture’s ubiquity is also problematic. ‘Our relationships with it are so intimate, so fundamental, as the settings for our lives, that we do not register fully how much they sustain and shape us’, as Peter Buchanan observes in this month’s Big Rethink. And in common with many aspects of modern civilisation, in the confusing aftermath of the modern and postmodern eras, architecture’s relationship with humanity has become fatally distorted, its enriching sense of purpose lost. This has led to fragmentation, anomie and the rise of junk architecture, a reflection of our ever more dislocated and junk lives.

But how to redress the balance? In seeking to restore architecture’s relationship with human culture, we must look deeper and redefine what it is to be human and what sort of lives we want to lead. Only when we know who we want to be can we begin to conceive of what our environment might be.

‘Redefining who we want to be, as well as regenerating our culture and redesigning our environment to help bring this about, is probably the most urgent, epic and exciting challenge of our times,’ argues Buchanan. This takes conventional notions of sustainability beyond objective technical performance and into the realms of being able to cultivate a subjective connection with humanity and the wider cosmos.

Architecture then ceases to be about frivolous self-expression and the vacuous quest for ‘new’ forms or fashionable theories that currently preoccupy many practitioners. Instead, it becomes a way of participating in the ‘constant creative emergence that is evolution − natural, cultural and personal’. Rather than taming nature, we act in concert with it, drawing on its ‘purposively designed culture’ while nurturing deeper understandings through research, analysis and intuition. In this way we can expand the world of human possibility and finally give true meaning to what it is to be fully human.

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