A few years in to my pursuit of an architectural degree, peers and certain showed me the plans of projects (many were centuries old) where the relationships between the parts of the plan (walls, spaces, external/natural objects, orientation to the sun, etc.) were describing in fairly specific terms how the users of the building could make sense of their activities at this particular location. In some senses (especially to our 20th century eyes where the fashionable aesthetic aspects of design are perceived as paramount), all this information is "hidden", as if some elaborate code devised by underground interests like those glorified in The DaVinci Code. In another light, however, walls are always walls no matter what the era one lives in, and they both do the obvious thing of enclosing space and constrict certain of your views or perhaps let the view out, through a gap, perhaps aligning your eye to some direction they set you up precisely to see; a wall also may unite what is on either side because each side might share in the prospect of huddling up next to the wall, and so on. These aspects of wall are timeless - they might be called the simple reality of what a wall is, regardless of who you are or when you interact with the wall. Like a poet, who helps us rediscover the power of words by stripping them back to their elemental, meaningful roots, I saw the really good architects using their "materials" to get users to really come to grips with their place on this earth.
Thus, by spending my time now looking for what the really good ones accomplished with their architecture, it soon became clear to me that their work was great in spite of the surface trappings of their day, or the technological opportunities or limitations they faced. Yes, they also made wonderful things in ways that, in hindsight, some historian may also describe as "beautiful", but these "winning ways" had very little to do with what was magical or inspiring about their work. For their mastery over their "materials" (solid things and spatial volumes) allowed them the possibility to demonstrate universal themes that they chose to layer on top of merely solving the functional problems that were laid out by the client. Many of these architects toiled in times, and in places, and for clients that would have to grow in order to be able to comprehend all that had been put in place with their designs.
Then (the early '80s), and now, our odds of finding a public that is interested in something more out of our art than sheer window dressing is slight. The fashionable trend-setters dominate our field and, while increasing its exposure, have unfortunately moved it further to the superficial. Our task is to reinvigorate the art, making it both more accessible and more substantial. Such a task is daunting, but I came to realize that the greats of the past 2000 years have always faced such odds, and it is inspiring to know that and humbling to acknowledge the effort involved.
Will Gerstmyer AIA LEED
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