Authentic Architecture
d i a l o g - iteration one
Earlier this year, I received several e-mails for a team of last year architectural students from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. They asked some intriguing and useful questions about the idea of An Authentic Architecture. These are not trivial questions which can be answered quickly or superficially. I decided to answer them on this web site so that my responses can be more generally shared. This also enables me link to and thus employ, the many aspects of my philosophy of architecture which already exist in the material on this site.
I am impressed with their questions. They are penetrating and critical to this moment in architecture. Beneath these question are many issues endemic to our “emerging global culture” that have to be far better understood and effectively dealt with if we are to do better than merely survive this era. These questions go to the heart of what is architecture and the role of the architect in today’s society.
As I offer my views, I am sure they will have more questions and comments which I will post and respond to; hence, a dialog will emerge which may take us all into some previously unexplored territory.
In this period of post-everything, deconstructionist, anti-philosophical architecture of grandiose gestures and little meaning, these students and their professor are - rare in my experience - searching for a better foundation for architecture than the present paradigm provides. To me, this is a refreshing sign and I hope indicative of a general change towards a better and more reflective direction. At any rate, I wish them well in their efforts and hope that what I have to say, in response to their query, will aid them in their endeavor.
It will be a pleasure, if circumstances allow me, to visit with them at their school and continue this dialog directly.
Below is an abstract from one of their e-mails which addresses the broad scope of their enquiry. My first high level comments, - which will range across all of their questions - follow.
Exploring Authenticity

We the final year student of B.Arch, School of Planning And Architecture researching on the topic "Exploring Authenticity, The Space Of Good Architecture", advised by Prof. Jaimini Mehta, CEPT, Ahmedabad.

We have gone through literature study and are on the quest for understanding Authentic Architecture, in both timeless and post independence context. In our journey we wish to trace factors responsible for the devaluation of architecture to mass produced building.

We are addressing the following concerns -

Are all buildings architecture?

The role of the architect, as

a. Interpreter of the general will?

b. Capable of shaping that will? Or

c. Catalyzer of that will?

What may be termed as an authentic architecture rooted in the time and the place of its making?

Is there anything like universal or eternal authenticity?
On the other hand, is this quest valid any more? What do the terms such as "classic" or "timeless" mean in this context? Are they still valid?

Differences and similarities between concepts such as Authentic, appropriate, classic, timeless, universal, eternal, zeitgeist, spirit of the age, General will.

What is the role of theory? Is it possible, or even desirable to construct a single universally applicable theory of architecture, around the idea of Authenticity? Please enlighten us with your thoughts and opinion on the same. We will appreciate if you could spare your valuable time to meet us.

note: go to comments, references and links by clicking on [#]
Are all Buildings Architecture?
No. It is legitimate and necessary, when discussing such questions as “the Architecture of the 20th Century” or “4th Century Architecture in India,” to include all buildings “as architecture” within this context. It is equally important to do so when considering the total built infrastructure and the effect of all buildings on a global scale such as what I call Planetary Architecture [1]. This is a generic or categorical use of the term architecture. This usage is no different than referring to everyone who has a license and a practice as “an architect.” Yet this will yield little understanding without a concept of architecture which can only be developed in the context of the creation and use of a deliberately made and sustained work of art [2]. In this way, architecture is distinct from mere building which, unfortunately, is the vast amount of what goes on. What is required is to have a definition of architecture which gets at its deep function [3] and to consider those who produce worthy examples of this vision as an architect. This is not how the discussion about what is architecture and, consequently, architects is approached today. This confusion and reversal of causality is responsible for the muddle architecture is presently in.
This is not to say that many great works of architecture are not being produced today. There are. Perhaps more, per annum, than in any time in the past. Yet the percentage of building which can be considered as such is small compared to the totality of work being produced. Nor, is this to say that architecture can only result from a formal process. There are numbers of fine works which are referred to as “indigenous” or “folk” for the simple reason, I can only speculate, because they were produced by someone who did not graduate from Yale nor did they pass though a building department and become financed by CitiCorp. It is the quality of the work which makes it architecture - or not - not the superficial social ritual through which it passed. Not the general and mostly meaningless names we give things and people. Not the hardened and too often antagonistic processes of the multiple industries which make up the disjointed phenomena of what once was an integrated system for the making of functional beauty that facilitates the joyful conduct of life [4].
All building shelter. All buildings create space and arrange items of utility. All buildings express the values of those who build and use them. This cannot be avoided. Architecture is built philosophy. It shelters, arranges and expresses as a means to conduct life while bringing meaning to the life lived. Buildings remain mundane. Architecture turns every activity within it into an act of living art [5].
The Role of the Architect
The Architect is the maker of Authentic Architecture and must function as interpreter, shaper and “Catalyzer” of the “will” of a society and of a time. There are metaphysical as well as physical aspects to this process. I put catalyzer in quotations because I have a small problem with its usage in this context. The architect functions like a social catalyst yet cannot be one. A catalyst provokes a transformational change while not changing itself. To remain viable, the architect must change with the experience of building otherwise the work risks becoming dogmatic, rote and fascist. The concept of “will” requires a subtle distinction. Architecture as an expression of Social will, in a political sense, is dangerous. Think of Albert Speer in this regard. He did translate Hitler’s vision into an “authentic” expression of his metaphysics. The result was architecture - yet bad architecture. Neither the vision nor the architecture was authentic in regards the human potential nor as a true expression of the life principle. Architecture as an expression of “will” in the magical sense has validity. Life can be breathed into a structure and I do not limit this to mean only in the metaphorical sense. The will to live, to grow, to learn, to transform is human. It is not to be imposed on or done to another human nor to a society - this is a violation of integrity. Properly, will is the exercise of personal power that can be experienced in a group as-a-group. We call this GroupGenius [6]. It is magical in that it is the merging of the physical and metaphysical realms. The great architectures of all times always achieved this marriage of the secular and the religious (in the literal meaning of religious which is to connect back). The true role of the architect is broad in scope and has many dimensions [7]. The modern concept of this role has been truncated with the result of “architect” becoming part temperamental designer, part rock star and part social tyrant rarely engaged with full participation in the total process which produces a built landscape [8]. This is disastrous to achieving an authentic practice. Too many architects are trapped in their practice model to the determent of the work and their personal happiness, and often, economy.
Architecture is a profound expression of a culture and, in return, a shaper of it. We make architecture and it in turn makes us. More and more, humans are living in a human-made world [9]. We are shaping the conditions of our own evolution [10]. We are doing this by default - not intention, self-awareness and design [11].
Authentic Architecture
Authentic Architecture is a redundant term. I use the term because in today’s confusion it is necessary to distinguish true architecture from that category of activities which - becoming an industry of building - employs those named-to-be architects who too often become the servants of real estate development (the many) or the impresario of spectacular architectonics devoid of authenticity (the few). Some (the very few), find a path to an authentic practice. The factor which does this sorting is rarely talent and often not intent. It is the consequence of the social paradigm, the architect’s practice model and personal integrity. This is not easy in a winner-take-all world that abuses the concept of free enterprise to build an “architecture” which exploits people, animals, plants - and the whole of Planet Earth [12] - in the name of global capitalism now the paradigm of “progress.” We risk that centuries of diverse cultures will be obliterated by the title wave of a false, simplistic global anti-cultural model [13].
To be authentic, a work of architecture must meet the requirements of its users. It has to do this not in a passive way by achieving a program [14] which is merely a laundry list of physical needs. To be authentic, a work of architecture must create place. In doing so it references a region and its history. It is an expression of it time. It brings forth the history which proceeded it and forecasts a future as an aspiration. It is both local and universal [15]. To be authentic, a work of architecture is the expression of an unique way of seeing the world [16]. It is a provocative work of art yet not just made to be provocative for the sake of sensation. To be authentic, a work of architecture is part of a body-of-work which accomplishes significant mass to become a social movement. It is a school [17] of thought and practice.
AUTHENTIC means “of authority, authoritative (properly as possessing original or inherent authority, but also as duly authorized); entitled to obedience or respect entitled to acceptance or belief as being in accordance with fact or stating fact; reliable, trustworthy, of established credit; original, first-hand, prototypical; as apposed to copied” - OED. My definition of architecture is “the objectification of the values humans hold essential to living - making these values concrete by building and using the structures that [trans]-form the environment.” With this definition, Shelter, Arrangement and Expression are the essential attributes of architecture [18]. An attribute is “that without which, a thing ceases to be itself.” Not one attribute dominates the other. These attributes, to compose architecture, work in harmony or they don’t work at all [19]. Authentic Architecture is nature based and fact based. The users of human architecture are not just humans - users include all life forms which come into contact with it [20]. A human is not an a beast with only physical requirements - neither is an animal. A so-called architecture without appropriate expression of values is at best a mere building. A building which is a gross exercise in pyrotechnic expressionism with no reason or rhyme and human connection other than an exercise in undisciplined ego, is not architecture either - no matter how exciting or technically well rendered [21]. Authentic Architecture is “entitled to respect” by being fact-based, “reliable, trustworthy, first-hand, original, prototypical” in how it achieves the values of shelter, arrangement and human expression.
Eternal Authenticity?
Yes there is such a thing. This is what a principle is although we often find out that what we thought was an universal principle is just a high level special case rule. It has to be always kept in mind that even our best human articulations of scientific truths and philosophic principles are not pure statements about reality independent of human judgment and interaction. They are, at best, generally consistent, highly useful statements regarding how we humans interact with reality achieving a good measure of success. Such sciences and philosophies are necessary and useful yet always suspect. Ones actions alter the facts of existence. Each new level of understanding raises more questions than are answered. New knowledge calls into question old knowledge. This is progress.
Authenticity is not found in the thing-ness of architecture. A work can be authentic for its time and place and can illuminate principles of great duration. It is in the search for authenticity and the embedding of the fruits of this search in work after work that an Authentic Architecture is created. The entire process of design, build and use, creates a living, organic civil landscape in harmony with Nature of which Humans are a part. This is the path to Eternal Authenticity. A set of dry, static rules and cannons will not achieve this.
Authenticity is in the practice of Architecture and in the works as they manifest at any moment in time. Every era and every project within it must start with a review of first principles [21]. The principles must be reconfirmed and recreated with every project - their dimensions and application broadened. True innovation does not throw out the past - it extends and transforms it. Past present and future becomes one - a contineous moment. The temporal gives way to the sublime.
Authenticity is. It is not a judgment. It is not a construct. It is both cause and consequence of right action [22].
Is the Quest Valid?
It is of supreme importance. Take quest [23] away and life becomes meaningless. This is perhaps the great hidden neglected issue of our time. With all that we have achieved as a human society, with all the technology we have created and wealth amassed, we are not healthy, happy, secure and serine - Our greatest sport remains the act of killing masses of people in the insane hope of controlling - rather than creating - resources and imposing values upon one another. Nor, do we have a vision to lead us out of this dilemma. At best, we try to fix things we consider broken and wrong. This is not quest. Quest is the desire to transform and the active search for the means to do so. Architecture can be a transformed place. It is a moment of living a future state. It provides the means to sustain true quest in a world absent of vision. Quest is the expression and act of moral ambition. Not the false ambition of being moralistic and better than others. The ambition to become an agent of life. To risk the comfortable and safe to find one’s unique and true selfhood. It is the determination to make dreams real. To achieve full integrity. A world without quest is dull. A technologically augmented global economy without quest is deadly. Art expresses values. The Art of Architecture facilitates you living your values in the exercise of daily acts.
In our time of false sophistication and cynical posture, vision, values (free of dogma) and quest is discounted and preempted by mundane ambition. It is replaced by dissipation of the best we have and can be. Those who are seekers are often made marginal and laughed at. Popular culture [24] squanders wealth and opportunity on the circus and distractions of the sensational and easy to have. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with most of this. It is the almost total capture of the human soul to the neglect of aspiration that is the deadly problem.
“Without vision, people die.” Without quest, vision cannot be found.
Classic and timeless...
This is the function of memory [25] which is necessary to the conduct of civilization. Herb Green developed his idea of Armature [26] in cities for this reason. One of the definitions of great art is its durability. When a work still functions as art in a society years, decades and centuries after it was produced, this is taken as prima fascia proof that it has touched the human beyond time, cultures and commerce. It can be assumed that it “objectifies human values” and is universal and timeless. The notion of “classic” has the additional connotation of being an archetypical expression of a type. The essence and most simple statement of a new idea. Thus, it provides a direct window into the bare nature of something.
Take the Emperor’s Summer Palace built in Kyoto in the 16th century and put modern utilities in it and you have as modern an architectural space as can be found anywhere. The requirements of basic human space have remained remarkably consistent. This may change in the near future as I comment on below [27].
Authentic, appropriate, classic, timeless, universal, eternal, zeitgeist, spirit of the age, General will...
The terms are different and each bring an unique nuance to the discussion. These terms also imply different time scales and levels of recursion. [28]
Eternal and timeless are different concepts. So are universal and classic. The spirit of an age can be - or not - any of these. Zeitgeist can be a synthesis that is or not universal or reflective of the General will. Appropriate is perhaps the most demanding of these concepts because it addresses criteria more than is part of architecture in the accepted narrow sense of it. Is a work or the architectural theory it represents appropriate for the larger system of which it is a part? I will argue that little of modern architecture is even in the global game given its merits as architecture should be considered.
For me, the concept Authentic incorporates them all because, to be authentic, a work has to achieve all of these characteristics. And, it has to do so in balance and harmony with the program. The Program must be far more robust than a listing of functions and their relationship. The program has to state the philosophical, social, economic/ecological aspects of the design as well as the theme which expresses the work’s essence: its unique view of reality and mix of values in response to the specific, local, time-based place and how people with live in this space.
The Role of Theory
Theory is both critical to the making of architecture and dangerous when succeeding in doing so. Theory must never be considered complete nor allowed to degenerate into dogma. Theory is essential in the design process yet is can never be allowed to dictate the design process nor should it be confused with the design process itself [29]. Theory supports art - it is not art. Theory is a framework - a scaffolding - it is not the building. Properly, theory operates on two distinct levels in regards architecture; the WHY and the HOW. The first is the realm of philosophy. The second is technique. [30]
While not in the sense of a dichotomy, these two are different. It is possible for a brilliantly conceived idea (philosophy) of a building to be poorly executed. It is equally possible for a relatively mundane concept of architecture to be well executed (technique). IDEA and MEANS are one yet they can be analyzed separately [31]. It is often necessary to do this when looking at a work and learning from it. The concept of architecture, and an individual work, falls largely into the realms of values and imagination. The making of architecture and individual works falls into the realms of skills and organization. These realms, and the many members of the team necessary for a successful outcome, have to be carefully aligned if sustainable success is to be had.
Architecture today is suffering from a poverty of practical theory. Such theory there is is not well connected to the design of buildings and the act of making them. Modern theory is more an intellectual game than a framework that facilitates the creation of Authentic Architecture. It is losing relevance to our time let alone to our possible futures. The very notion of architecture and human habitat, as it is thought of today, is not taking into account the technical revolution which is taking place right under architecture’s nose. This technological revolution will radically - and in a brief moment of time - change the entire concept of a building. Infrastructure, buildings and what today we call landscape will merge. Physical and virtual reality will merge. Biological life and machine life will merge. There exists no architectural theory framework to fit these changes into.
SUMMARY of First Questions:
These questions, themselves, suggest an answer. They are thoroughly thought out and indicate - by their very architecture - a deep concern for the present by-default-status-quo. Even the attempt of answering them provokes a thought process in the student that possesses in itself a high potential for a personal transformational experience. Just researching the etymology of the key words employed in these questions can do this. These questions do not lead to an easy and permanent answer. They direct a process of ongoing discovery. They are questions which should be addressed at the beginning of every project. They occupy a lifetime of quest and work. The answers (at any given time) are important - the asking and rethinking of these issues - are more important. The ongoing dialog around them is critical to the emergence of a new dynamic spirit of ARCHITECTURE which can re frame the existing chaotic state of practice.
On September 28, 2007 I received a second set of questions. These are answered in “ d i a l o g - iteration two” as well as by edits and additions to my remarks in this document.
GoTo part Two • GoTo part Three • GoTo INDEX

Matt Taylor
September 21, 2007


SolutionBox voice of this document:

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posted: September 21, 2007

revised: October 20, 2007

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