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Stand, Don’t Deliver: A Conversation on Aspects of Architecture

The Straddler in conversation with a Turkish-born, New York-based architect.

An idea has always been inherent in architecture that through the built environment you can also shape people.  You can create the population that is going to live and work in the environment you build.  But the idea has never really been put in quite this way, of course.  It has always been communicated as, “this is the perfect way of living; we are going to provide it.”  And through these means—through the building, or group of buildings, or the built environment—certain types of lives are generated.

Usually what happens is—and this is one of the main points of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead—architects come onto the scene as idealist imagemakers or spacemakers.  And whatever their individual—or collective—ideals are about living or working conditions are reflected through building.

But shaping people through architecture and built environments is not a one-way process, nor is it solely in the hands of some evil- or good-thinking architects. Think of the panopticon, famously discussed by Foucault.  The use of architectural elements and spatial organization led to the creation of a certain structure that gave way to what Foucault called ‘disciplinary societies.’  Whether or not you agree with his thesis in this instance, one of the underlying points is that it was architecture that was made to serve the idea. Architecture alone cannot serve the purposes for which it is built—it cannot, that is, build itself.  It has to have a receptive—or an encouraging—social-philosophical environment.  Not necessarily among “the public,” but certainly among the people who have the power to have things built. 

Most of the houses built in the beginning of the modernist era, for example, reflect the architects’ interest in science and rationalism and their concomitant desire to do away with ornament.  Buildings were basically seen as machines for people to live in.  In fact, “machines for living” are the precise words of Le Corbusier, the famous Swiss Architect.  At the time when he started to practice, engineering was a rapidly progressing field and architecture wasn’t really keeping up with what was going on.  The fascination with machines in society created the idea in architecture that if the buildings are brought to their bare minimum—to function—that’s where the beauty lies.  And they also believed that people should live in these perfectly built machines and then that became thinking about people’s lives in terms of work.  In fact, everything was abstracted or minimized.  This is the beginning of the International Style, of whose legacy we are the inheritors.  They started building with flat roofs and big openings and almost no privacy in the houses—using glass and steel and concrete and creating these beautiful, simple boxes for people to live in.  There was a complete disregard for the climate or the context in which they were building.  This was when modernism was still very idealist in terms of a strict adherence to a philosophical program.  They were searching for so-called “universal truths.”

And, I have to say that designing residences and homes is one of the most difficult parts of architecture.  Designing places for people to live in is the most private you can get in terms of your relationship with your client.  And, I kind of think that most of the examples of modernist architecture failed in this respect.  Most apartment complexes were deserted, or people started putting big curtains across their humongous windows to have some sort of privacy.

In a reverse manner, people also try to bring out who they really are (or what kind of a person they aspire to be) through architecture, through the environments they live in, and—when they can afford to—through which architects they chose to have their houses designed by.  In this sense, architecture (or the architecture of particular buildings) stands out as personal statements. Of course, these statements are meaningful in certain contexts of signification, within a society whose values and social markers are known.  “Personal statements” play on these values and markers.

Incidentally, to get back to this idea of “machines for living,” and Le Corbusier: I think Le Corbusier is a terrible urban designer, but I do like the sculptural qualities of his buildings. I haven’t really been inside any of them to say much about their interior quality but what’s interesting is that I think architecture went through a big change during those early years of the modernist period.  It was a huge change.  Everything we had inherited from the older generations was seriously challenged—and it was really, actually, courageous. But I think the period that comes after that is when all of those ideas started to be more grounded and more mature.  All of these ideas that were put out during modernism—no ornamentation, form follows function, respect the material for what it is, don’t try to cover it up and make it look like something else—were and still are very important, and the forms were really beautiful, but they were sometimes put into practice in the most extreme way possible which resulted in their being criticized as brutal, cold, or inhumane by the people who had to inhabit these spaces.

I think that’s one of the great divides between architects and, say, the “rest of the people.”  I personally realize that because of all of my architectural education, the way I look at buildings is radically different from people who don’t have architectural education, even though, say, culturally or intellectually, we come from similar backgrounds. How we as architects see buildings doesn’t necessarily speak to other people’s likes or dislikes.

And, yes, all around we see all of these terrible structures.  Sometimes it becomes very difficult to tell where the divide lies between real estate developers and architects. For example, in my practice, we are designing these “beautiful boxes”—simple, elegant structures.  I think it’s problematic that we are designing from New York for clients in Eastern Europe.  That is, that we are not experiencing, on a day-to-day basis, the context of the cities in which our buildings will stand.  And by no means is the firm I work for unusual in this.  This is sort of how architecture is practiced.  Architecture should probably be more of a communal thing—but in order for architecture to be this way, you’d have to be practicing architecture in a society that was somehow structured differently.  Perhaps more egalitarian in terms of decision-making.  Or more equitable in terms of the distribution of resources.  Honestly, I don’t think it can happen. But maybe that’s just me being pessimistic.

In any case, when you look at recent developments in architecture, there is a sort of universal language with which materials are being used and how they are being used.  It started in the West with the introduction of some materials such as steel, glass, and so on, but this is no longer simply Western architecture anymore.  It’s all over the world. For example, I’ve never been there, but from what I’ve read, and what I’ve seen in pictures, Tokyo is an example of this, even though Japan has a very prominent architectural tradition.  But if you look at Tokyo, it could be anywhere in the Western world—in terms of the built environment right now.

I moved here directly from Turkey and I hadn’t been in Europe before I came here. New York was my idea of a Western city. Then I visited a few European cities about five years ago.  It was then I realized, actually, how different they are from each other in terms of the pedestrian experience. How the scale changed while moving from one place to another.  From small alleyways to wide open plazas, and then a palace, and then a park.  Your relationship and proximity to the buildings was constantly changing in Paris.  Whereas here in New York, it is basically the sidewalk and the buildings; despite the fact that there’s a difference between certain neighborhoods, it’s not comparably obvious.  That’s why I think that New York is all about congestion—moving from one small space to another, relatively.  In between you look and see the city and realize that you are there, but you are basically just moving between spots for different functions.

New York is one of the best examples of both this kind of idealism of the stripped-down essentialism of efficiency that manifested itself in modernism and the effect of the built environment on people’s psyches.  It is an historic city and at the same time it’s a built, recently constructed city.  The whole grid system is superimposed.  It’s not organic—“not organic” meaning it hasn’t happened “naturally” throughout the years.  There’s a determination there.  It’s a question of how to bring together all these functions and people in this small part of land and make them live together.

Ankara, incidentally, is also a built city.  I mean, built with the idea of the Republic. It’s a very interesting city in that sense, because it’s laid out by foreign architects.  The government at that time thought that we had to import architectural services from the West to make a Western-looking city.  And right now it’s turning into an urban disaster because it is becoming this prematurely suburban city.  There are vast stretches of land outside of Ankara because it sits in the middle of this open land.  Of course, the land is expensive.  It’s not like America where the cities can just sprawl out.  But people have begun moving to these compounds or homes that are outside the city’s boundaries.  But not all of them are single homes—they’re like apartment blocks, but it’s also something that’s considered “desirable.”  This happened in the last ten years, and in the last five years it has accelerated. It’s kind of sold as the nicer way to live. You know, you’re not dealing with the hassle of the city, with the traffic—and they’re trying to resolve this traffic problem by building all of these bridges and underpasses and overpasses, and it became a city where it is impossible to walk.  The whole city is now being destroyed, and it’s becoming this weird motorway pass-through.  And now, all of these strip malls have begun to be built.  So people are going to the malls on the weekends.  Culturally that doesn’t happen in Turkey, but apparently it’s happening now.

In any case, New York is a very pedestrian city—more than any other American city I’ve ever been to.  It gives way to these chance encounters, like bumping into people. But at the same time, on the streets you just pass by, you don’t really stop and kind of live there. There aren’t really many urban plazas where you would have this sort of casual interaction with people.  It’s predominantly about movement. You go to one place from another.  So I think the built environment both makes it happen that people run into each other, but it also forces people to be quick and just kind of move past one another.

Now, what about New York’s oases?  Do they exist?  Well…  I love Prospect Park much better than Central Park.  Or, let’s say, in general I prefer smaller parks such as Tompkins Square or Washington Square.  I prefer these smaller parks that are distributed throughout the city because you are undeniably aware that you’re still in the urban environment.  Central Park rather feels like the escape that everyone dreams about and no one actually lives.  I usually get the idea that people go to Central Park to try to forget that they are in the city, but that whole crossing a street here and there, and people with skates, and bicycles…  I mean, it’s nice; it’s nice as an experience on its own, but I have to admit I don’t take particular pleasure in being there.  It’s an amazing planning gesture—in other words, it makes a statement that New York is not all about buildings—but not much else.

Or take Lincoln Center.  I have always really liked Lincoln Center because—it’s a very personal thing—that’s the area where I started working the first time I came here.  I worked on 72nd Street, but I used to walk to Lincoln Center and I used to go to the Walter Reade Theatre all the time when the New York Film Festival was there.  So I have an affection for it that is tied into a kind of nostalgia.

But then I read how it was basically the mark of gentrification in New York.  How gentrification basically started at Lincoln Center—it was private investment, Rockefeller was behind the whole thing—and how this whole slum of the Upper West Side was wiped out to build a center for arts and to pull this artistic center out from where it had been before in order to generate this new environment there.  So when you actually read about the history and how it came to be, sure, you have questions.  But on a personal level, like I say, I like Lincoln Center.  Because to me, one of the interesting things about cities is the existence of certain contradictions residing side by side.  So, Lincoln Center—I know, it kind of fails because there is mediocrity going on.  I have never been inside of the opera house but the outside looks kind of sad to me; sad in a melancholic way because it’s a grand structure, but then, it’s handled kind of lightly.  It both weighs on one and doesn’t weigh on one.  And the exterior is so different from the architecture of New York as we can generalize.   It looks alien—like it was planted from space.  So, I think it’s a failure, yes.  But a failure I have affection for.  At the same time, I think it’s nice because of the way it sits side by side with other things that are going on in midtown.  Also, the urban plaza of Lincoln Center—I really like the openness of the plaza.  But, then again, it’s not used and it’s not very welcoming.  But it’s there and it promises something, even though it’s a promise not kept.  It’s just odd.

And this perhaps goes back to my feelings about modern architecture.  I mean, despite the fact that I may sound against or critical of modern architecture, I actually like it quite a bit.  But my main criticism about it is that it couldn’t deliver what it was ostensibly standing for.  Modernism, philosophically, required a constant awareness, a never-ending critical attitude towards whatever was happening at the time. However in the case of architecture, it became a style, a typology.  Just as deconstruction became a style.   So, while on the one hand it is quite interesting in that there’s an unavoidable link between certain philosophies and architecture, on the other hand, when it comes to translating those philosophies into architecture, architecture becomes trapped in a static form: a style.  This is one of the shortcomings of contemporary architectural theory: trying to apply philosophies that are created outside of architecture to the built environment, or trying to find aspirations from philosophy and making an effort to materialize thought in built forms…which, again, eventually ends up being a style with no dynamism.  Rather than trying to search for certain philosophies and their possible applications, then, it seems to me that architecture ought to be created with a greater consideration of materials, light, texture, context, and so on.  This would be a more honest—and potentially more innovative and humane—architecture.

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