In 1967, my father’s company, Philco, produced a film called 1999. Some of it was deadly accurate in its prediction of what life might be like in a future generation (ours). But some it typified the attitude that was common in generations past and one that persists in the present: Eventually, life will be like the Jetsons, and we’re going to like it that way. There just seems to be a feeling that the future holds something brighter for us. There may be some truth to that, but is there wisdom in leaving everything behind? Why can’t we embrace the innovative breakthroughs that come along but hold on to many of things that have always sustained us?
Too much of the current architecture is aimed at taking us to some Brave New World. Architecture doesn’t need a new, innovative direction that continually discards proven strategies, simply because they are thought of as being part of the past. The funny thing about the past is that only the events that transpired long ago are part of history. Buildings that have stood the test of time are still here, ever ready to accomodate new and exciting history-making actiivities.
What is needed is an adherence to the multitude of design principles that have always resulted in good places, coupled with an openness to those innovative measures (however futuristic) that truly upgrade our quality of life. The organizing principles of ancient architecture have been reused and reinvented for millenia, with frequently spectacular results. But are they so “old” they should be rejected, as not relevant to “our time”? So many of us are enticed by the novelty of newness…is it because we are so unsettled in our lives? Are we really going to solve all of our problems if we relocate to Mars? Are we bored? “Let’s make a mishmash of design elements and twist frames and distort volumes in order to shake off the monotony,” so many seem to say. It is peculiar that disfigurement and visual incoherence are so often looked to as cures for boredom. Many are so reluctant to repeat a successful strategy that they must do something unique, pushing boundaries (that may not even be there), even if the result is failure. “It’s art,” they say, and art can never be wrong. Stewart Brand wrote “Art flouts convention. Convention became convention because it works.” Do you want to live and work in a failed experiment, simply because its creator’s intention was artfulness? My children once had a Donald Trump doll. When the button on the back was pressed, one of the phrases it uttered was: “Ideas are welcome…just make sure you have the right one.”
Instead of a constant search for new frontiers, what we need is a renewed commitment to principles that enhance our individual and collective well-being, from wherever and whenever they may originate, and take all truths with us as we march forward, regardless of the epoch in which they were discovered.