As I mentioned in the first post in this series (click here to re-read that, as I know it’s been some time since I wrote it), I went through a rather silly phase during my second year of architecture school. I ceased practicing my faith for sheer laziness. And for all intents and purposes, I ceased practicing femininity.
Architecture is known for being a male-dominated field. In a graduating class of 25, I had 7 female classmates. It can be hard, though not impossible, for a woman to hold her own. Somewhere around my second year, I mistakenly believed that allowing men to be gentlemen was undermining who I was as a person. I didn’t need men to open a door; I was physically capable. I didn’t need men to curtail their bad language in my presence; I’d just join them.
A funny thing happened. When I ceased allowing men to treat me as a woman, I began being treated like a man. My wake-up call took place when a group of my male classmates began describing a young woman’s anatomy in the most salacious terms, assuming that I wouldn’t mind such talk being had in my presence. To my horror, I realized I allowed it, perhaps even invited it because of my behavior.
The good news was I had the power to change my behavior. I threw off those silly notions and encouraged gentlemanly frivolities, and not long after, my male classmates’ behavior towards me underwent a complete 180 without a word about it being exchanged. It was a valuable lesson I’m thankful to have learned young.
Architecture, much like our spoken words, manner of dress, and behaviors, is a language that communicates ideas and expectations in the built form. It is a language that has undergone many iterations over time and cultures, and at times is specifically challenged, with mixed results.
Challenges of the status quo can be good and necessary. But they must be carefully governed by right intention, or else they will become empty, a fashion that will not stand the test of time. In my last post, I looked at how this plays out in hyper-rationalism. In this post, I will discuss sensationalism.
I can think of no better example to point to than the Centre Pompidou in Paris, completed in 1977.
The team of architects, led by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, created what is called an “inside-out building”, meaning everything that is usually hidden from view in a building – structure, mechanical and electrical systems, means of egress. etc. – would be expressed on the exterior of the building, totally exposed. The intent was not functional, but solely to challenge and subvert what had defined building typology up to that time. Upon his winning the Pritzker Prize* in 2007, Richard Rogers was noted in The New York Times to have “turned the architecture world upside down” with his radical design.
The Centre Pompidou is a building that exists unto itself. Its design was not intended to complement or uplift the historical urban fabric in which it exists, but to contrast it so starkly as to declare it utterly unimportant because of its age and grounding in tradition.
After the modern era, no longer was art that upheld transcendent ideals of beauty praised and celebrated. In order to find praise, art had to obstruct tradition, to challenge it directly and declare it irrelevant. Art and architecture now exist solely as vehicles of self-expression. To be called avant-garde is the crowning achievement of any serious artist. To be deemed classic is an egregious affront.
The Sensational Woman.
Just a year prior to the completion of Centre Pompidou, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published an article containing a phrase that was quickly slapped on everything from bumper stickers to t-shirts: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It became the celebrated mantra of the liberated woman, expressing a clear, defiant message: If women want to be remembered, they can’t conform to traditional notions of womanhood. They have to cause a scene.
With the advent of the women’s liberation movement, women were sold the lie that the traditional roles of wife and mother are tantamount to slavery, and the home is her prison. She needed freedom. No – she deserved freedom, and freedom was something she’d have to fight for, even against her own husband and children. If she was going to leave her mark, she could not be well-behaved. She must turn the whole world upside down no matter the cost.
She had to become an “inside-out” woman. No longer would she concern herself with the common good, the good of her family or respect for traditions, but with her own personal fulfillment and happiness. She should not succumb to the tethers of family life, as such self-imposed hindrances would merely perpetuate millennia of an unjust patriarchy. Domestic obscurity was an oppressive condemnation she could no longer accept. She could shock, but never be overlooked, and the shock she caused was to be celebrated as empowering.
What is most ironic is that in the article where she originated the “well-behaved women” phrase, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was examining the funeral sermons of Christian women. The conclusion of her article, sadly obscured amidst its pop-culture appropriation, was that the domestic lives of women, which history often overlooks, are worthy of deeper historical examination for the nuance and depth they exhibit, as she would later seek to clarify. Somehow, we forgot that making history is not an indicator of goodness or worth, as any number of historical figures manifest.
Challenging historical precedent is not intrinsically wrong. However, if the purpose is purely to subvert or destroy by shock and awe because it is not now, the result is usually an ideology or typology that is hollow at best, and devastatingly destructive at worst.
In my next post, I will look at an example of an architecture type that challenged historical precedent, is dramatically structurally rational, and yet uplifts the soul and surrounding context because it is ordered towards a higher purpose.
* According to their website, the annual Pritzker Prize “honor[s] a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.