What Defines Worthiness: High impact vs Broad Impact

This piece is a bit strange to write because I am a few weeks removed from the material at this point. My thoughts surrounding the subjects have changed somewhat since, and where I would have previously been ablaze with indignation I find myself somewhat amused by my current perception of the situation. Frampton and Ricoeur wrote these pieces in 1983 and 1965 respectively. They were seeking to define a new school of thought and addressing pressing issues regarding the way we will choose to define ourselves- as individuals, communities, and even as a species. They were beginning a dialogue whose logical conclusions and societal impacts won’t fully materialize until well into this century. Since neither could predict the social consequences of current information and materials exchange systems, I will attempt to update the discussion to fit the context of today.

The core of both investigations was well synthesized in a presentation I recently saw from Dorina Szalma and Diyaa Hafez titled “The Balance of Architecture”. They simply asked “Is it possible to sustain a cultural identity while accommodating our biggest issues involving the ecosystem, our booming population, and the state of our economy?” This question led me to examine the core of each article and wonder: is this discussion even being properly framed? The nature of the changing world necessitates new patterns of relating to one another, new conceptions of the social contract, and new methods for understanding place and identity. If a culture is still held and felt authentic it should certainly be treated with sensitivity, but the most pressing problem of today stems from the fact that for many this identity no longer exists. If artistic and architectural expression depend on an interpretation and synthesis of collective values, then without authentic vernacular culture meaningful contribution is impossible behind repetitive nihilistic examinations of the void.

The set of solutions that we create need to address both situations under the same overarching principles and much can be gained from the intermingling of solutions. Whether it’s to preserve or reestablish an identity of place, the primary question is how to cultivate its natural growth. If architecture is truly collaborative it needs to facilitate rather than dictate, creating opportunities for the discovery and expression of identity independent from a traditional definitions. It needs to facilitate a bottom-up construction of authentic identity and spirit. For others it may be different, but my core question is this:

How do we use architecture to create a canvass that will facilitate cultural definition of the new vernacular, the “interaction of climate, culture, myth, and craft” (Frampton), which works for the systems and societies of today and tomorrow?

At the core of Ricoeur’s questioning is the struggle for balance between the two opposed forces of universal culture and cultural heritage. He identifies the seeds of many issues that are currently plaguing our culture by recognizing the existential crises that fill the gaping hole left by a rapid dissolution of traditional communities. Though they had shortcomings, these institutions fulfilled certain societal needs which people now seek new substitutes for. His proposals begin to illuminate the description of a flexible system, which can be based on several core assertions:

“The problem is not simply to repeat the past, but rather to take root in it in order to ceaselessly invent.”

“When a philosopher works out an ethic… he mirrors the one which has a spontaneous existence in the people.”

(Speaking of the ancient Greeks) “If they did not bother to substitute machines for manpower, it is because that value had not been formulated”

As always we face a generational shift in values, but the current shift will be accentuated due to the normalization of globalized perspectives and behavior, and to the extent of disconnection and loss that many of us consciously or unconsciously experience. To understand and fully synthesize these values we will require a new conception of ourselves, based on an individually authentic and relatable examination of the world. We will build for the place not the space as Frampton says. We will build to uplift the people who occupy these spaces. We will built intelligently, to encourage alteration in a way that uses our current toolset to move beyond the “unavoidable standardization of housing and clothing” and cultural atrophy the Ricoeur bemoaned; to move towards mass customization based on specificity of taste as well as place. This can’t be the populism that Frampton fears, but neither can it be the elite application of cultural regionalism to one-off projects. Through an understanding of our identity and our place, a balance can be struck and guarded by those careful enough to understand the risks but foolhardy enough to jump after the rewards.

“Universal Civilization and National Cultures” Paul Ricoeur

“Prospects for a Critical Regionalism” Kenneth Frampton

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