The Architectural Outsider
Want to know my gut response if you told me a bunch of architects were dropping by for a drink? Quick, hide the house! Because sometimes—no offense to architects, several of whom I know, a smaller sampling of whom I love—architects can drive me nuts, especially since I’m not an architect. They are the people whom I want to talk to and try to avoid, and given my current, renting-yet-no-longer-want-to-be-renting state, they are the profession that I both need and don’t need. Architects show up and suddenly it’s all about them, about how they could improve your life—that is, it’s all about architecture.
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"That’s an interesting way to resolve the tension between the staircase and kitchen," they say when they walk in, which is code for "You actually live in this hell hole?" Then, just to be stereotypical about it, they show up wearing those glasses. What’s up with architects’ eyewear? Why does a little farsightedness mean you suddenly have to wear the Bauhaus over your nose? I’ll admit that my profession suffers from architectural eyewear, too, especially among critics and novelists, which is perhaps why an estimated 65 percent of all fistfights at parties in nicely designed libraries are between writers and architects—a statistic that I am making up, just to give you an idea of how anxious I get about architecture.
This anxiety stems from a deep personal and, yes, human need. Of course, I mean shelter, but I also mean a need for this basic end-of-the-day expertise, a primal skill that anticipates disaster (flooding tonight) and happiness (sunrise tomorrow), that permits and enhances life. When we were just beginning to walk upright, the architect was the one who found shelter and figured out how the cooking fire could function without killing you—he or she was the Army Corps of Engineers of our species. That was then. Nowadays, there are plenty of esoteric treatises about the role of narrative in archi-tecture and whatever else, but the bottom line is, architects have enabled us to live our lives, and let’s face it, that’s our biggest story. We want architecture to work for us, not just because we want to have a nice room for cocktail parties, but because we understand that architecture is the plant fertilizer of our lives; it is the way to be a big, great-tasting tomato.
So yes, I want to be with architects and architecture, even though architecture can be so absolutely intimidating. Have you ever picked up a book about architecture that is intended for actual architects to actually read? Processes, situational landscapes, evolving juxtaposition of uses, and the dia-logue that coexists in the usage of juxtapositionings: Half the time architects are just talking to themselves. Not that you can blame them. If I spent four years in school building models, if I was then yoked with phenomenal debt and in a no-pay job at a big firm where I had to draw plans for bathroom stalls for new jails or banks, if I had been up until three in the morning for about a week with a team of model builders and then a client came over one morning and looked at my model, at which point the client scratched his head and said, "Uh, where’s the water slide?"—well, I have absolutely no doubt that I’d be talking to myself, too.
But the disappointments run both ways. Non-architects who have ideas about build-ings, about landscapes, about their lives, see architecture as a place to explore possibilities, but a lot of times non-architects are architecturally shunned. In other words, an architect gets to design your house, not you. Being shunned does have some sadistic importance, though. In the end, I know I would not be completely happy having a bum like me creating a house for a bum like me. Which is one of the reasons why things manage to work out, which is why architects and non-architects meet hopefully every day, and work out satisfying solutions.
You see, from the outside, good architecture is like a good therapy session, a good marriage, a good poem—gently and almost invisibly allowing you to be you, as flawed and as beautiful as you are.
And this is precisely why, believe it or not, I look to architecture to—get ready—save the world. Despite global warming, despite sprawl, despite a mindless misuse of planetary resources, despite population trends that, biologically speaking, simply cannot support themselves, despite all the lazy knuckleheads who talk about business as usual and thrive on slothful convenience—despite all the bad stuff, I’ve got this feeling that the world is in the midst of redesigning how it lives, of redesigning its existence. No kidding. It sounds huge, but then going to the doctor and hearing that you need heart surgery is along the same lines, and absolutely doable these days. The challenge, or so it seems to an outsider, is for architects to be open to the world they are changing. Don’t build us out, in other words.
I know this will be tough for a lot of architects, something I know as a guy who types for a living. Writers are much like architects in that as soon as we start thinking of our writing as something significantly more than typing, it gets us into trouble, or at least into a lot of fistfights with archi-tects. Typing is pretty amazing in itself: letters arranged in a billion different ways to stimulate neurons toward . . . ideas! Same for architecture, which can be defined as dealing with us non-architects to achieve . . . ideas! The word "architecture" itself, by the way, is a building, a recycling of two very old concepts. Tekton, in ancient Greek, means builder or worker, and arkhi means something along the lines of master or chief, because the ancients sometimes ranked architecture over all the arts. I’m partial to poetry, naturally, but I can see their point, especially on the occasions I’ve had to gaze up at the hole that they put on purpose in the ceiling of the Pantheon. A poetic circle of nothing that sings out a song in the space of the sky. I wonder if the client liked it right away or if it took some getting used to.