The luxury of architecture
I woke up this morning walking down the backstreets of Granada, searching for my dog amid the soundscape and memory of a colorful world of twirling imagery. I woke up in my bed from a dream of an intensely sensual world into this remarkable world of passion and discovery we like to call architecture.
There are many things that come and go in our modern world. Most of the things we encounter or need in our daily lives are products manufactured in the great spirit of the Industrial Revolution. Yet thankfully, architecture remains one of the bulwarks against mass production.
In an age when every form of art and craft has been packaged into a plastic container of instant satisfaction and convenience, the hand of the architect still matters. It is why every building in our city is, at one point or another, the labor of love of someone who once dreamt of creating a masterpiece of concrete and steel.
Architecture defies being shoehorned into the perfect white box as if shouting in protest about the diversity and vastness of human experience. It is as if the building of a living human environment stands in direct opposition to machine precision and unimaginative metrics.
“The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care.” And our beating hearts waft and flutter chasing after the things which ignite our passions. Our passions are our luxuries. I find that my passion for architecture stems from the crossing of a pair of very human needs—the wonder of discovery and the romance of the impossible.
The Wonder of Discovery
There’s this statue from Infinity Studio by Zhelong Xu that I’ve been smitten by and endlessly trying to acquire the last few days. It tells the story of a boy who loves dragons and went in search of it unafraid of any difficulties or danger. It reminds me of an uncle who once told me there were nine dragons and that they did exist but only children could find them. For you to see dragons, you had to believe they were real and only children do so these days. The dragons lived way up in the mountains and no child could ever manage to go search for them, and so gradually people started to think that dragons were just legend and myth.
Dragons have always represented the wonders of this world for me. The ever elusive dragons of my world are ideas that have the power to change our world. We are blessed with an incredible capacity for imagination, an ability to discover and form new ideas that can move us forward even in the most challenging times.
Architecture is a journey full of discovery. At its heart, it is about the discovery of ideas that open new doors, ideas that stand the test of time and continue to affect and enrich our daily lives.
Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” advocated for more humanist walkable cities with mixed uses and layered history. An idea that continues to elude our city planners to this day, her ideas focus on the vibrance and energy of a dense urban tapestry that weaves together people like no other social construct could.
Giambattista Nolli published the Nolli Map of Rome in 1748. This figure-ground map included the interiors of enclosed public spaces as open civic spaces. It is an idea that emphasizes the value of our civic buildings and their roles as part of our public domain. As we continue to delineate the planning of our cities, we must recognize the value of these buildings in contributing to the establishment of a stronger citizenry. We cannot lament the debasing of society’s intellectual capacity while we allow for if not even encourage the neglect of our institutions. Architecture must build communities, and communities are knit together by the public spaces we all share.
Our practice at WTA has been exploring ideas on impermanence as a way for architecture to overcome obstructionist and restrictive documentation.
We have been searching for a way to detach architecture from paper and bring architects back to the wonder of abstract thinking. These ideas were put to use recently with the building of emergency quarantine facilities as a response to the pandemic.
Sapere Aude. Dare to know. This is the motto of the Enlightenment which gave rise to the liberties of our modern age. This is the luxury of architecture; to dare, to know, and to dare to know. It is the luxury of Modernism, the luxury to rely on reason and not just past experience in search for a better solution. The luxury to be the first, to explore and discover, to think and therefore to be.
The Romance of the Impossible
One of my greatest fictional heroes has always been The Man from La Mancha. The tales of Don Quixote and his idealistic quests form the basis for the individualistic and abstract disconnect that is required to conquer the restrictions of socially entrenched certainties. His defiance and almost surreal worldview resonate deeply in my passions to pursue the impossible.
Much of our training and learnings in our journey into adulthood serve to define and impose limitations on our actions. Yet architecture demands that we keep tilting at windmills to the very end. There is no such thing as perfection in architecture and this is reflected in the constant striving to work till the wee hours of the morning in our quest to find the best.
This is the luxury of craftsmanship. The constant refinement of an idea until one can almost taste its sweet distillation. Architecture is a craft that is honed not by time or experience but by the romance of our quest to constantly do better.
Craftsmanship requires the mastery of something that is forever elusive. The perfection that one can gleam from the way light enters a space and establishes a setting with shadows that define and obscure.
The architect’s craft brings about the luxury of doing. The luxury of a personal and human mind at work to bring about a particular sensibility that is desired. It is the luxury to be human in an otherwise market driven polity.
There is an almost quixotic element in the journey to bring about a place of shelter to call home. Much of the challenge in this most basic quest demands concentrations of mastery and time. One does not define a home with digital bytes of data. A home begins with the etching of graphite on a smooth white surface. It comes alive with wriggles and twitches, with the compromise that happens in between the moments when a line begins and ends.
The permanence of stone, the fine grain of wood, and the richness of leather, these are textures and materials that contribute to the spirit of a place. They have their own voices in sharp cloppy echoes or muffled tones. They express time and form their own narratives. They are materials that play with our senses and in doing so make us feel alive.
Perhaps my fondness for sharp lights and strong shadows stems from the fact that I’ve spent my life in this city of ours by the bay. My fascination with water probably comes from this sense of nearness and inevitability that it has always held in my mind. There is a certain coquettishness with water that is seen by the peculiar reflections and shadows of its depths.
I once found myself sitting by the river looking at colorful little fishing boats in Negros. Materials and colors delight me. The sounds of water and the gliding movement of boats enchant me. But it is the noise and clatter of people and the playful enjoyment of earthly pursuits that I love the most. There is a richness in our land that defines who we are as a people. The most fascinating scene by the water was not of the fishermen or boats, but of the boat builders going about their day merrily giving shape to their craft.
I look for this playfulness in my work. I embrace it and demand it of life. This, I believe, is my luxury of architecture. A life of passion that allows me to staunchly project my ideas as I joyfully type out words that stem from my imaginary journeys while I continue to search for the city of tomorrow.