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Architect explains designing divisions

Ryan Sydlik | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Distinguished architect, critic and poet Robert Campbell addressed the divisions in design and thinking that often occur between modern and traditional architects in a lecture Monday night titled “Why Don’t the Rest of Us Like the Buildings that Architects Like?”

To start his lecture, at times humorous and at times serious, Pulitzer Prize-winner Campbell used the Scottish parliament building as an example of the clash between modern and radical architectural thought.

While the building had won the Sterling Prize the media ran a story shortly thereafter titled “Demolition,” with a poll saying the building was one of the twelve most hated buildings in all of Britain.

Campbell described the situation as “a measure of the radical disconnect in our time.”

He attributed this disconnect to the avant-garde movement, which is a form of architecture that completely violates the norms.

Campbell said in the minds of its practitioners, “[Avant-garde] was helping a new future to be born.”

He went on to describe the situation at the University of Virginia, where some modern-style buildings were constructed but did not fit in with the campus look.

This led the University to hire someone to oversee construction to ensure all new buildings would be more traditional in form. This move was criticized, based on the Jeffersonian principle of progressivism. Opponents said there was a difference between merely looking Jeffersonian and actually being Jeffersonian by building radical designs.

This anecdote served as the lead into one of Campbell’s main points. The architecture Jefferson proposed was already branded from Greece and Rome, he said.

“Jefferson wanted to speak in a language that the public could understand,” Campbell said. “Jefferson knew you could be innovative if you knowingly violate convention as opposed to completely ignoring it.”

From here, Campbell entered into the main thrust of his lecture: art in all periods has to work between memory and invention.

“The tension between [memory and invention] is where great architecture comes from,” he declared.

Campbell said traditional architects want everything to look beautiful according to a fantasy history they have been conditioned to love, and radical architects do not want to waste time with the quaint past and choose to live in the present or the future.

Campbell was especially critical of the radical movement.

“Avant-gardism is the curse of the 20th century … It is a love affair of shapes that can be generated on computers,” he said.

Campbell said he valued originality and variety, as long as architecture had meaning.

He described architecture’s purpose as the art of making habitable places as opposed to being primarily an intellectual activity.

He said, “Should a building be a metaphor? Did Einstein and Freud live and work in metaphors? No.”

Campbell closed the discussion by giving two pieces of advice to aspiring architects.

“Do more freehand drawing and go out and travel now when you aren’t tied down by a spouse and a mortgage,” he said.