“I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.”

Richard Feynman

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

Harmony in Architecture

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As part of my followup inquiry into Alexander’s work (after completing a reading of his work The Nature of Order) I came across this transcript of a debate between him and a supposedly (now) famous architect Peter Eisenman. I was looking forward to reading but was quickly disappointed because I could hardly follow Eisenman’s words – he felt theoretical, abstract, alienating and trapped in a quasi-intellectual world of his own. I did very much enjoy Alexander’s responses which basically called him out for using a lot words to say very little.

For me the essence of this debate is summed up in these (selected and highlighted by me) words:

ALEXANDER: Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night — I was doing empirical observation about — as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.

The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building — if I understood you correctly — is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

EISENMAN: That is correct.

ALEXANDER: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

EISENMAN: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris’s idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him … Walter Benjamin talks about “the destructive character”, which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgement that I am screwing up the world, because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.

ALEXANDER: Good God!

EISENMAN: I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc.

ALEXANDER: If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs. Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I feel very, very strongly about this. It’s all very well to say: “Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here — it’s all fine”. But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world. And if a group of very powerful people, yourself and others …

… then I inquired some more into Peter Eisenman and his work and on his Wikipedia page found this:

His focus on “liberating” architectural form was notable from an academic and theoretical standpoint but resulted in structures that were both badly built and hostile to users. The Wexner Center, hotly anticipated as the first major public deconstructivist building, has required extensive and expensive retrofitting because of elementary design flaws (such as incompetent material specifications, and fine art exhibition space exposed to direct sunlight). It was frequently repeated that the Wexner’s colliding planes tended to make its users disoriented to the point of physical nausea; in 1997 researcher Michael Pollan tracked the source of this rumor back to Eisenman himself. In the words of Andrew Ballantyne, “By some scale of values he was actually enhancing the reputation of his building by letting it be known that it was hostile to humanity.”

As I write these words Eisenman seems to be an architecture celebrity while the work of Alexander seems to have been marginalized. The part of me that still resonates with celebrity rebels at this, but the more substantial part of me that recognizes that substantial change in society comes from its marginal proponents is comforted.

 

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