Many young architects want to be the maverick wunderkind, who ‘comes out of nowhere’, as they say. Significant first projects are critical, by conveying a rare ability to fulfill a compelling, individual vision at a young age. One project leads to another, so that one may have decided to be a Jon Jerde rather than a David Adjaye without realizing he or she had made that choice. This fear results in ubiquitous fantasies of the believing, generous client—an independently wealthy or politically influential relative, for instance—who can rescue the architect from the quagmires of political negotiation, dogmatic clients, and any other obstacles to individual vision.
From Imhotep’s devoted Pharaoh to Peter Eisenman’s Suzanne Frank, patronage in architecture is a tradition as old as the profession. This gift confers autonomy to the architect and his or her work. The gift-giver’s elevated position in society, whether obtained through money or influence, frees a comfortably shady plot upon which the architect can build without the messy heat of compromise that distorts vision. But, as Marcel Mauss, the 20th century sociologist, tells us, a gift is never free, and the given cannot be divorced from the relations that exchanged it. Architects, however, feign ignorance or neutrality to underlying power dynamics, while necessarily materializing that power, thereby fulfilling reciprocity. They fancy themselves autonomous even from this symbiotic relationship, a further condition of the gift they have received. Extricating themselves from potential ethical quandaries, they can invest themselves in perverse fascinations with the effectiveness of authoritarian political regimes, corporate capitalists, and other gift-givers of global power. Gift upon gift, architects dream of the carte blanche, an allowance to design free from the rigorous demands of society—another incarnation of the tabula rasa.
|Ise Shrine, Ise, Japan, 4 BC (source)
Art is both a gift and gifted. It is the product of a gifted spirit and, when successful, it gives (space, time, inspiration) to those who subsequently witness it. A piece of art is inexhaustible. It is always the same and never the same. Lewis Hyde wrote a whole book on this, called The Gift. ‘If the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the one offered to the world in general’.
Architecture is not art, but many of us wish it could be. Architecture is too tied up with the world. It is not the product of a single self, but innumerable authors, each mediated by exterior forces (money, power, politics, function, zoning…). Buildings must also be logical, and ‘Logic is the money of the mind’, writes Marx, ‘logic is alienated thinking and therefore thinking which abstracts from nature and from real man’. It is the building’s job, literally, to abstract the human from nature, to place her in a room of her mind’s own making.
Perhaps, as architecture become less strict, as it veers closer to the art object, it can become gift-like. A memorable piece of architecture creates space—real space, of course, but also new space in our memory. The space created of seeing something beautiful, or interesting, or weird. Great architecture is effusive, like art, though it often has to do more to establish itself as such.
And there is also the literal way in which a building is a gift. We give a building to the future, where we know it will be (for a while, at least). Those after us can come to it and see the things we did well and the things we got wrong. The Ise Shrine, in Japan, was first built around the year 692. It is built again every 20 years, according to the exact same materials and dimensions. It is always the same and never the same.
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