Pleasing comfortable buildings: pro and con

I can’t get off the topic of Alexander and architecture. Luckily for my few remaining readers I’m running out of things to read and comment on, at least until volumes 2, 3, and 4 of his The Natwhy wereure of Order arrive. Anyway, I found on the web the transcript of a 1982 debate between him and Peter Eisenman that’s apparently quite well-known, I suppose because it illuminates some basic issues in contemporary architecture. (In what follows I’ll expand on what’s actually said in line with general tendencies of thought and what others have done with them.)

The issues are obviously religious. Both sides seem to believe that the built environment mirrors the cosmos. That actually makes sense: we want the world we build around us to look like the world we believe in. Otherwise it seems stupid, distracting, phony and aside the point. Who needs that? Eisenman and many others apparently believe that the cosmos—or at least the cosmology that forces itself on present-day man, which amounts to the same thing as a practical matter—is essentially disorderly, inhuman, threatening and anxiety-producing. They therefore conclude that’s what architecture should be. Otherwise, it’s kitsch, comfort food, inauthentic, and probably incipiently Nazi because it’s likely to try to force some image of fantasized past order on recalcitrant reality.

Alexander by contrast notes that there are obviously wonderful harmonious beautiful things in the world, life and living order for example, and those are the things we should concern ourselves with because they’re superior to other things and besides we’re alive too. Since such things exist as an objective matter of fact they must express the nature of the cosmos, it’s hard to see how else they could have gotten here, and it’s that wonderful harmonious beautiful nature of the cosmos that architecture should represent and support against the disruptive and inhuman elements that admittedly have also somehow entered the picture.

I gotta say Alexander makes more sense to me. The Problem of Good, why there are good things in a world that supposedly has no meaning, strikes me as more serious than the famous Problem of Evil. And in any case, if the world’s horrible why surround ourselves with things that imitate it? A couple gargoyles on the cathedral might be OK but Eisenman and friends seem to want lots of big commissions and don’t much like cathedrals. Also, if everything’s totally disorderly it’s hard to see why making a peachy-keen built order in the midst of alarming cosmic disorder would violate any principle of how things ought to be when there are no such principles anyway. Why not simply try to please? If you don’t think there are higher principles, because everything’s such a mess, why make unpleasantness a higher principle than comfort and pleasure?

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