Architecture without culture

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
January 15, 2021
Tags: architecture (construction) 1 rant 34 short 50

I was re­cent­ly watch­ing the Deep­Mind's Al­pha­Go doc­u­men­tary, which starts with sev­er­al views of Ox­ford, in­clud­ing a shot where half of the frame is filled with the out­side of The Shel­don­ian The­atre, the oth­er half show­ing the His­to­ry of Sci­ence Mu­se­um. I've been to Ox­ford once, and while I didn't know the ex­act lo­ca­tion (nor that those build­ings were called like this; I had to google it), I im­me­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the style of this part of Ox­ford from the sec­ond part of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Next scene: some gen­tle­men play­ing Go in a street that I im­me­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize as Bor­deaux. It's rue Saint-James, with the Grosse cloche de Bor­deaux, fif­teenth cen­tu­ry, ap­pear­ing at the back­ground. What's in­ter­est­ing is that here again, I had to google it to find the ex­act lo­ca­tion. While I lived for about five years in Bor­deaux, I haven't been too much in this street, and at first, I thought that be­hind the Grosse cloche there would be the Garonne riv­er; it ap­peared that the lo­ca­tion I was think­ing about was all wrong.

By look­ing at two pic­tures show­ing the most­ly un­fa­mil­iar build­ings, I could rec­og­nize the city, based ex­clu­sive­ly on the style of the ar­chi­tec­ture. In the same way, I once rec­og­nized Pisa (and that was a view of Arno riv­er and its neigh­bor­ing hous­es, not the Pi­az­za del Duo­mo and its Torre di Pisa rec­og­niz­able by vir­tu­al­ly every per­son in the world), and sev­er­al times—my fa­vorite city of Paris and a bunch of oth­er small towns I've vis­it­ed be­fore.

In 1999, Ro­man Polan­s­ki re­leas­es The Ninth Gate. The sto­ry takes place in Unit­ed States, France, Spain, and Por­tu­gal. With­out ex­plic­it leg­end telling which lo­ca­tion is which, it is still very clear where every scene takes place. How could it be that just show­ing some street in a small town is enough to make it clear what coun­try is that?

This rec­og­niz­able char­ac­ter of cities and coun­tries would be all lost if to­day's ar­chi­tects con­tin­ue build­ing the mod­ern crap they build now.

Look at this im­age from Street View. Where are those build­ings? What coun­try? Maybe it's Lon­don? Or some city in Unit­ed States? Does this ar­chi­tec­ture looks like some­thing... Aus­tralian maybe? Or is it some busi­ness dis­trict in Jakar­ta? Maybe Moscow?

Fig­ure 1 Anony­mous build­ings with no cul­ture. Source: Google Maps.

For those of you who work at La Défense, the busi­ness dis­trict near Paris, this lo­ca­tion might be rec­og­niz­able. At the con­di­tion that you were there a lot of times. If not, no way you'll rec­og­nize it, be­cause it has ab­solute­ly no per­son­al­i­ty, noth­ing spe­cial. No­body knows who built them, and frankly, no­body cares. It doesn't tran­scribe the French cul­ture, the his­to­ry of Paris, the his­to­ry of this spe­cif­ic part of Paris. A sim­i­lar build­ing can be found any­where in the world, from Hong Kong to Chica­go. It has no re­spect for the her­itage, and no re­spect for peo­ple who live there, who work there, who walk in this street.

Is it wrong? It de­pends.

We as hu­mans may de­cide that we don't care about his­to­ry, that lega­cy has no im­por­tance. Maybe we should de­stroy all the build­ings from the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and be­fore, burn all the books, ban his­to­ri­ans from our so­ci­ety, and re­build the new great world where every place is the same, would it be a small vil­lage in the south of Italy or a dis­trict in New Del­hi. Af­ter all, this very ar­ti­cle is writ­ten in Eng­lish in or­der to ap­peal to a larg­er au­di­ence—the same way, the build­ings we build would ap­peal to the whole world, in­stead of re­trac­ing the roots of a giv­en col­lec­tiv­i­ty and a giv­en lo­ca­tion.

Or we may de­cide that roots mat­ter. And that Nor­mandy, Loire Val­ley, or Brit­tany have their im­por­tance, that vil­lages such as Riquewihr in Al­sace, France, or Ri­omag­giore in La Spezia, Italy, are unique lo­ca­tions, with unique feel­ing, unique ar­chi­tec­ture, and unique his­to­ry, which should be pre­served.

If we chose the first op­tion, there is a risk that there would be no way back. At the mo­ment of writ­ing, I live in Paris for the fifth con­sec­u­tive year. Dur­ing the past four years, I've seen a se­ries of build­ings de­mol­ished, in or­der to build crap in­stead. I'm not even men­tion­ing Lon­don, where en­tire dis­tricts look like a per­ma­nent con­struc­tion site. What for? To erect crap built from glass, which looks ex­act­ly like crap build from glass in the Unit­ed States, Rus­sia, or Chi­na. If you have a chance to climb the Eif­fel Tow­er, look at the build­ings be­neath, the ones close to Champ de Mars. At least ten per­cent of the build­ings are the crap built in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, with no re­spect for Paris ar­chi­tec­ture. Why is that? Isn't Champ de Mars an im­por­tant lo­ca­tion with im­por­tant his­to­ry? Shouldn't we care a bit about a place like that? Be­cause if we don't, one day, some­one would, from the top of the Eif­fel Tow­er, look not at the Hauss­man­nien build­ings, but rather the cul­tur­al­ly-neu­tral ones like on the im­age above. What Le Cor­busier sug­gest­ed in 1925, we're do­ing it now, step by step. If this is our fu­ture, I don't want to be part of it.