Architecture Matters

On September 12, architect Peter Eisenman delivered a speech at Cornell University entitled "Architecture Matters."

If the current dust-up about Charlottesville's recent additions– the Pavilion on the east end of the Downtown Mall, the John Paul Jones arena, a "copper house" in the Downtown design control district– is any indication, he's right. Architecture clearly does matter locally.

Eisenman argued that architecture needs a new language to speak about the present. In order to be relevant, architecture must (once again) find a new voice, he said.

Architecture, at its core, is an intervention in the landscape. The task of architecture, however, is to negotiate the laws of engineering with a variety of human programs like housing, entertainment, corporate, leisure, and civic.

That is architecture's task. Everything else is window dressing. Style, ornament, and color seem meaningless when you're asking, "Will it offer me protection? Will it suit my needs? What does it say about my community?"

Unfortunately, we often judge architecture by the window dressing. The problem with styles is their packaging. Styles have specific terms. Buildings of a certain style can market themselves to the public by using those terms. Architecture is reduced to a bite-sized gimmick. As a result, the underlying language of architecture­ which includes form, function, circulation, and spatial relationships­ is rarely acknowledged in public discussions of architecture.

Architecture doesn't need a new language. It needs to understand the one it has. Moreover, we need to understand what it's saying.

For some, talking about architecture doesn't seem all that productive. Who are those black shirts? Who are those bow-ties? And, what are they doing? Some would argue that architecture is on a par with the mysteries of the universe, quantum theory, economics, or politics. Hardly. It's always been right in front of us.

Many of us­ including myself­ don't fully know the ins and outs of these things even if they affect us everyday. Personally, I'm still a little fuzzy about the Fed and Alan Greenspan, but I know it affects the interest rates on my loans. The jury is still out on what the President actually does, though.

But we all know the ins and outs of architecture­ even if we think we don't. Architecture matters because it's everywhere. It affects where we go, how we get there, what we do when we get there, and so on. We know when a space is too small or too large, when we have enough light or when we don't.

Even without a degree in architecture, we instinctively know when architecture isn't working– when an entrance is too narrow to fit all those people, when the sidewalk ends, or when the roof leaks. We certainly know when a reasonable-size truck can't clear the 14th Street railroad overpass­ as happened on September 15.

Public concern for architecture and architecture itself are quickly separated by two things­ when architecture baffles us (think Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao), or when architecture is innocuous (think yet another Classical façade). But this divide is not because we speak a different language than architecture. It's because architecture's language is concealed by a constellation of meaningless terms.

If the task of architecture is to consciously make our world, then we must make an effort to understand why our world looks the way it does. If architects are stewards of the design process, then we need to be stewards of the design product.

As the recent UVA debacle illustrates, architecture is an ongoing experiment. It's a present matter and a prescient debate. Jeffersonian v. non-Jeffersonian, quality v. mediocrity, and tradition v. innovation may be today's conversation, but the course of that conversation means a great deal to our life tomorrow.