J,P:A started from scratch to build an architecture from first principles and a reasoned awareness of history. Here is the recipe. In determining where to start, the first step is to decide why there is architecture instead of just building. What does architecture do? (J,P:A is continually aware of the contingent miracle of architecture’s unnecessary existence. It is a brutal fact that building is sufficient without architecture.)
Though architecture is strictly unnecessary it is not without value. Building has traditionally been the biggest thing any society made, the most enduring evidence of that society; historically it made sense that it should be invested with the “extra” dimension of responsibility that has come to be called architecture. Architecture places humans in the world, expressing in enduring form the highest ideals and aspirations of the society it serves. Today, building’s importance has diminished in proportion to the increasing influence of the virtual dimensions of the culture, and with it architecture’s potential value.
Yet still architects generally take architecture for granted as much as lay people ignore it. Today architecture is vulnerable, and should be particularly cherished, respected, stewarded by those who make their living around it.
The difference between architectures is reflected in the different worlds they express, or the different views of those worlds. It is the responsibility of the architect to get this right, to recognize that this is not a personal verdict.
Thus the architect should approach each work as evidence of a particular understanding of the world, as evidence of the architect’s belief that this understanding is the most correct or appropriate. In the case of J,P:A’s work, this understanding is given to the members of the firm by their own experience in the world, along with the study of certain thinkers the firm thinks have best captured the sense of the way things are. This experience in the world has given the firm an impression of what is cool, while the writing of certain thinkers has given J,P:A a sense of what is true.
Since the architect’s work is driven by this relationship to the world a certain consistency should be expected from project to project. Those architects who claim to make each project up fresh in response to the specific requirements of each client are abrogating a responsibility to the larger picture, and in this view it would not be incorrect to claim that what they were doing was not really architecture.
TECHNOLOGY AS THE FACE OF NATURE
J,P:A understands a world with three principal constituents: humans, nature, and the objects humans make that they place there in the world between them and nature. All that stuff--all the possible products of intentionality, everything made, thought, performed — is called machines, or more generally “technology.” The world as humans experience it is given to them by technology.
All sorts of things follow from this basic starting point, including architecture’s own position, as one of the things made, there between humans and nature, as technology. J,P:A feels it is architecture’s responsibility to the world to expressively embody this condition, and J,P:A’s responsibility to architecture to work respectfully with awareness of its disciplinary boundaries.
This tri-part characterization of the world would mean that any production would be, defacto, an embodiment of that relationship. It is a mark of architecture that it does not rest on simple embodiment as building would, but makes a statement beyond this about the way things are or should be. This casts J,P:A’s preference for the overtly technological as merely one choice among the rest. This choice is explained as most appropriate, for reasons of directness (occam’s razor) and other reasons elaborated below.
The scale of architecture is the scale at which humanity dwells in the world, the scale at which humans experience that world, the scale at which human senses operate. This is the scale of a Newtonian reality, the scale of the body as an object in space, the scale that has informed human intuition for 2 million years and formed human common sense. This means that if architecture is to embody humanity’s place in the world, rather than just signify or symbolize it, it cannot make sense of the microscopic and cosmic.
This means that architecture, as a body itself, as a projection in some cases of the human body, is a Newtonian construction, and properly mechanical. Considered this way, the relationship of the person to architecture is not the usual one of passive contemplation or even processional attention; instead, the architecture is offered as a mechanism to be operated.
In this view, architecture should inspire engaging experience, and satisfy that engagement with operability. This trades the uplifting sense of projection introduced by the Greeks for a more democratic fact of empowerment. Implied in this are the importance of pre-conventional legibility, and a quality of expectation in the work that it be manipulated. Instead of projection there is fit. The viewer does not see themselves writ large, but sees themselves in the accommodation or inflection of the work to their active presence. The work is not a symbol, but an interlocutor.
The viewer reads the work as a guide to its performance and their active relationship to it, rather than its meaning, and derives whatever meaning is possible there from that mutual performance and the way the work supports it.
FROM THE DOORKNOB TO THE CITY
One of the reasons the architecture known as “classical”--the architecture derived from Greek and Roman models--was so successful for so long is that its principles could be applied at the full range of scales that mark experience and require design--from the doorknob to the city. Classical work was visually, intellectually, and haptically satisfying at all these scales, and hierarchically coordinated among them. Unlike the high modern, classicism has no blind spots.
The reason that classical architecture is no longer appropriate has nothing to do with the intrinsic merit of its examples, but with its reference to a world that no longer exists. The reason it was able to evolve over two millennia was that there was a certain continuity to the world it embodied over that period. Such continuity is not apparent now, but this does not mean the work itself cannot be analyzed for disciplinary technique even if its forms or order are not emulated.
Though the possibility of a received architecture is no longer tenable, it seems to J,P:A, given this discussion, that each practice should work as if it were part of such a tradition or sponsoring one.
GOOD VS. NEW
For all these reasons the last thing J,P:A would claim about its work is that it is new or radically innovative. It seems to J,P:A that these goals, which are so privileged today, are more or less beside the point in architecture.
Rather, J,P:A sees the work as interested in being good. Like Mies said: J,P:A would rather be good than interesting. J,P:A would like to imagine itself as one day playing in the big leagues against the giants like Mies and Corbu, instead of in the big top against the circus animals and crumpled paper bags.
It is already established as a fact that the major figures of what might be called the high modern tradition were good, and the standards are there for all to measure themselves against. There are no standards in the contemporary big top, and the measure of value has nothing to do with goodness and everything to do with novelty.
This is not to say that such standards might not one day develop, and a tradition form around the work in the contemporary big top, but that is certainly the last thing that this contemporary work seems to be concerned with.
Two ways that J,P:A approaches the legitimate uses of the new, that it thinks of itself as innovating, are through souping up existing precedents and working with the expectations and iconography of movement. Souping up something forges a link between the good and the new and creates out of any single example a tradition within which traditions of goodness may be legitimately made.
Movement, considered as a matter-of-fact part of architecture, opens up a new dimension for design and makes the experience of the object continually fresh. The new also finds a place in the practice through the re-invention of wheels as an act of re-invigoration. In keeping with a mechanistic view of the world, J,P:A starts any design by expanding and elaborating the program to identify all possible things that the design could do, all the problems it could solve.
J,P:A’s design is grounded in that specific service of intentionality and program, but broadly considered and loosely defined, rather than any personal whim or idiosyncratic desire. Despite this, J,P:A believes that work should be exemplary. Work should be offered as an example of the way things should be, not as proof of its own uniqueness. The architect should stand behind the work rather than in front of it, and any signature that the work develops through its own consistency should be emblematic of its goodness, proven in each example, rather than simply its difference, or its designer’s fame.