Theorists from Vitruvius on have exalted the role of architecture and the architect in human society. Vitruvius did not dwell at length on the matter, but in the context of hypothesizing an origin for architecture he offered the art of building perhaps the highest encomium it has ever received. After attributing to the discovery of fire the origin of society and language, he accorded to the invention of architecture the status of generator of civilization. From architecture, he asserted, all the other arts and fields of knowledge were descended. By implication, then, the architect is one of the prime contributors to the shaping of civilization. By defining the importance of the art of building in this way, Vi-truvius raised the writing of architectural theory above the level of technical manuals to that of intellectual discourse bordering on philosophy. Subsequent theorists had to subscribe to similar characterizations in order to maintain the same lofty status for their treatises, but their different circumstances prompted them to employ somewhat different formulations.
Because Alberti's mission in writing his treatise was to revive the antique tradition, it was necessary for him to make classical architecture important to others as well. Hence for him the role of theory had to be one of advocacy—as it has remained to this day. For that reason Alberti felt impelled to cite the benefits to society of beautiful, well-planned buildings: they give pleasure; they enhance civic pride; they confer dignity and honor on the community; if sacred, they can encourage piety; and they may even move an enemy to refrain from damaging them. By the same token the architect through his work bestows benefits: he is useful both to individual clients and to the public. Through the design of military machines and fortifications he may be more useful to the defense of society than the generals; and as an artist and theorist he is an ornament to his culture.
For as long as the classical tradition reigned as the sole desirable mode for architecture, these assertions did not need to be restated or defended. But near the end of the eighteenth century, when a theorist such as Quatremere de Quincy could assert that the orders need not necessarily be the basis of design, a new way of defining the role of architecture became appropriate. Quatremere saw architecture as a mode of expression, parallel to language and similar in nature. Like language, it is not only a means whereby human society is formed but is also a cause of its formation. Like language, architecture evolves and with that evolution comes to serve a progressive social purpose. Hence architects and architecture can be the instrument of social improvement.
That outlook got a new spin when Gothic became the conceptual ideal. Pugin, for instance, cited this one particular style of building, the medieval architecture of the pointed arch, as not only evocative but also supportive of a virtuous society. The medieval architect, by implication, had been the instrument of that virtue. Ruskin, imputing similar virtue to Italian Gothic, maintained that good architecture inspires the citizens who have incorporated it into their daily lives, because it expresses and at the same time reinforces the highest values of their society. It contains the most palpable evidence of their historical experience, endowing the surrounding landscape with the cultural meaning that makes nature poetic. Moreover, it manifests the inner spirit of a people, witnessing to their distinctive identity. The architect assumes the burden of realizing all these important missions. When he is successful, he has contributed to and improved his society.
For Viollet-le-Duc, who preferred to involve himself in architecture without benefit of metaphysics, the architect provides rational designs to meet practical needs. Architecture, for him, is the product of logical analysis, providing for a functional need with a suitable structure while employing appropriate materials. His views are akin to Ruskin's but without the romantic sentiment. Together the two theorists provided the basis for a magnified esteem, current during the early decades of the twentieth century, of the social value of good design and the architect's role in creating it.
Paul Scheerbart, envisioning in 1914 a virtually transparent architecture with curtain walls of glass set in minimal ferroconcrete frames, offered one of the most radical assessments. He recognized that while living and working in transparent buildings a person would have to shed the sense of being cocooned that traditional architecture provides. That person would also have to be willing to function with the environment in full view, and in full view of those on the outside. Such an alteration of circumstances would require nothing less than a fundamental change of behavior and a modification of prevailing notions of privacy. It would radically redefine the way people had related to architecture for more than two thousand years. For Scheer-bart, then, architecture is capable of playing a role in society that would profoundly change how people live and relate to each other. He had, on the other hand, no particular notion of the architect's place in all this other than to assume that the designer can and will recognize and take advantage of all the new opportunities presented by modern technology.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier shared an exaggerated notion of the profound effect that good architectural design and the architect who created it could have on society. For Le Corbusier it was largely a case of solving problems to create a more healthful and efficient built environment. To a considerable extent he subscribed to the same notion as Scheerbart, namely that through spare, lean domestic design one could correct the indolent, materialistic inclinations he deplored in nineteenth-century society and perceived in its architecture. He was fully aware of the implications for lifestyle that are inherent in his architectural design, and he tended to idealize the impact that an architect of such inclinations could exert upon his society. His urban design schemes, centered on widely dispersed glass and concrete towers and surrounded by long ribbon buildings of similar construction, were abstractions based on generalized concerns for physical health and circulation and little else. They were environments to be shaped by a single intelligence, granted total control over a large area.
Gropius's notions were nearly the same; indeed, he and Le Corbusier both trusted in modern industrial technology to sweep away the ills of the past, especially the horrors of the nineteenth-century industrial city. More than the other two leaders of modernism, however, Gropius put his faith in the creation of material environments in which all artifacts, not just the architecture, would be well designed. They would not only be tasteful and efficient; they would also be industrially produced, and in a manner that would make them economically available to most of the popula tion. He regarded the function of an architect as that of a social benefactor.
Wright, having early imbibed from Japan the Zen Buddhist concept of the oneness of humankind with nature, was always more concerned than the other two pioneers of modernism with using architecture to help people establish a philosophically healthier relationship to nature. Toward this end he devoted special concern to the siting of his rural buildings in nature and also to designing the natural environment surrounding his urban buildings. He regarded his architecture as capable of helping people adopt a saner lifestyle, and as an architect he thought of himself as the one who would show the way. His Broadacre City project— made with the Taliesin Fellows in the mid-1930s— integrated the amenities of both city and country in a thinly populated regional plan. The architect of such a community would implicitly both design and control the environment. Consequently, just as Plato's republic was to be headed by a philosopher-king, Wright's Broadacre City would have to be governed by a philosopher-architect.
Of the three, it was Le Corbusier whose ideas about the role of the architect enjoyed the greatest influence, especially in the area of city design. Conceived with altruistic motives for housing the many, his urban schemes were dominated by a concern for providing healthful environments, light and airy, in which circulation by modern modes of transportation would be maximally efficient. Through such improved design he thought it would be possible to transform urban life for the better.
As it turned out, Le Corbusier's exalted aspiration for the role of the architect signaled the high-water mark of the modernist movement's professional ambitions. The apartment tower schemes constructed according to his model ended up exerting upon the occupants an impact exactly opposite from the one he had imagined. Not only did the structures not revitalize their alienated and dehumanized occupants, but they even atomized the very communities they were meant to unify. In acknowledgment of their failure, the dramatic intentional demolition of such a complex in St. Louis in the 1960s did more than any other one event to deflate the exalted regard for the architect and the social role of architecture that modernism had fostered. Since then, statements on those twin themes have been little more than asides interpolated into the explanations of designs in monographs and professional journals.
Nowadays the professional is more likely to present him- or herself as a nonintrusive interpreter of the client's needs, functioning principally as a facilitator for their realization. If the reality of performance is more active than that, it is one in which the designer's creative freedom is exercised more with the way the structure is formulated than with the way the building is to be used, that is, with the means rather than the ends. If the present-day architect does not still claim to improve society through good design, he or she may nevertheless produce an unanticipated new cultural icon in the course of developing a radical structural solution to the practical needs of the client. Be that as it may, the diminution of the role of the architect in architectural theory is real, and it has been accompanied by a parallel diminution in both the advocacy and the comprehensiveness of architectural theory itself.
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