On Patronage. Is Design a Luxury?
Is Design a Luxury?
Hassan Fathy, the celebrated Egyptian architect once said that every masterpiece required a patron. On seeing the large city-scale commissions coming up in the city I often wonder why our ambitions are so small both as architects and clients, and how the mere replication of facade elements and features serve as valid architectural manoeuvres. In 1945, John Entenza, the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine in the US proposed the construction of eight houses in California as case studies to address the housing boom post World War II. Nationally recognized architects were chosen, sites were bought and earmarked and these houses were meant to demonstrate the use of new technologies and materials, accommodate a contemporary lifestyle, and be easy to duplicate and construct. Entenza’s brief was a provocation to the architects to redefine the modern home. The program announcement in the January 1945 issue stated that each “house must be capable of duplication and in no sense be an individual ‘performance’... It is important that the best material available be used in the best possible way in order to arrive at a ‘good’ solution of each problem, which in the over-all program will be general enough to be of practical assistance to the average American in search of a home in which he can afford to live.” The program ran for twenty years and of the 36 commissioned designs 28 were built.
In 2000 the Manhattan based Brown Companies, a real estate developer, inviting the American architect Richard Meier to play curator, proposed a private residential development in the Hamptons - 34 luxury homes on 65 acres, each designed by an internationally known architect. The project was seen, by its promoter, Harry Brown as a critique of the ‘McMansions’ in the Hamptons - sprawling, classically-inspired houses. There could be criticism about these million dollar homes and their limited appeal to the wider public, but nonetheless they still serve as a provocation against the wasteful trends of housing for the elite. 6 houses have been completed and sold.
Both wonderful examples of inspired patronage.
But the big missed opportunity is in the large scale public works being undertaken across the city - road works, the Metro, the recently opened airport, etc. It is here that a re-evaluation of the project brief is urgently required. They are currently seen merely as utilitarian objects that satisfy a specific, localised need, when in fact, these projects offer a unique opportunity to remake the city in a fundamental way and to improve the public realm (streetscapes, open space patterns, etc.).
On a recent trip to London I visited the Battersea (the one on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover) and Bankside Power Stations (now the Tate Modern Museum). Both buildings, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, housed turbines and other machinery but are impressive architecturally with a high level of art deco detailing and a lot of thought given to the massing and the way they sit on their respective sites.
Our new airport has come in for some criticism with regards to the services and the number of flights/passengers it can handle. These are relevant observations, but I also think it lacks ambition design-wise and is merely a ‘decorated shed’. The complex of buildings, including the obnoxious control tower, do not form a cohesive unit and have nothing to do with each other. This could have been a great opportunity to create a wonderful precinct (like in Hong Kong, or dare I say it, Hyderabad) with the main terminal as the focus. I know this isn’t really constructive coming so late in the day, but the on-going metro lines, stations and other public works, however mundane, need to be seen as opportunities to improve the environments they are in. Public authorities need to look beyond utility and see design as a way to solve the challenges our city faces. Like I wrote in an earlier piece, it is time that both clients and public agencies dreamt bigger dreams, and had bigger ambitions. Design is not a luxury.
In 2005, I made a film on architecture in Bangalore seen through the eyes of 25 local architects. One of the questions I asked them was, does design matter? Prem Chandavarkar of Chandavarkar & Thacker Architects responded saying,” We tend to look at art and design as some kind of luxury, but actually you think about societies whose struggle for survival is most precarious - you look at rural societies, at tribal societies - they are highly embedded in art, in terms of the way they decorate their walls, in terms of the artifacts they make. It is only people whose struggle for survival somehow is not so precarious suddenly say that art & design are a luxury.”
For more on
1. The Case Study Houses see http://www.artsandarchitecture.com/case.houses/index.html
2. The Houses at Sagaponac see http://www.dwell.com/house-tours/article/seeing-what-develops