June 23, 2007

Sustenance (Vision On The Small Scale)

Tucked away between the (sometimes admirable, and even occasionally lucid) social jargoneering pieces in Audacity.org's glossy book "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age" there's a small piece by Foster and Partners, "Challenging Assumptions About Cities Of The Future", describing a mooted Millenium Tower for Tokyo (yes, it — like so much of this sort of thing — was written Before It All Went Wrong). 170 storeys high, 2km offshore, a major piece of engineering, Architecture on a Corbusian scale. I can't tell if it's there as an illustration of sustainable architecture or as an anti-illustration — it just sits there, much like the tower itself would in Tokyo Bay, sui generis and a little incomprehensible (or all too comprehensible, maybe).

In all the diagrams and words there's not a single sentence — no visible thought at all — to what it might actually be like to live or work in something like this. Not Foster's concern, I guess, which isn't as surprising as it not being the concern of a book about architecture and sustainability: there's more to sustainability than simple resource in / out equations. There's also the question about whether life's worth sustaining inside such a tower, of how one would sustain one's mental, social, cultural, and physical life in such a machine for living, of how it might help sustain the surrounding environment, society, and culture.

Architects have an implicit contract with the inhabitants of their mooted buildings and with the people who inhabit the surrounding area. Good architectural proposals should grapple with what it's like to live or work in the building being proposed, what it's like to walk around it, what it's like to approach it from different angles, what sort of narratives the architect has in mind for daily life in the building, what it might be like to stand on the 150th floor and look out (or not), what it might be to spend an entire life in such a building. A good architect ought to be able to articulate what end users — inhabitants, customers, visitors, bystanders, etc. — would dislike as well as like about the building and the uses they're forced or chose to make of the building.

Vision on the small scale, in other words, the hardest part to get right (there are none so blind as those with Vision).

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