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An Odd Couple? Technology & Architecture

The relationship between technology and architecture has been a bittersweet one. Scholars of architectural theory have debated the appropriate role of technology in the field of architecture for ages. In my architectural history class with Professor Rachel Iannacone, I've been exposed to the rather bitter battles over the ages over the role of the "machine" in architecture. We learned about the Arts & Crafts movemement being a backlash against the Industrial Revolution's embrace of new technologies in architecture (namely steel, glass, and mass production techniques). The craftsman's touch versus the mechanized look serves as a stark contrast between, say the architecture of the DeStijl architect Theo von Doesburg and William Morris of the Arts & Crafts movement. Upon studying both sides of the argument, I personally believe that theorists from both radical pro-mechanization and reactionary anti-mechanization camps have brought legitimate arguments to the table.

Those in favor of embracing mechanization can rightfully argue that the machine brings good design to the common man by vastly lowering production cost. Furthermore, they argue that it creates pure geometries which cannot be created by the craftsman without the proper tools. Pure geometric forms are essential to Cubism, Purism, and much of modernist art and architecture. They also argue, as Ozayr's lecture outlined, that technology allows an "escape from primitive helplessness of the will," (I like Ozayr's word choice). Other legitimate arguments from the pro-machine camp are that the machine conserves and minimizes our use of energy, which is a huge plus with today's energy crisis.

On the other hand, the anti-machine camp can argue that the machine creates an alienation from materiality and renders the inhabitant unable to see subtle details in the architecture. They also argue that the increased speed in the machine's design process doesn't necessarily create a better design. The camp can also legitimately argue that the machine is neither additive nor subtractive, but "ecological," as Neil Postman puts it in his book. Ultimately, they are asserting that new technological advances completely replace old technologies. They cannot coexist with old technologies, so regardless of the value of the old technology, the new one will consume it. Technology can sometimes be good, they concede, but it can also be very bad. Ozayr illustrated this point well in showing two different pictures of "mobile homes"; one row of luxury motor homes at an upscale RV park and next to it a photograph of the row of junk trailers in a refugee camp. They argue that technology has created architecture which lacks the imprint of the human touch; thus an emotionless, cold, and depressive architecture that doesn't uplift its inhabitants. They point to the monotony of suburbia and the the pre-fabricated boxes we call homes. They argue that the machine is ultimately taking over the role of architect in many respects, over time rendering the human designer obsolete. David Newton well-illustrated this prospect in his guest lecture.

So, as I really agree with all above points from both sides of the aisle, I would have to label myself a centrist when it comes to the politics of pro/anti mechanization. I can honestly acknowledge the validity of both sides. I think Ozayr said it best, himself also taking a centrist point of view on the subject: "The ultimate lesson here is to be skeptical of new technologies because they can greatly after how we think with things and alter the nature of community." A healthy level of skepticism is always necessary when confronted with a new change; not just in architecture, but in life in general. But a healthy level of openness must also counteract this skepticism.