When I arrived at the University of Minnesota I aspired to be a green architect, one that designed aesthetically pleasing spaces that effectively balanced form and function. I felt our current environment was too excessive to be efficient. Although both architecture classes have pointed out the obvious housing problems resulting from extreme poverty and natural disasters, we have spent far too much time gawking over ridiculously expensive designer buildings whose function is none greater than a basic structure.
That's the problem with our, "built environment." Our affinity for highly embellished structures, like a Ghery building, focuses on aesthetics rather than functionality and use. Thus, we have to ask why we build structures. To that end, at what point does a framework or structure become more art than architecture? The primary purpose of architecture should be to house or frame human activities (most obviously in our residences). But all frameworks: gardens, landscaping, businesses, markets,
etc. are manifestations of the need to have shelter.
Currently our built environment is detracting from making our lives efficient.
When push comes to shove, we need things to work. Blackberrys, cars, and even our apple peelers have a purpose and function that is much more important than how they look. The better they work, the easier it makes our lives and the more value we get from it. When things don't work, we try to make them better. But there are some things that don't work very well, and which for reasons beyond our power, we cannot make more efficient. For example, our built environment and 1701 lectures both come to mind. Both are embellished to unnecessary levels. Both opt for show and panache instead of useable content. Just as it's hard to translate a verbose lecture spanning two weeks, it's hard to traverse a complicated environment.
Since when should a city spend millions of dollars for a Caesar Pelli or Frank Gehry building while hundreds sleep homeless in freezing temperatures? That even ignores the thousands of people who can't use the literature within the walls of the library, because the building itself drained public funds.
The entirety of our education and upbringing focuses on the competition of two values. Content or appearances? Efficiency or ornament? Form or function? This trend has continued into 1701 lectures as well as the architecture in my surrounding environment. Sadly, appearance tends to win the battle, and when we experience the failure of appearance to be useful and functional, we can finally see that function was the right choice in the first place.
Don't get me wrong; I love decoration, intricacies and design. But I have priorities that put not only the functioning of a building, but its surrounding community of people before the lavish décor. Buildings that are adorned and embellished are usually full of wasted time, material and space.
In residential architecture, we are now witnessing million dollar houses with plastic siding. Magnificent at first glance, but mediocre upon further scrutiny. These buildings are merely an attempt to portray lavishness, an idea that has become sadly all too American. Why are we so obsessed with bedazzling everything, even down to our conversations and lectures? Maybe by making our thoughts inaccessible and our architecture abstract, those of us who can understand fancy words and afford the luxuries are somehow better than others. After all, what’s more American than being better than the next?
Focusing on function and use should be our largest priority when it comes to designing buildings. Our environments are so mixed-up by the need to decorate with unnecessary ornament that it pushes down our efficiency and reprioritizes important issues. And as I listen to my lectures, I am fed more than the important basics. I hear decorations that block the basics. And before we can build on our environments to make them pretty, or to make our language more flowery, we have to reexamine the importance of architecture and lecture.