Building With Intent to Destroy

Wurster Hall, the architecture building on campus, is a giant concrete edifice that is featured in Stewart Brand’s brilliant How Buildings Learn as an example of an “unworkable” building, a building that cannot grow and adapt to the needs of its residents.  It has strange nooks and crannies, horrible lab space, and very dark “suicide” stairwells.  Still, I walk through the courtyard almost every day on my way to the library or to get a cup of coffee.  I like seeing the architecture students at work– the other day they were building small balsa wood structures, arguing with each other with sticky-tape on the ends of their fingers.  I also love the way the building looks on the outside, stark white rectangles jutting into the deep blue sky on sunny days.

Stewart Brand gives architects a pretty rough time of it in How Buildings Learn, and I’m inclined to agree with his view that buildings should be malleable, organic, and accommodating to its inhabitants, traits so common in vernacular buildings but seemingly lost in most modern construction. The students were building mini-marvels, their shapes inspired by nature or by art or music.

I then wondered if any architecture has been inspired by archaeology–not by Greek or Roman columns or Egyptian obelisks, but instead actively tries to capture, represent, and preserve the lifeways of the people that it houses.  Most architecture does this by fiat, but how would you construct a building explicitly to excavate it?

This thought experiment had some nice resonance with a news story that came out a couple of weeks ago about an “Ikea-like” temple found in Italy with detailed assembly instructions inscribed on the various pieces. I posed the question over beers to some of my fellow grad students, with mostly blank looks in response.  It’s truly a very individualistic question, as some archaeologists prefer to dig post holes while others don’t bother with anything less than a temple complex.  How much mystery do you want with your archaeology? Are interpretive challenges part of the thrill of the excavation, or would you prefer to have your building pieces inscribed with instructions so that you can concentrate on more heady research questions?  Recursive, but it gave me a fun few minutes in the sunshine, watching students and their balsa wood frames.

Yeah, yeah–I should be working on my dissertation.

3 responses to “Building With Intent to Destroy

  1. This is a conversation that deserves much more time off-line. I’m not a fan of Wurster for reasons besides its internal configurations (or lack thereof), but I can definitely see the points you’re raising about modern architecture. Not sure about how any has been informed through archaeology, but whatevs. We’ll chat sometime.

    Perhaps that needs to be a session at the next TAG. Architectural lessons from prehistoric societies. What aspects of the places one does research in seem most awesome, and should be taken up today?

  2. I’ve had a fun time being back in British Columbia, re-visiting Simon Fraser and UBC. They were both designed by Arthur Erickson. I heard a rumor years ago that he was riffing off archaeology in both designs. SFU is, from my perspective, an incredibly ugly campus with great views. However it was supposedly done to replicate Maya city landscapes. Google image it and you’ll see what I mean. Whereas UBC, supposedly, was like Teotihuacan, with the Museum of Anthropology as the Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the road that runs through campus (Avenue of the Dead?). The fact that he also designed the incredible Museum of Anthropology by clearly drawing on post-and-beam First Nations construction adds to his style.
    BTW, I’m with Brand on Wurster.

  3. You should look into the work of Albert Speer, the architect of Adolf Hitler. He established a rule by which all 3rd Reich buildings should be planned to convey “grandeur” when they were nothing but ruins.
    That is, if you’re into taking things to their extremes…

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