The Nature of Experience
the architecture of sense and concept
One consequence of our modern industrialized society is that we are dematerializing ourselves and the world we live in. Physical experience is increasingly discounted and substituted for mental abstractions and vicarious experience. At the same time, it cannot be said that we are cultivating the intellect [rbtfBook] in any way that is notable either. We seem to be drifting into some kind of neither-land of disembodied sensationalism.
The tactile, the visceral, the sensuous [rbtfBook] dissolves into a world of abstract distortions designed to sell things and fill lives made empty by chasing the tail of consumerism. “He who rides a tiger cannot get off” - the consumer economy is such a tiger, selling dreams with no substance, moving from extreme to greater extreme, building a false non-sustainable economic edifice that has no way out. What kind of world is it when Reality TV is the hottest thing going? REALITY?
This society, nor few individuals within it, are grounded.
Architecture - authentic architecture - is one means available for stemming this tide. Unfortunately, today’s “art” architecture has long been on a flight of abstract games, talking only to itself [rbtfBook] - head-trip is the crude, but accurate, description. Architecture is victim of the very circumstance it is most able to change - a classic positive feedback loop [rbtfBook]. The consequence of this is not just merely esthetic and intellectual in the dichotomous sense that these have concepts have become; when humans are not “centered” and “grounded” in themselves and in a place they become disconnected from the basic experience of life and themselves as beings. They are more prone to alienation. More prone to seek false substitutes for stimulation. Media and consumption, fine in themselves within rational limits, become an alternative to direct experience. It becomes easier to do stupid things like killing tens of thousands of innocent fellow humans, remotely, via agents, in the name of abstractions - in the quest of one form of unsustainable economic well being [rbtfBook] - while watching the process on the evening news with relative dispassion. Possessing the power of gods many in our society are actually living in fear and reacting as if they are in direct and immediate threat of destruction [rbtfBook]. They are threatened but not in the way they fear. We are in the process of destroying ourselves just as we are developing the means to achieve an incredible planetary success.

The liberation of the building from the street was a first, decisive step in the progressive liberation of architecture from almost everything, a liberation now celebrated with relentless regularity on the pages of the New York Times. Once the war of liberation starts, you never know where it will end. After the slaying of the street came the whole physical context of the city. After architecture was liberated from the history and spatial order of the city, it was liberated from the technology of its own production, because (the reasoning goes) architecture should not simply memorialize process. The final casualty is program - that is, the actual life contained within the buildings and the ostensible reason people spend money to build them. In the heady, conceptual world of architectural self-reference, nothing is more banal and deliberating than the idea of utility. The cartesian space the Le Corbusier dreamt of and Heidegger mocked is the matrix within which these liberated, ever more “conceptual” buildings float, like bits of diced fruit in Jell-O.

Daniel Solomon
Global City Blues
p. 90

There are three categories of architecture that can be considered: vernacular [rbtfBook], environments that people build for themselves; real estate, commodity buildings built as a business and for business; and, intentional architecture, art buildings - usually individual residences or large public edifices. In the main, architects are involved only in the last two. Each has a legitimate role and architects should be appropriately involved, in different ways, in all three. All three categories are greatly corrupted today - although, there is exemplary work going on in each - mostly they are small individual works and a few notable large projects. The best work is being done in vernacular and intentional architecture although the latter tends to get caught up in its own notoriety. These two, of course, make up even together the smallest portion of the built environment and, on the scale of a planetary development [link], this work is not even background noise in the experience of the vast majority of humans.
I do not argue here for the elimination of all the new opportunities which have become a part of our capability and lives - these also are a form of experience - and potentially valuable. I argue that we have not learned how to live with these new technologies and consequent social alternatives - we are, so far, coming out on the wrong side of a Faustian bargain we never deliberately made. I do not argue to go back to some over romanticized vision of a past that never really existed. What I am saying is that we can have it all - and we must - if we are to maintain our nature even as we explore and possibly push the outer dimensions of that nature [rbtfBook] .
For 500 years, in the western tradition, we have been living with the soul-body dichotomy. This has pitched spirit against matter, intellect against emotion, mind against body, integrity against success, reason against intuition, whole (unity) against part (fragmentation).
Even the structure of our language makes it difficult to talk about these concepts in an integrated way. There exists, for most people, a root assumption of dichotomy. When I started in architecture these issues where hotly debated [link] - no longer. They seem not even to be an issue today; the debate has faded away into a default position of “this is the way it is.” This is the ultimate consequence and ruin of an anti-philosophical society.
Resolving this dichotomy has been one of my primary life-goals since I became aware of it in the 8th grade [link]. What is interesting about this subject is that it is not simply an issue of logic - it is an assumption. Given the assumption one chooses, the logic that follows can be impeccable and the same data will lead to opposite conclusions. It is also an extremely emotional issue - or was. Back when this was something that people argued over, the discussion could get quite heated very quickly. Taking the position of integration could provoke a rain of angry responses as if people were presented with a life-threatening proposition. As I have noted, today this is a dead issue and is treated with indifference - for most, it has been long decided - if only by default. I believe this is why so much of life in our present economy seems mechanical - a sorcerer’s-apprentice like-machine: work to make money to buy more than you have earned so that it is necessary to work harder to make more money in order to buy... more. It is interesting to note that, after 9-11, the U.S. government promoted the patriotic duty of consuming. While at the World Economic Forum the following January (held in New York to support New York), the last word from the old and new mayors of NYC and the NY governor were “go out and spend!” A message reinforced several times by president Bush Everyone of us there - arguably a cross section of the most affluent people in the world - were given credit cards (!) with a prepaid amount so that we would leave our police-barricaded building to go shopping. Remarkable. It is interesting to note that fours years later, with the Katrina disaster [link: an unnatural disaster], it was impossible for the government to issue credit cards for people who desperately needed help. Guess they belonged to the wrong club and that somehow fouled up the technology. The fear that terrorism could harm our economy was a major concern. Consumption is becoming a new civic duty. What is the American way of life ? “Its the economy stupid” has become the mantra of every recent US presidential election [link]. In the wealthiest society in known history, a vast population is in fear of losing their job with many doing work they find little value in other than a source of livelihood - well, it is better called revenue, not livelihood [link: the natural workplace - democratic]. All this is in response to a set of abstractions with little connection to the facts of living and work. Who sold this bill of goods and how did they sell it? Apparently not difficult once the basic premise of working for a living is granted. A fear-based society is easier to rule than on based on self sufficiency and free-order.
Wealth is nice to have. It certainly is not worth losing sleep over, or distorting national fiscal policy over, or killing over - not that anyone ever would. Wealth is a consequence of right action - not a cause nor even a legitimate goal. Sustainable and honestly achieved prosperity is what happens when you do it right in a social-economic system based on free exchange and proper values [link]. Sustainable wealth, of course, is based on ecological and economic principles. The prevalent economy-ecology split is an example of what I am talking about. One of the most absurd statements in all of human history is, when referring to protecting the environment, “we cannot afford it.” What we are really saying, when we say this, is that we are choosing to eat our capital today and are willing to pass on the consequences to a future generation of players. What would the government, banks, business leaders say if you declared that you were going to conduct your personal financial affairs in this way? Try it. We are conducting our social business in a way that would never be condoned, in terms of how they deal with their own assets, if done by a business or an individual. The system would let them fail - unless, they were extremely well connected and not, of course, unless crony capitalism really does exist.
What does this, one of thousands of possible examples, have to do with the thesis of this article? It is a matter of focus and substitution. It is about what you are not doing when you follow an abstraction rather than experiencing the reality of life itself.
When I talk about architecture as being fact-based I am referring to it’s integration of idea and physicality. The architecture is real. It requires a considerable investment of time, energy, materials, money and social organization. In fact, there can be no dichotomy between the idea of a work and what it physically is. There can be no compromise in architecture, what it is is an accurate reflection of the values of those who build it and use it. If they “compromise” this is merely the measure of what they, in reality, stand for. As with any complex enterprise, the pressure to “compromise” in the process of creating architecture is great. In any work there are always legitimate trade offs. Compromise, in this context, is to knowingly “trade-down” for reasons of expediency, laziness or lack of imagination. The antidote for this is invention. Integrity is to “trade-up” in every circumstance; to discover a solution that resolves the many competing aspects of a design challenge; to carry through with inventiveness and discipline. This, by the way, is a completely different experience of work than most have.
Work is an end in itself. It does, in an economic context, often - not always - produce personal and social rewards as a consequence. The experience of work is the important issue. This is something that a person can only give to themselves. Work cannot be separated from the other aspects of living as is the tendency in our present social order [link: new business paradigm]. In recent years, the goal has been to take the work out of work. To make is less physical, less demanding and more abstract; to break it down into rational components and to lengthen the distance and time between cause and effect; to separate design, production and use. In this regime, producers are subject to arbitrary control (by the “system” or the gang that has co-opted control at any given time) over the factors that effect their ability to produce. This tendency has nearly killed craft. This is not satisfying nor in the end, when all the resultant costs are added up, is it productive. Lacking fulfillment, people find substitutes. If you want to know who “benefits,” as the old adage says, “follow the money” [link]. We are becoming a society of pampered up-scale wage slaves - at least some are; the rest are just wage slaves if they are that lucky. Just because it is is a BMW instead of a donkey, in the barn, does not materially change the spiritual equation [link]. Most people are a commodity: bought and sold as such. The “freedom,” in the work-revenue equation, is mostly in how you spend it - there is far less, for most, in how it is earned. Of course, the exception is the true knowledge and design economy - to the extent that it exists. Even here, after the innovation cycle, the new opportunity usually gets co-opted. The quality of experience becomes lost once again in a wave of exploitation.
It is certainly goodness to live well in the material sense; and, there is no justification for making work hard or demanding just to make it so in some kind of calvinistic process of self-punishment. There is certainly nothing wrong with knowledge-intensive work - nor abstractions per se. A mental experience is an experience as much as the physical thing is. The spiritual is embedded in the physical. The physical does symbolize and come from idea. So, what is the core of the issue? It is when the two are arbitrarily separated. When they are played one against the other. When awareness is lost. When distortion rules. When the capacity for one or both is lost. It is when action becomes wanton and without meaning - or only a stylized abstraction without materiality. The measure is human health and genuine happiness. Neither can be faked for long despite the attempt of advertisers to turn them into a commodity. It is interesting, is it not, that we can all go to a movie and not get confused if the characters are happy or sad, on track or lost, efficacious or fools, of good character or fake. All we have is our judgment of these things based on some flickering images and sound. We hear the words and watch the faces and body language and get it fairly accurate. We know if someone is healthy and fit our a couch potato. We may agree or disagree with the creator’s philosophy. We may like the show - or not. We are rarely confused. Why is then we cannot walk down a street, ride an elevator, go to our workplace and see the confusion, loss and pain that is rampant [link]. Are we really fooled by the superficial cheerfulness and social “norms” required to be a member-in-good-standing by whatever club is dominate in a time and a place? Why is it [link: why is it] that many of the films clearly show what I am writing about and we symphonize with those working to preserve integrity, ideals, balance, sanity [link: the flaw in the american myth]. At least this was the dominate case until the reality show. Now, it seems that despicable behavior is in and all reasonable decorum is abandoned. Now, we discuss things that before were deemed highly personal. Candor and disclosure are good but is this what this is? Or, our we indulging in voyeurism? Is the issue here authenticity [link: authentic architecture]?
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Matt Taylor
November 20, 2003


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posted November 20, 2003

revised April 5, 2005
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note: this document is about 60% finished

Copyright© Matt Taylor 2003, 2004, 2005



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