Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture

CA: However painful it is, we are doing pretty well right now. We’re not being rude to each other, and things are moving along really nicely. It does seem to me, since we have locked into this particular discussion, that we ought to stay with it.
I want to tell a story that I told this morning. About two or three years ago, I was asked by the faculty at Berkeley to show some pictures of things I had been working on, and ended up locking horns with some people who were challenging my work. I recognized that their comments were coming from a place similar to that which you were just talking about, because the things that I make come from a very vulnerable spot. What happened was, one of the people who has been most vociferous in this field, a few days later, whispering privately in a corner said: “You know, I really shouldn’t have said those things to you, but I’ve been making plans like this myself for some time but dare not show them to anybody”. And this is, I have found, in dealing with various men in the profession over the last 10, 20, years, quite frequently you have this theme, where there’s actually real fear about simple, ordinary, vulnerable stuff.
I will give you another example, a slightly absurd example. A group of students under my direction was designing houses for about a dozen people, each student doing one house. In order to speed things up (we only had a few weeks to do this project), I said: “We are going to concentrate on the layout and cooperation of these buildings, so the building system is not going to be under discussion.”
So I gave them the building system, and it happened to include pitched roofs, fairly steep pitched roofs. The following week, after people had looked at the notes I handed out about the building system, somebody raised his hand and said: “Look, you know everything is going along fine, but could we discuss the roofs?” So I said: “Yes, what would you like to discuss about the roofs?” And the person said: “Could we make the roofs a little different?” I had told them to make just ordinary pitched roofs. I asked, “What’s the issue about the roofs?” And the person responded: “Well, I don’t know, it’s just kind of funny.” Then that conversation died down a bit. Five minutes later, somebody else popped up his hand and said: “Look, I feel fine about the building system, except the roofs. Could we discuss the roofs?” I said: “What’s the matter with the roofs?” He said, “Well, I have been talking to my wife about the roofs, and she likes the roofs” — and then he sniggered. I said: “What’s so funny or odd about that?” And he said: “Well, I don’t know, I … “
Well, to cut a long story short, it became clear that … [Alexander goes to the blackboard and draws different types of roofs]. Now, all of you who are educated in the modernist canon know that as an architect, a respectable architect of the 1980s, it is quite okay to do this, you can do this, you can do this, you can do this, but please [he points to a pitched roof design] do not do this.
So, the question is, why not? Why does this taboo exist? What is this funny business about having to prove you are a modem architect and having to do something other than a pitched roof? The simplest explanation is that you have to do these others to prove your membership in the fraternity of modern architecture. You have to do something more far out, otherwise people will think you are a simpleton. But I do not think that is the whole story. I think the more crucial explanation — very strongly related to what I was talking about last night — is that the pitched roof contains a very, very primitive power of feeling. Not a low pitched, tract house roof, but a beautifully shaped, fully pitched roof. That kind of roof has a very primitive essence as a shape, which reaches into a very vulnerable part of you. But the version that is okay among the architectural fraternity is the one which does not have the feeling: the weird angle, the butterfly, the asymmetrically steep shed, etc. — all the shapes which look interesting but which lack feeling altogether. The roof issue is a simple example. But I do believe the history of architecture in the last few decades has been one of specifically and repeatedly trying to avoid any primitive feeling whatsoever. Why this has taken place, I don’t know.

PE: This is a wonderful coincidence, because I too am concerned with the subject of roofs. Let me answer it in a very deep way. I would argue that the pitched roof is — as Gaston Bachelard points out — one of the essential characteristics of “houseness”. It was the extension of the vertebrate structure which sheltered and enclosed man. Michel Foucault has said that when man began to study man in the 19th century, there was a displacement of man from the center. The representation of the fact that man was no longer the center of the world, no longer the arbiter, and, therefore, no longer controlling artifacts, was reflected in a change from the vertebrate-center type of structure to the center-as-void. That distance, which you call alienation or lack of feeling, may have been merely a natural product of this new cosmology.
The non-vertebrate structure is an attempt to express that change in the cosmology. It is not merely a stylistic issue, or one that goes against feeling, or the alienation that man feels. When man began to study himself, he began to lose his position in the center. The loss of center is expressed by that alienation. Whether understood by modern architecture or not, what Modernism was attempting to explain by its form was that alienation. Now that technology has gone rampant, maybe we need to rethink the cosmology. Can we go back to a cosmology of anthropocentrism? I am not convinced that it is appropriate.

CA: Let me just inject one thing. This is a pretty interesting subject. I just want to make one thing clear. I am not suggesting that it would be good idea to romantically go back and pick up the pitched roof, and say: “Well, it did a certain job for several hundred years, why don’t we keep it, or use it again?” I am talking about a totally different language than that.
I think I am going to have to give a rather more elaborate explanation Up until about 1600, most of the world views that existed in different cultures did see man and the universe as more or less intertwined and inseparable … either through the medium of what they called God or in some other way. But all that was understood. The particular intellectual game that led us to discover all the wonders of science forced us to abandon temporarily that idea. In other words, in order to do physics, to do biology, we were actually taught to pretend that things were like little machines because only then could you tinker with them and find out what makes them tick. That’s all fine. It was a tremendous endeavor, and it paid off.
But it may have been factually wrong. That is, the constitution of the universe may be such that the human self and the substance that things made out of, the spatial matter or whatever you call it, are much more inextricably related than we realized. Now, I am not talking about some kind of aboriginal primitivism. I am saying that it may actually be a matter of fact that those things are more related than we realize. And that we have been trained to play a trick on ourselves for the last 300 years in order to discover certain things. Now, if that’s true — there are plenty of people in the world who are beginning to say it is, by the way, certainly in physics and other related subjects — then my own contribution to that line of thought has to do with these structures of sameness that I have been talking about.
In other words, the order I was sketching out last night is ultimately, fundamentally an order produced by centers or wholes which are reinforcing each other and creating each other. Now, if all of that is so, then the pitched roof would simply come about as a consequence of all that — not as an antecedent. It would turn out that, in circumstances where one is putting a roof on a building, in the absence of other very strong forces that are forcing you to do something different, that is the most natural and simple roof to do. And, therefore, that kind of order would tend to reappear — of course, in a completely different, modern technological style — simply because that is the nature of order, not because of a romantic harkening back to past years. You probably understand this.

PE: What we have not been able to get at yet is that it is possible to project a totally different cosmology that deals with the feelings of the self. Alternative views of the world might suggest that it is not wholeness that will evoke our truest feelings and that it is precisely the wholeness of the anthropocentric world that it might be the presence of absence, that is, the nonwhole, the fragment which might produce a condition that would more closely approximate our innate feelings today.
Let me be more specific. Last night, you gave two examples of structural relationships that evoke feelings of wholeness — of an arcade around a court, which was too large, and of a window frame which is also too large. Le Corbusier once defined architecture as having to do with a window which is either too large or too small, but never the right size. Once it was the right size it was no longer functioning. When it is the right size, that building is merely a building. The only way in the presence of architecture that is that feeling, that need for something other, when the window was either too large or too small.
I was reminded of this when I went to Spain this summer to see the town hall at Logrono by Rafael Moneo. He made an arcade where the columns were too thin. It was profoundly disturbing to me when I first saw photographs of the building. The columns seemed too thin for an arcade around the court of a public space. And then, when I went to see the building, I realized what he was doing. He was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in. I had a feeling with that attenuated colonnade of precisely what I think you are talking about. Now, I am curious if you can admit, in your idea of wholeness, the idea of separation — wholeness for you might be separation for me. The idea that the too-small might also satisfy a feeling as well as the too-large. Because if it is only the too-large that you will admit, then we have a real problem.

CA: I didn’t say too large, by the way, I just said large. Quite a different matter.

PE: You said a boundary larger than the entity it surrounds. I think you said too large.

CA: I said large in relation to the entity. Not too large.

PE: Large, meaning larger than it needs be?

CA: No, I didn’t mean that.

PE: Well, could it be smaller than it needs be?

CA: Unfortunately, I don’t know the building you just described. Your description sounds horrendous to me. Of course, without actually seeing it, I can’t tell. But if your words convey anything like what the thing is actually like, then it sounds to me that this is exactly this kind of prickly, weird place, that for some reason some group of people have chosen to go to nowadays. Now, why are they going there? Don’t ask me.

PE: I guess what I am saying is that I believe that there is an alternate cosmology to the one which you suggest. The cosmology of the last 300 years has changed and there is now the potential for expressing those feelings that you speak of in other ways than through largeness — your boundaries — and the alternating repetition of architectural elements. You had 12 or 15 points. Precisely because I believe that the old cosmology is no longer an effective basis on which to build, I begin to want to invert your conditions — to search for their negative — to say that for every positive condition you suggest, if you could propose a negative you might more closely approximate the cosmology of today. In other words, if I could find the negative of your 12 points, we would come closer to approximating a cosmology that would deal with both of us than does the one you are proposing.

CA: Can we just go back to the arcade for a moment? The reason Moneo’s arcade sounded prickly and strange was, when I make an arcade I have a very simple purpose, and that is to try to make it feel absolutely comfortable — physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely. This is pretty hard to do. Much, much harder to do than most of the present generation of architects will admit to. Let’s just talk about the simple matter of making an arcade. I find in my own practical work that in order to find out what’s really comfortable, it is necessary to mock up the design at full scale. This is what I normally do. So I will take pieces of lumber, scrap material, and I’ll start mocking up. How big are the columns? What is the space between them? At what height is the ceiling above? How wide is the thing? When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.
Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night — I was doing empirical observation about — as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.
The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building — if I understood you correctly — is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PE: That is correct.

CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

PE: Precisely the reaction that you elicited from the group. That is, they feel comfortable clapping. The need to clap worries me because it means that mass psychology is taking over.
Someone from the audience: Why should architects feel comfortable with a cosmology you are not even sure exists?

PE: Let’s say if I went out in certain places in the United States and asked people about the music they would feel comfortable with, a lot of people would come up with Mantovani. And I’m not convinced that that is something I should have to live with all my life, just because the majority of people feel comfortable with it. I want to go back to the notion of needing to feel comfortable. Why does Chris need to feel comfortable, and I do not? Why does he feel the need for harmony, and I do not? Why does he see incongruity as irresponsible, and why does he get angry? I do not get angry when he feels the need for harmony. I just feel I have a different view of it.
Someone from the audience: He is not screwing up the world.

PE: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris’s idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him … Walter Benjamin talks about “the destructive character”, which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgement that I am screwing up the world, because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.

CA: Good God!

PE: Nor should you feel angry. I think you should just feel this harmony is something that the majority of the people need and want. But equally there must be people out there like myself who feel the need for incongruity, disharmony, etc.

CA: If you were an unimportant person, I would feel quite comfortable letting you go your own way. But the fact is that people who believe as you do are really fucking up the whole profession of architecture right now by propagating these beliefs. Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I feel very, very strongly about this. It’s all very well to say: “Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here — it’s all fine”. But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world. And if a group of very powerful people, yourself and others …

PE: How does someone become so powerful if he is screwing up the world? I mean somebody is going to see through that …

CA: Yes, I think they will quite soon.

PE: I would hope, Chris, that we are here to present arguments. These people here are not people who have rings in their noses, at least as far as I can see, and they can judge for themselves whether I am screwing up the world or not. If they choose to think I am screwing up the world, they certainly would not come here. These are open forums. For you to determine arbitrarily that I am screwing up the world seems self-righteous and arrogant. I have not had much of a chance to do so and neither have you. Precisely because I am uncomfortable with those situations which you describe as comfortable, I find myself having to live in New York. I do not live in San Francisco, even though I think it is a nice place. There is not enough grist there for me, not enough sand in the oyster. And my head starts — it may be my own psychological problem — but thank God, there is a loony bin called New York where eight million people who feel the way I do are allowed to be!

CA: Actually, New York is not created by that kind of madness. New York is certainly a very exciting place. When you compare it to Denmark or Sweden, I fully understand what you are saying. And I sympathize with you. Your observation seems to me a very reasonable one, objectively speaking. But that is quite a different matter. It’s quite different from the original question: why should I feel so strongly, why should I get angry, because you are preaching disharmony? I was trying to explain to you why I get angry about it.

PE: I am not preaching disharmony. I am suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in. I am not saying right or wrong. My children live with an unconscious fear that they may not live out their natural lives. I am not saying that fear is good. I am trying to find a way to deal with that anxiety. An architecture that puts its head in the sand and goes back to neoclassicism, and Schinkel, Lutyens, and Ledoux, does not seem to be a way of dealing with the present anxiety. Most of what my colleagues are doing today does not seem to be the way to go. Equally, I do not believe that the way to go, as you suggest, is to put up structures to make people feel comfortable, to preclude that anxiety. What is a person to do if he cannot react against anxiety or see it pictured in his life? After all, that is what all those evil Struwwel Peter characters are for in German fairy tales.

CA: Don’t you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?

PE: Let me see if I can get it to you another way. Tolstoy wrote about the man who had so many modern conveniences in Russia that when he was adjusting the chair and the furniture, etc., that he was so comfortable and so nice and so pleasant that he didn’t know — he lost all control of his physical and mental reality. There was nothing. What I’m suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn’t all right. And I’m not convinced, by the way, that it is all right.

CA: I can’t, as a maker of things, I just can’t understand it. I do not have a concept of things in which I can even talk about making something in the frame of mind you are describing. I mean, to take a simple example, when I make a table I say to myself: “All right, I’m going to make a table, and I’m going to try to make a good table”. And of course, then from there on I go to the ultimate resources I have and what I know, how well I can make it. But for me to then introduce some kind of little edge, which starts trying to be a literary comment, and then somehow the table is supposed to be at the same time a good table, but it also is supposed to be I don’t know what; a comment on nuclear warfare, making a little joke, doing various other things … I’m practically naive; it doesn’t make sense to me.


First published in Lotus International 40 (1983), pages 60-68.
Reprinted in Studio Works 7 (Harvard University Graduate School of Design), Princeton Architectural Press (2000), pages 50-57