Jan Jehlík: Czech architecture 2003-2004


Houses Living and Dead

Unfortunate is the conflict between modern architecture and general building. These things seem to be two incompatible worlds, or irreconcilable camps. Each is defending its own, and refuses to accept anything from the other. We architects are often crippled by the fear of losing our singularity and aesthetic purity in a situation where the client, location and state of affairs demand a discrete and standard building. Then again, conservative builders and contractors (as well as numerous architects) refuse to question established approaches and distrust a constant search for something new. Where does this deliberate narrow-mindedness on both sides come from? But first and foremost, why is so little happening in the realm between those two "camps"? Architecture has always reflected very well the general, the "spirit of the times". And it now seems to reflect a situation where, in the general confusion of values, we are searching for certainty by uniting in groups\and camps. We defend our slogans and approaches like there is no tomorrow, while being merely adverse to the formal features of the "other" building. We are unable, and actually unwilling, to recognize the essence of the difference, to recognize what it is that the others may be right about. It is as if we were defending certain inviolable ideas, although only a fear that our own narrow-mindedness could be revealed may be at play.
On one hand, there is the largest "camp" - the ones who want to have it easy, the ones who are irresistibly drawn to and fulfilled by consumption. They are abused by sellers of anything day by day, including house sellers. A house is no longer a mere dwelling or a shelter, a unique, conscious human act. It has been turned into a commodity, or, rather, it is a commodity more than ever. Never before was a house a mere object of the effort to turn a quick profit, an object whose definition inevitably differs from that of a truly good house. Traders selling repeat projects and "repeat" houses search for products responding to the subconscious human need or something "already familiar", while fulfilling the demand for products that are as inexpensive as possible. That is why their goods strive to conjure the illusion of "good old cottages" with romantic shapes and elements, although they are distributed in the form of mass production employ-ing prefabricated building materials, products and entire houses. The search for the essence of attractiveness of the original quality of those valuable old houses is deliberately abandoned; instead, they seek the easiest way to reproduce appearance - a dead form.
On the other hand, there is a distinctly smaller but much more stubborn camp - creative architects. Their goal is exactly the opposite - to be unique and singular. It is a paradox that the out- come is frequently the same. In their effort to distinguish themselves and to be original, they also create a mere appearance or an aesthetic construct. That is understandable. Even in this case, the market needs to be respected. And this market segment is narrow, and the marketing rule dictates: we are unlike the others. In this case, aesthetic refinement, ostentatious modernity or unabashed progressivity come into play. As with the above-mentioned standardized houses and romantic "cottages" easily discernible formal features are present. The goal is to create a house worthy of admiration, a house that is photogenic, a house that is simply sexy, a house aspiring to capture attention primarily by its appearance or obvious mastery. And it makes no difference whether this is a clever design or a sophisticated intellectual construction. In such cases, we create so as not to "embarrass ourselves". We do not create directly, taking the shortest route to a "good house", no matter what happens, whether the outcome is "beautiful" or "ugly", "clever" or "down-to- earth", original or banal. We are also creating a mere likeness, a likeness of "our architecture", a piece of information as to how we are to be read and classified. We want "to appear, not to be". Even more so since in their evaluation, most potential clients, colleagues or theoreticians do not venture beyond the external appearance and a superficial classification. However, that approach cannot be deemed to constitute pure formalism. It is not as simple as that. I am convinced that most of us subscribe to the ethos of learning and revealing the meaning and essence of architecture. It is just that in the actual creation and communication with those around us, we use various tricks to disguise our insecurity caused by our failure to find, or even an absence of a search for, the essence. Shielded by the image, it is often impossible to find what the image is supposed to represent or depict.
The distance between mass building production and individual architectural work thus seems to be due to both parties' \ unwillingness to enter a space without images, a world without superficial effects, a realm of painstaking search. Architecture is not just about construction, nor is it just about design. As any other human act, it ought to be undertaken with the greatest possible awareness of its original purpose, to prevent it from becoming a useless act giving birth to waste. I am convinced that the purpose of building and architecture remains to achieve the familiar goals stability-the ability to stand upright and age with dignity, usefulness, friendly closeness, and beauty - quiet harmony.
What are we witnessing, though? Mass production in construction transforms stability and durability into plastics, overlarge profiles and clumsy details. We architects in turn tend to overlook the need for stability and durability, preferring the illusionary purity of shape and proportion instead. Due to excessive efforts to achieve an abstract building form and fancy details, we abandon time-honoured construction procedures and methods, and risk making technical mistakes. Ordinary building production presents usefulness as a mere sum of the basic functions of a house, combined with greater or lesser success to form a compact system. Such approach brashly rejects care of the soul, let alone the spirit. It is a paradox that this deficit is encountered, although in its opposite form, in exclusive architecture. The usefulness of a building is interpreted as a sophisticated construct in terms of space and layout, or is subordinated to the visual or "philosophical" thesis of the author. The impact of a house is of greater concern than whether the inhabitants and the building would be able to grow together. And beauty? In "ready to move in" houses, beauty is reduced to external decoration and empty ornamentation. In this country, this is a deep-rooted idea of what architecture is about: a typologist will arrange the rectangles of rooms in a logical fashion, a building contractor will build up around them in a technically correct manner, and an architect will come in at the end and decorate it all prettily. That is why there are so many morally dead buildings around us. Architects are aware that beauty needs to permeate the entire house, and not only its surface. That leaves one with the most diffi- cult task: to find it, reveal it, and unveil it. I am afraid, however, that we frequently fail in this task. That we, mistakenly, search for it in sculptural or material virtuosity, in discursive ingenuity or short-lived fancy effects, that we overly trust our intuition and talent, and rely excessively on intellectual acumen and stunning cleverness, that we cannot be bothered to look for the pitfalls time and time again, and to engage in the adventure of searching for the essence of a good house.
Where is architecture most frequently encountered today? In catalogues and magazines, usually all topsy-turvy, without any distinction between hollow versus sophisticated production. In our daily lives, it usually serves as a facade only, a more or less appealing attraction. We tend to perceive architecture, to a growing degree, merely as a picture, rather than an integral part of towns and landscapes. We do not experience it as naturally ingrown into the settled space, as a "good vibe", as a natural part of the Earth or the universe. We are neither capable nor willing to experience it as such. We experience it as an object, as a container, as a carrier of information for our senses, as a means to satisfy our basic needs. I do not subscribe to the currently fashionable thesis that architecture indeed is a dead container brought to life by people and their activities, an object characterized solely by its external form. One should not do anything with the apriori conviction that it is a means to promote one's will, whether in the name of power, fame or wealth, or to simply indulge or satisfy oneself.
What to make of it when form rules to a growing degree, when we increasingly struggle to identify purpose and the content? What should our architecture be like? What should we be like as architects? But first and foremost, what should we be like as clients (because the clients shape the architects)? First of all, we need to be unbiased and free to decide on what would be the product of our decision, to open up to anything that could give us peace, certainty or at least a touch of understanding, to be sensitive to the place we are transforming, usually forever, to be prudently aware of the temptations of easy ways out and sensory perceptions. Architecture is not only an object to be viewed, listened to, smelled, tasted or touched: those are merely the tools for its conscious or unconscious perception. In its ideal form, architecture is more of a subject than an object. It is a part of a system, not an isolated object of our obsession with becoming rich or prominent. And the architect? Not the "clever" one able to skilfully imitate fashion trends or works by world-famous stars. An architect is someone who can express the substance of a house - or strives to do so as earnestly as possible - as a synthesis of the specific (the commission) and the general (the inner world). And the form? Form does not really matter. We live in times when no form (shape) of a building can surprise any longer, and we are relatively free in that regard. So it is apparently not about searching for or designing new forms (how stubborn are we in this effort, though!). It is time that we turn back and examine why such forms emerge, what they are conditioned on, what creates and fulfils them, examine something that in essence exists without a form. To ask for a style or trend is desperately futile, to argue over the "incline of roofs" is ridiculously petty Let us forget about form as the expression of an ideal. It is false, a hundred times false. Let us ask for more. Let us create new forms every single time - whether close to the old ones or novel - as an embodiment of our desire to never stop searching. Or, rather, let us allow the form to emerge. Every place, every encounter, every new moment modifies the form, transforms an amorphous nothing into a specific shape. All we need to do is be brave and not fear what we will produce, not to fear something that may be considered ugly, disparate or unsuccessful. I trust such "ugliness" much more than the pleasing aesthetics of ostentatiously modern or "interesting" forms. The real understanding of this type of "ugliness" can help us recognize, and help create, the beautiful. I also believe that the process of creation of a house, with its human, financial and technical limits, serves as a better correction than prior personal or official regulation.
That is perhaps why the selection in this year's yearbook is so diverse. The projects presented are often antagonistic in terms of views or points of departure, but in my opinion they have a common denominator - the most direct approach to expression possible. Or, rather, they obviously reflect the author's state of mind and views, this providing a more or less clear reflection of this world. I searched for architecture that was pursuing a particular direction, did not assess it using any absolute criteria, but looked for that forward motion, albeit frequently jerky. A primary selection criterion was not formal perfection, or sophisticated virtuosity, but rather the positive energy with which the architect imbued (in my opinion) his or her act. Something that would strike a chord without any need for rational speculation. Perhaps not even the familiar "like it or not" that also tends to be speculative, even though at the level of feelings or emotions. It is a speculation as restrictive as rational speculation because it is full of bias. One needs to experience or perceive as directly as possible - achieve the adventure of an insight, as deep as possible, without any bias, without fearing that I may be strongly touched by something that by right ought to be bad, or outdated, or too ordinary And vice versa - to refuse to succumb to a masterly formal game demanding admiration. I cannot say that I succeeded in this effort - I did my best, though.