The quest for ‘excellence’ in the context of architecture can be compared with medieval quests. The Medieval quest always called for a deep inner searching on the part of the knight, metaphorically described in literature as the need to overcome formidable obstacles. Some people would argue that in the modern world the quest for excellence in the arts and architecture calls for the artists and architects to make a similar commitment to confront and transcend their personal inner turmoil. Through dedication the architect would then win a certain personal resolution of the inner conflict, a resolution which would ultimately be reflected in their work. This article will move towards a position which suggests that it is from the ground won in such inner reconciliations that excellence has always emerged in the arts and architecture, a ground which will be capable of generating a humane architecture.
Nature is perfect. Nature orders countless billions of systems within one total organised whole. Its cosmic dimensions are boundless, its resources abundant and its possibilities infinite. It is the rock on which we stand; it is the womb from, which we were born. Nature ticks in us as she ticks in every other living creature, every blade of grass, every stone, cloud or planet. Nature feeds us intravenously with each of our needs. We do not need to balance our metabolism, watch over our breathing or guide our heartbeat. The reality of Nature renews our bodies day on day, week on week, year on year, just as regularly and with equal precision to the cycle of the seasons, or the movement of the galaxies. We could no more separate ourselves from Nature, than deny our own breath or rail against our own birth.
All this we accept: Nature is what we are. What we fail to acknowledge however, is that we must also be all that Nature is. At root the relationship we have with Nature must be reciprocal. We are part of one integrated organic whole and as such, what is available to one party in the relationship must be available to the other. As she is our breath, so we are her infinite capacity, as she is our heartbeat, so we are her boundless reality. As she orders our metabolism, so we share in the order of her cosmic dimensions. As we create, we participate in the cosmic plan, we extend the boundaries of Nature’s creation and we play at the table of the Gods. Inseparable as we are from Nature we have no other fate than to share her perfection.
So how does all this really connect with architecture?. If Nature were designing the building, it would respond to the client’s needs; to the landscape, to the ecology of the materials and environmental conditions, to site forces, structure and construction and would generate the perfect solution for those particular design criteria. This idea seemed so radically different from the way we operate as architects today, that it seemed unworthy of further thought. How could it be true? How could there be just one perfect answer to a building design? As a lecturer in architecture, I had regularly set projects for my students, I had written the brief and chosen the site, but then out of a group of may be as many as seventy of eighty students, I would get seventy or eighty different solutions. Similarly with architectural competitions, one would get as many different solutions as there were entrants and these many number hundreds.
These projects were much simpler than the design of a whole building. They were designed to investigate limited ideas, for example ‘ordering principles’ in design, and were carried out over just one afternoon. The projects did not have to be formally assessed, so we would use the assessment time to discuss the work and to have the students select the pieces of work that had been most successful. The results of the discussion were often surprising. Again we might be dealing with sixty or seventy different solutions but on these occasions the best work was clearly identifiable. Three or four pieces would usually stand out from the rest and what was more interesting; these three of four pieces were identified not only by the staff teaching the project but also by the majority of the students themselves. So it seemed that when the issues being examined were limited, the analogy with arithmetic that James Allen used was not far from the truth. Of course even the selected three or four examples were not perfect, but the experience demonstrated that in those projects we were perhaps close to the idea of working towards the perfect solution that is suggested by this line of thought.
The position in which we find ourselves, therefore in many ways runs counter to the post-modern position. The argument that we have laid out suggests that we should not be concerned with a need to be different, or with changing fashions or stylish pre-occupations, but should rather be striving to design the perfect solution to meet the needs. Again I recall a radio interview I heard years ago, it was with the jazz singer Cleo Laine. In the interview she said that all her career she had been trying to sing a particular sound. At first it seemed a strange thing for her so say, was she not singing all sorts of sounds all the time? But what she meant was something more than this. What she was talking about was the perfect sound. In each of her different songs she was trying to sing the perfect sound, it always remained her constant target and sometimes she felt that she came close to it. In a similar way in architecture there is a perfect form, the form that nature would design and which we strive to achieve. Our pursuit therefore becomes one not of difference for differences sake, but a qualitative quest to achieve the correct answer. This is not one person’s quest, but the collective quest of a culture, which should lead to the slow but certain movement toward perfection, through continuous qualitative improvements.