Is Architecture What They’re Really Teaching Us?

I decided to study architecture to help improve the conditions of my city and country. However, after arriving at university, I quickly realized that humanity was far from the focus of my studies.

Lima financial center. Image courtesy Flickr User David Almeida

I studied architecture in my hometown of Lima, Peru, in one of the most diverse countries in the world. Not only do we have distinctive landscapes of deserts and bays, mountains and valleys, tropical forests and large rivers, but our culture, due to the European invasion of America, is remarkably heterogeneous as well.
And yet all the cities of my country look just like Lima, a city that believes that development consists in tearing down historical buildings and replacing them with crystal towers or large avenues for cars, at the expense of pedestrians and inhabitants.

My country is catalogued as economically under-developed, and most of its policies attempt to copy or duplicate what is being done in developed countries. However those policies are often highly influenced by foreign corporation’s economic interests and betray a total ignorance of cities’ and inhabitants’ needs to develop a higher quality of life—not just economically.

I decided to study architecture to help improve the conditions of my city and country. However, after arriving at university, I quickly realized that humanity was far from the focus of my studies. In Lima, architectural education is dominated by modernist thinking: design global, ignore the local. When I would attempt to voice my concerns to my teachers, I was met not with understanding but complete intolerance. Semester after semester, teachers would move past my questions and doubts and stick to the lesson at hand.

It was during that period when I noticed a very select and small group of teachers who disagreed with the kind of architecture that was being taught at my university (that promotes form for form’s sake, that fails to consider human scale, perceptions or sensations) and were frequently disparaged by their colleagues.
My curiosity to know why these “outside” teachers were disdained made me enroll in one of their classes. In that class, the teacher explained that 70% of Lima was constructed by Peruvians, without the counseling of any urban planning professional. That the destiny of the cities in my country, she believed, was to express the cultural identity of its inhabitants. That architecture needs to base its theories on empirical results, validate its hypotheses through experimentation, and depend on the accuracy and rigorousness that only science can contribute.

In the background, the modernist housing blocks of the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru. In the foreground, the ruins of an adobe and clay pyramid called Huaca Pucllana., c. 500 AD. Image courtesy Flickr User Galo Naranjo

I decided then to discover authors and thinkers who were doing something to change architectural reality, that were publishing books based on science, criticizing the current architectural scene, and questioning the motives behind those promoting modernist architecture.
I immersed myself in lectures on the importance of symbolism, considered irrational or even unnecessary by most of my professors. Modernist architecture operates under the slogan that “ornament is a crime,” but ornamentation and symbol allow people to relate and communicate with architecture. Indeed, modernism has been harmful to my country’s traditional architectures, which are full of colour, details and life –all because a group of architects decided that vernacular architecture was “underdeveloped.”

What surprised me most in my research was that sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists who write and research about my country’s architectural problems were totally ignored by the majority of Peruvian architects and architectural curricula. A considered amount of Peruvian architects think they don’t need science for their development, that their work is an art validated by “heavenly inspiration.” They strive to project a form that looks “original,” “new,” “extraordinary,” “modern,” “weird.”

So, was architecture what they were teaching me? I now think not.

Architecture exposes people, without their consent, to experiences that may be harmful or beneficial. How can we distinguish one from the other? The scientific method has helped psychology, sociology, biology, physics, to clarify doubts; it can help architecture too. How could architecture be more scientific? Well, we could begin by sustaining everything we say with evidence based on research and experimentation. Opinions are not science. And, consequently, how can we start improving architecture?

There is an innate human tool that has always helped those who strive to uncover the truth. Curiosity. This instinct motivated me to study architecture and later to question it. Do not suppress that instinct. Observe, read, research, experiment. In other words, doubt. Architecture, and its inhabitants, require it.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy: “On Cognitive Dissonance and The Architectural Canon.”


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