|A column contribution
by Eike Becker, Eike Becker_Architects, published in Immobilienwirtschaft 03/2021.
Magical places still exist. If you ask German city planners where you might find them, they will begin to evoke dreamy villages in Tuscany. These villages might be nestled in hilly landscapes, divided by cypress avenues, with beautifully proportioned squares in front of richly ornamented church facades, populated by relaxed elderly gentlemen who sit on wooden benches and patiently watch the world go by.
But even north of the Alps, Gründerzeit living quarters continue to entice contemporary city-dwellers with their tree-lined streets and squares, magnificent facades, high entryways, and lavish interior spaces that radiate a desirably high quality of life.
The answer is simple. Today’s decisions are not made in the same way as in the Renaissance. We no longer live in feudalism either. Emperors no longer decree towers as corner buildings. Because other people decide according to other criteria and other needs are met as a matter of priority. These include budgets, construction techniques, materials and production methods.
Today, we possess ample expertise on the best ways to design and build cities and living quarters. Year after year, new findings are added. And yet – why is it that many of us perceive contemporary architecture as uninspired, trite, boring? Why does it feel like we are seeing the same 1-, 2-, 3-bedroom blueprints and minimal façades over and over?
Again, the answer is simple. Building attractive cities with lively neighborhoods while meeting the complex demands of contemporary culture and society is a great challenge. Today, this means creating attractive squares, meeting places for youths, multi-generational living, co-working spaces, at least one multipurpose neighborhood shop, playgrounds, sports fields, mobility infrastructure, schools, day care, and community events.
At the same time, demand continues to outpace supply for affordable housing in Germany’s metropolitan areas, a growing problem that has recently extended to smaller municipalities. Local governments face increasing political pressure to do something, but at the same time, lack the necessary capacities. Ideally, evidence-based pilot projects, competitions, design advisory committees, research and processes of knowledge transfer should alleviate the situation. But they are too easily cast aside for the sake of productivity and quick completion rates.
Moreover, rising land and construction costs end up straining overall budgets, diminishing the range of available building materials and ultimately leaving little room for beauty.
Delegated responsibilities lead to the fact that no single person feels responsible. Everyone points the finger at the others: "They did it!"
Ultimately, although many of those involved would have us believe otherwise, it is rarely the user perspective that guides the development of our built environment. Instead, ownership structures, regulatory frameworks and economic interests lead to multiple fractures and weak design solutions.
For the German Art Historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, finding beauty constituted the core of the human experience, culminating in the oft-cited principle of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”
Modernity had other plans. Beauty became an inconceivable entity, the quest for beautiful things supplemented by the acknowledgment of the sublime, of repulsion, curiosity, authenticity. Western societies shed the authority of tradition over 100 years ago, and with it a reliable canon of right and wrong. The arts, both within and beyond the discipline of urban design, were increasingly evaluated in terms of necessity. Anything considered even remotely superfluous was eliminated. Ornaments had lost their raison d’être.
For Adolf Loos, they constituted nothing more than wasted labor, wasted health, wasted material, wasted capital. From this point on, all decisions were checked for their function, for their rational usability, and everything that was functionless was eliminated step by step leading to a radical depletion of formal diversity, and revealing “the impracticality of the mercilessly practical,” as Theodor Adorno put it.
But philosophers don’t commission buildings. Sociologists have little say over property development; Opera singers, mail carriers, artists, and most families cannot decide who will develop their neighborhood and how. This authority falls to a set of rationalist optimizers that includes project developers, real estate agents, architects, city planners and politicians, with each group following their own set of rules. As a result, many developments are created within a climate of fear. A fear of making mistakes, of failing to meet certain specifications, of missing targets. Beauty and poetry have evolved more and more according to the list of functional criteria over the years. Imagination is missing.
For city planners, a good city can function even if it is filled with poorly designed architecture. Building inspectors follow building laws regardless of what the buildings in question may look like. Politics is overburdened by urban planning. Beauty is not a criterion in the political context either. Many project developers like to do what they know and prefer not to experiment. Build as quickly and cheaply as possible and sell at the highest possible price. Beauty is, after all, "a matter of taste." The architects are responsible for everything, but they are bound by restrictions. Investors are clearly focused on returns, prioritizing pragmatics and conceptualizing architecture as means to an economic end.
For Adorno, the practice of architecture also held the potential to question “how a specific purpose could inhabit space” and how shapes and materials could be employed to achieve “more than the merely functional”.
Project developers cannot keep naively catering to their own, predominantly economic needs, drawing on a discourse that considers the object of their work to be a profit maximization of exchange objects rather than the creation of livable space. They need to be held accountable for the social responsibility that comes with this power.
City planning and construction must offer societal visions.
For me, this is the social, climate-neutral city in which it is important to create a home for a diverse, open society.
The only way to get there is through squares and facades with human proportions, generously designed entryways and windows, and high-quality parks and leisure facilities.
Beauty is an essential part of this vision. So why can’t we just do what 19th century architects did? Why can’t we re-use their colossal columns, grooves, pilasters and capitols? Why can’t we bring back the beauty of the classics?
Today’s society exists in a state of superference; Berlin is a prime example of (post-)modernity’s contradictions and ambiguities, and the coexistence of different aesthetic spheres in a constant state of flux. Today's ideas of beauty and aesthetics are constructed from these experiences.
Therefore, in post-modern democracies, there is no longer a clearly dictated meaning of "the beautiful" as in the times of feudalism. The concept of beauty is contested by various interest groups. Identity politics also play a role here.
That is why we cannot just press rewind on the history of architecture. Our cities cannot return to the Renaissance or Gründerzeit eras; not even to the UNESCO-world heritage sites of the Berliner Moderne.
Instead, we must embrace ambiguity. In doing so, we can identify aesthetic poignancy, ultimately using creativity and imagination to transcend the “merely functional”.