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Facing Up to Ambiguity

by Henry Klein

We are reminded daily that the complexities of our time have narrowed the scope of building.

New codes, restrictions, laws, official hurdles and reviews describe the parameters of building. In the past we knew instinctively what our limits were. Our keen sense of place and fitness and economic necessity told us.

This sense has become superfluous since a codified official language has replaced it. Because there is no agreement on our aims or a common ground that unites us, change has become a struggle of powerful forces with dissenting groups, each interpreting the laws as they see them. There is a French saying, “To understand all is to forgive all.” To ease our conscience and to see all consequences of the new, we invented the Environmental Impact Statement. Like a legal brief it presents the evidence pro and con. Because it is not meant to make the necessary moral choices, it offers no guidance on how to step boldly into the future. Who draws the necessary conclusion from Environmental Impact Statements that allow us to go on with our work?

Governmental entities, professional planning agencies, ad hoc groups, arbitration panels, variance boards, political alliances. From experience we know that committees can only count the material cost of changes, because it is not in their makeup to make the moral choices required. Those are made only by individuals following their own conscience. The past did not have the same compunctions about change as we do. Power erased the moral ambiguity of building and power was admired.

Baron Haussman carved the boulevards of Paris through crowded residential blocks; the emperor took the responsibility, the blame and the glory.

To make room for playgrounds and parks, Robert Moses, park commissioner of New York, tore down acres of buildings. He built Freeways to link the city with the suburbs, made room for public buildings, and constructed miles of bathing beaches.

Only those who were displaced or lost their property complained, but not too loudly. Power was linked to social purpose and to progress. When the Ship Canal was built in Seattle in 1910 it was hailed as a great engineering feat. No matter that the level of Lake Washington was lowered exposing an ugly shoreline. To connect the lake to Puget Sound was a greater imperative.

Governments took for granted that their works justified the damage they caused. Their confidence was fed by certain success. Moreover, those who disagreed had no strong voice and lacked political access.

In time, succeeding generations, no longer aware of the pain and damage done, become reconciled to the new. They see the new buildings and landscapes by their own light and are struck by their strange and sometimes awesome beauty.

Is it possible then to admire the new buildings and landscapes without mourning the loss of what they replaced? Can we become reconciled to this moral ambiguity? Can we look at the new by its own light? As we will see and every architect knows, the answer is yes. “How much of the old architecture terrorizes,” the architect Gio Ponti said, “how much is a testament to cruelty. What emblem of arrogance, authority, severity, pride, oppression – a worldly architecture. It was burned and sacked as long as it held on to that worldliness. But it survived disarmament. Helpless, delivered from passion and sin, it at last became a monument – art.”

We know the toll in human suffering the construction of the pyramids exacted. The Old Testament is witness. For centuries we have admired their presence and are stirred by the mystery of their construction.

Comments by the Marquise de Sevigne on the construction of Versailles as related by Yi-Fu Tuan describe the human cost of the palace. “The King wishes to go to Versailles on Saturday, but God, it seems, wills otherwise, because of the impossibility of getting the buildings in a fit state to receive him, and because of the great mortality afflicting the workmen, of whom every night wagons full of dead are carried out as though from the Hotel-Dieu. These melancholy processions are kept secret as far as possible in order not to alarm other workmen.”

Carrying the … marks of the dying craftsmen, Versailles and it gardens have become their monuments and acknowledged masterpieces.

In Seattle the marshes created by the lowering of Lake Washington became havens for birds and aquatic life. This new world is described lovingly in the book Union Bay by Higman and Larison. These marshes are now cherished and fiercely protected by environmentalists. In a larger sense continuous change has been the earth’s fate and promise. Changes which took centuries or millennia we cannot encompass, but we can still feel their force.

A few degrees of temperature change in the ocean have brought catastrophic results on the earth’s surface. Fossils remind us of the lush Ginkgo forest and tropical vegetation which clad Eastern Washington. Folds in the green landscape are the arrested waves of flowing lava. In time the new landscapes have gained their own awesome beauty of which we have become jealous protectors. Radical changes taking place in our own time are accelerated by the available modern machinery and the enormous concentrated financial resources that make them possible.

The hurt comes mainly from the suddenness of their appearance, a jolt that one lifetime cannot absorb or heal.

The salve for this distress too often is the sentimentality with which we clothe new buildings and landscapes we seek to preserve.

In architecture a self-conscious sentimentality is becoming popular. The quaintness and the arch whimsy or tongue-in-cheek sarcasm of some new buildings conceal their uneasiness about the future and show a lack of conviction of the architect’s role in a vital society. If the Environmental Impact Statement, in which we invest much time and faith, only reveals our dilemma by describing the loss of the old versus the benefits of the new, without solving the moral ambiguity of change, how then do we go about our business of building?

Our guide may well be a return to regional architecture. Its self-restraint has a known moral dimension which resolves the ambiguity of building. It tells us not what we can possibly do, but what we should do. It is about shared values, which confirm and celebrate life’s ever changing transformations. It is not a style into which the critics have pigeonholed it, but rather a way of building which above all recognizes the values of human scale, place, history and the self imposed limits of the community. Instinctively, regional architecture reminds us where the limits are, beyond which we do great injury to ourselves. It recognizes that we cannot love at more than arms’ length. It does not fight its self-imposed restraints, but makes a virtue of them. They are the very essence of its art. In this respect it imitates nature where each plant or creature thrives only in its chosen environment and derives its beauty form the very limits imposed on it or it dies.

No building, however grandiose or stunning, can express its full potential until it has connected itself to its place and embraces it without reservation. “Values must come first,” Rene Dubos reminds us, “They must preside over design because they give aesthetic quality and spiritual coherence to the physical structure. In time all buildings of quality (even those born of violence) resolve the moral ambiguity of building. They touch us deeply because they made hard choices and they mirror life’s struggles, not fashion. Whether or not we agree with the values they represent, they expressed them clearly and without regrets.

These buildings were born of hope not compromise or team consensus. They reflect the courage of their builders’ convictions and thus become witness to the common humanity of generations and their search for truth. By their strong presence they offer hope to another age that its values, too, may find architectural expression, and the certainty of hope overcomes the moral ambiguity the Environmental Impact Statement cannot solve.

The statement’s neutrality, no matter how detailed, scientific or learned, is no substitute for the moral courage necessary for an architecture that reflects the richness and contradictions of life.

© HKP architects, and The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen.