“What is architecture?” the Dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University asked me with a gentle demeanor and a smile. In the early seventies I was friendly with a little group of Princeton School of Architecture graduates, one of whom thought the school should hire me to teach design and had taken the trouble to arrange for an interview with the Dean, although I was very uncertain about being part of such a small and elitist enclave that did not welcome women.
“What is architecture?” was a zinger of a question that only much later I understood was meant to find out my stylistic preferences. Was I a Modern (the dean’s preference)? Or was I a follower of Robert Venturi, as many young architects were then? When I recovered I took the piece of chalk that was resting on the blackboard’s ledge and wrote these words as vertical columns: site/context; program; structure/construction; environmental technologies; esthetics. Then, with a swift gesture of my hand, I crossed the columns with a horizontal line. That, I said, is architecture – the spatial synthesis and the making sense of all those factors.
I had been reading Marina Waisman’s brilliant theoretical book, La estructura histórica del entorno (The Historical Structure of the Built Environment ) published in 1971, where she proposes an analytical framework for architecture using categories like those I had written on the blackboard. From this perspective, architecture is not a homogeneous process ruled by stylistic considerations, because new developments are likely to occur in some aspects of a design while others remain static. Moreover, she argued that only those buildings where significant changes had occurred in two or more aspects were acknowledged as historical landmarks – such as the Crystal Palace, which embodied an unprecedented program and also developed greenhouse technology to a much higher level. This analytical framework focused analysis on the architectural object or project, rather than the architect’s professed intention, and considered esthetics as of no greater or lesser importance than structure or program. I was also interested in Jan Mukařovský’s work on functions in architecture, and very much against the idea that architecture should only be viewed through the – in my view, narrowly limited – lens of style. Waisman’s and Mukařovský’s ideas for analyzing architecture suggested to me that it was possible to see architectural design as a transversal activity that did away with the dichotomy between form and function that continued to contaminate architectural discourses.
To my relief, the Dean did not call me back and I sometimes wondered whether he had even attempted to understand what I had meant with my diagram. I myself recognized it as the beginning of an idea that merited expansion. So I used transversality for the development of a design methodology that I suspected would let me circumvent the stylistic traps of Post-Modernism while allowing me to retain the ability to consider each project on its own merits and circumstances. Like one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, I continue to believe that “style is violent, and I am not violent.”
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