Towards Inclusion

 

 

Donald McKay
Principal, Design Director
Nagle Hartray Architecture

October 2012 



1  Nagle Hartray Architecture, Chicago Theological
Seminary, 2011

 The recently completed Chicago Theological Seminary illustrates how architectural design has a way of forcing emerging trends or obscured realities into focus. In this case it is the ongoing relevance of the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy despite the diminishing relevance of the Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic that has characterized Western thought.

“Since its inception, CTS has lived and served on the frontier. Established in the boomtown of Chicago in 1855, the Seminary’s first mission was to train church leaders on what was then America’s western frontier.”

A pioneering character informs Chicago Theological Seminary’s approach to theological education and social justice. Its faculty and students participated in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. It graduated one of the first women to prepare for ordination. CTS students and faculty advanced the cause of Civil Rights during the 1960s. Today, CTS is a leader in progressive theology that is inclusive, open and affirming.

An institution’s architecture manifests something of its identity whether intended or not. CTS’ hundred year-old home was a beautiful campus gothic building with inspirational worship spaces, but its stained glass windows depicting patriarchal biblical scenes and its lack of fellowship space did not reflect CTS’ progressive value system. An essay written by a member of the CTS community to allay concerns about a new home reflected the Seminary’s understanding of both the opportunity in and the challenge of designing a new facility—“remembrance of the past and hope for the future will be equally powerful forces in the life of the CTS community.”





The new building leverages a community-wide understanding of architecture’s potential to manifest identity in part by replacing the didactic, traditional iconography of the old building with an open and informal symbolism. The most obvious example is the circular rooftop form that is divided between symbiotic activities—worship and dining (fellowship)—asserting an equivalency between the two. Members of the community have characterized the rooftop pairing as an “antidote to static theology and rigid community configurations.”

Inclusive value systems seem to gain cultural hold by fits and starts. Its latest incarnation took root in academic studies that brought to light suppressed meaning in canonical texts. Multiculturalism turned attention towards the ‘other’ and gave voice to those outside of the mainstream. Increased acceptance of same-sex relationships, new challenges to exclusionary religious dogmas, and the birth of new democracies resulting in no small part from the widespread availability of social media that achieved what investments of national blood and treasure could not attest to multiculturalism’s influence.

The recent shift towards more inclusionary value systems may have taken root in academia, but it blossomed through the convergence of other cultural forces—through erosion of our fear of the other by exposing both our fear and “the other” in the media, through implementation of progressive programs that did not end in the calamities predicted for them, through the emergence of technologies that improved open communication and access to information, and through an increasingly global economy, which despite the unsolved mysteries of its interconnections, has rendered exclusionary economic and political policies impractical.
 

2  Nagle Hartray Architecture, Chicago Theological
Seminary, 2011.










Two other recent challenges have fostered an inclusive worldview. One is an economic recession, which, like past recessions, has deepened a perception that wealth has become too exclusive. This perception often fades as the recession does. The other is particular to our time—recognition that human activity is causing climate change with potentially disastrous consequences. This challenge will remain relevant after economic stability returns. It has already driven and will continue to drive substantial changes in the design and construction industry. 

In architecture, these intellectual, cultural and environmental developments coalesced into a widely accepted critique of orthodox Modernism. Architectural Review magazine is one of many voices to articulate this critique in light of current challenges:

“[Modernity] promised freedom for self-realization unconstrained by culture, community, place and history. Yet without these we are not at home in the world, hence the pervasive alienation, and the atomization of communities into lonely individuals, characteristic of modernity. We now understand that self-realization needs the support of and sense of belonging to this larger context. Without it we are reduced to consumers eating up the planet as we defend our lonely selves from a meaningless world by walling ourselves off with consumer goods, entertainment and other addictions…” 1

History suggests that the alienating consequences of past conceits will be forgotten as we regain confidence in a new ‘zeitgeist’ and in our potential to create a corresponding universal architecture.2 Historians and theorists often prefer the clarity of a universal view to the messy tension of


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competing interests. Architects often prefer a universal view for a wide range of reasons—a desire to be on the right side of history, an efficiency and quality control that it affords the business of design, the development of a ‘brand’ that is distinguishable in the marketplace. Such views typically reflect exclusionary value systems.3 If there is a lesson to be learned from orthodox Modernism, it is not that universal forms of architecture are inherently bad, but that architecture rooted in exclusion is a dead end.

So what does it mean to suggest architecture based on inclusive values? A distinguishing feature is that it confronts rather than evades cultural tensions. It may be the tension of uncertainty in transitional times like ours that present new challenges and new means for meeting them. It may be a tension of place that often exists between cultural centers and those outside of them, tension that underlies colloquialisms like ‘second city’ and ‘empire state’. It may be the Janus-like tension of trying to bridge tradition and the avant-garde. Tension is the natural state of an inclusive value system—it is also a reason why value systems rooted in universal ideals, even if exclusionary, are often preferred.

There is a rich history of architecture that reflects an inclusive approach. It can be seen in the work of contemporary architects like Kengo Kuma, Glenn Mercutt and Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate; in the work of Nordic modern architects who synthesized building traditions with avant-garde ambitions to create modern architecture that lacked the alienating characteristics of orthodox modernism; in LeCorbusier’s mature work like Ronchamp and La Tourette, which suggest a turning away from universal ideals he championed earlier in his career; in the work of architects and artists like Michelangelo and Borromini, whose work

3-5 A. Aalto: Finlandia Hall, 1971, (left);
Saynatsalo Town Hall, 1952 (middle);
Helsinki University of Technology Library, 1966 (bottom).







 
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evokes a humanity that distinguishes it amongst the awe-inspiring Roman classicism of church and state.4

The subjective nature of this type of architecture opens it to criticism that its concerns are narrow and that it lacks necessary criticality and objectivity.5 Its value has been elusive and perceptions of it often change over time. Alvar Aalto presents an interesting example. A generation of Nordic architects that followed Aalto confused the personal humanism of his work with an elitism that was considered out of step with contemporary social concerns, so they adopted and employed the ‘grid’ as a truer representation of Nordic egalitarianism. The deadening effects on the urban environment of this and other like-minded design strategies remain visible today and eventually gave rise to a positive reassessment of Aalto’s talent and his approach.6

Two considerations suggest value in distinguishing between architecture rooted in inclusive versus exclusive value systems. First, this distinction is relevant to a wide range of current educational, economic, political and cultural concerns—it is perhaps a critical distinction for our time—which means it is also relevant to architects’ clients. Second, architecture designed from an inclusive viewpoint is less likely to result in alienating environments and more likely to result in work that is considered meaningful. This is particularly important as we develop our understanding of what it means to design sustainably because architecture that is considered meaningful is more likely to receive the care and support necessary for it to endure.7

Architecture rooted in inclusive value systems has rarely been predominant for many reasons—it is does not lend itself to imitation, it eludes historical and critical analysis, it is not consistent with business practices that prioritize efficiency and branding, and its subjective nature can result
 

6 A. Aalto, Social Insurance Institution, 1956.












in self-aggrandizing monuments that do not meet clients’ objectives or that lack cultural relevance. This last reason may be the most damning, but an architectural education system, a profession and a media that encouraged the idea of individual genius have encouraged it.

There are reasons to think that the time may be ripe for the predominance of an architecture rooted in inclusive value systems. Culture seems to be moving in that direction despite ongoing challenges and occasional setbacks. Addressing climate change, which may be the defining challenge of our time, requires local design solutions. And students and young designers seem genuinely interested in collaboration, which is by its nature an inclusive approach.8 This last factor may prove the most important because it can mitigate the most destructive potential consequence of a subjective approach—ego-driven design. The promise of such an approach is meaningful and truly sustainable architecture.


Notes
1 Peter Buchanan, “The Big Rethink,” Architectural Review, April 2012.
2 Parametricists have already laid claim to a new form of universal architecture in the spirit of our digital age.
3 To assess whether it is fair to associate universal forms of architecture with exclusive value systems, it is worth distinguishing between universal problems in architecture and universal forms of architecture. Architects commonly engage universal problems for their apparent virtue. For example, decent and affordable housing for all and climate change are two universal problems—one long-standing and the other recent—that the profession has tried to address in serious ways. Architects pursue universal forms of architecture as a means of addressing universal problems,

and for less virtuous reasons like those described in this essay. Regardless of the motivation that leads to their development, successful universal forms accrue symbolic power that attracts exclusionary interests—the co-option of classical architecture by church and state and of orthodox modernism by corporations illustrate two examples.
4 Characterization of this work as some form of ‘regionalism’ is unfairly reductive because it does not recognize its spiritual, which transcends local tradition.
5 Works of architecture that amount to nothing more than monuments to personal ambition justify such criticism. But it must also be recognized that these criticisms of a subjective approach to architectural design may conceal other self-interested agendas ranging from a defense of business efficiencies more natural to universal approaches to design to attempts by theorists to gain a foothold in the design process.
6 This assessment of Aalto’s fall and resurrection in the eyes of fellow Nordic architects was explained to me in slightly different but consistent versions during separate interviews in Helsinki with two Finnish architects who witnessed—even participated—in these events.
7 “Meaningful” is not meant to suggest “popular.” The emerging challenges of preserving mid-century modern buildings illustrate the distinction.
8 In our practice, we have seen evidence of this shift in attitude among recently graduated job seekers. It was not long ago that most letters of interest and resumes included naïve self-assessments about design talent. These have been largely replaced by stated objectives about contributing to a sustainably designed world.

Photos
1-2, Tom Rossiter Photography.
3-6, by the author.

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