PRINT September 1970

Goodbye, Architecture

NEW TECHNOLOGIES HAVE, IN THE 20th century, led to an unprecedentedly rapid structural transformation of the urban environment. New emerging artifacts and the changing relationships within the historical urban environment have often been misunderstood and unjustifiably taken for urban chaos.

Changes in technology have made new forms evolve at such a pace that values have not been able to keep up with the change. Much of the dissatisfaction voiced at the urban environment. has its origin in values which may have been compatible with prior conceptions of order but which are neither consistent with those of today nor with contemporary social processes. Instead of re-examining their value systems architects have often struggled to back-pedal and design environments to conform with their unchanged world views. This attitude is manifest in the frequent attempts to hide new emerging forms behind familiar facades and images in order to make them acceptable. The first movie theaters in California resembled the image of a church. The first gasoline stations, not accepted as an inherent and necessary part of urban life, had to take the shape of a courthouse.

The gap between static values and real life processes became more apparent where new environmental forms emerged which were of a totally different nature and ones which could not be treated with a traditional architectural vocabulary, as this vocabulary is geared to deal with buildings as opposed to the total environment. Confronted with the necessity to let go of the traditional and limiting concept of architecture in order to cope with the new and more complex emerging environment, architects chose to ignore and reject those aspects of the environment which they felt lay beyond the traditional scope of architecture. The fact that architects became highly selective as to the aspects with which architecture should be concerned became a major characteristic of 20th-century architecture.

According to the common criteria of 20th-century architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are considered fascinating precisely because they ignore so many environmental aspects and subscribe to the commonly held attitude, “less is more.” But architecture, once dominating the urban environment, has through this “less is more” philosophy, transformed itself into a less and less relevant component within the total environment.

It has been widely recognized that in contemporary architecture and urbanism certain essential features are missing and that architects have not been capable of creating environments which are as satisfying as the naturally evolved cities of the past. Alarmed by the prospects of future Miesian glass-box cities, some architects have looked backwards, and, hoping to recapture some of the qualities which were inherent in the old pedestrian cities, copied the shapes of the past, designing fake European piazzas and villages. Their delving into the past would, however, not have been necessary had they realized that much of the visual boredom of the new cities can be attributed to the attitude of selection and control of environmental aspects.

The chaotic looking map of Rome is fascinating precisely because the order behind it is not the simple expression of one man’s view of urban life. Generally, architects’ views of ideal contemporary environments only concentrate on a limited number of aspects and their proposed designs result in diagrams reflecting a simple order using vocabulary no different from the traditional architectural one. A large number of these contemporary diagrams do not look as if they allow for anybody besides the designer to be involved in the decision-making process leading from blueprint to reality. Many aspects, however, which cannot be foreseen at the design stage have to be allowed to evolve and be solved as the need for new solutions arises. If the design is not a straitjacket for future developments, complexity and visual excitement will naturally develop as a result of complex urban processes. These will make the architect’s concern with visual excitement and traditional ornamentation a redundant effort.

Christopher Alexander points out that man is not capable of conceiving intricate organizations in their total complexity but tends always to reorganize them mentally into simpler structures.1 If this is so, one should not try to design an urban agglomeration as a finite package. Architects, however, being used to architecture as a finite product have traditionally been quite upset if their creation was altered during the process of use. Their design concern should rather have centered around what might be called an adaptable and self-organizing structure that makes allowances for aspects which so far have not been considered an inherent part of architecture; and for activities which are not directly related to the immediate functions of the building. This in turn allows for the and randomness.

The design vocabulary at the architect’s disposal has increased tremendously. Technological innovation has brought about not only new materials, production and management techniques but also automation, communication, and transportation technologies which in turn have extended architectural possibility beyond traditional concepts.

However, traditionalists among architects not having developed new attitudes towards emerging forms and technologies have been limiting their work rather than expanding it. Industrialization and the increasing scale of building components have decreased rather than increased the average architects’ design flexibility. This state of affairs is not likely to change in the near future due to the increasingly greater acceptance of industrialized building techniques, which will, for at least a few more years, be dependent on the repetition of a great number of identical parts. Whether the introduction of numerically controlled production machines making mass-produced individual components possible will improve the situation for the traditional architect is very questionable.

Rather than worrying about these developments, architects should be starting to expand their areas of concern, employing new technologies and new forms which go beyond the traditional realm of buildings as finite entities. Architects have, for example, been blinded far too long by the idea that architectural form is the only means by which to communicate the content of a building. They have to forget their preoccupation with legibility and “imageability” of form and the philosophy of “form follows function.” It is no longer appropriate to give identity to buildings through specifically tailored form.

There is only a very subtle relationship between the form of the architectural envelope and the function which it envelops and this relationship has much too often been over-emphasized by architects. In buildings, most activities take place in unspecified areas that can accommodate interchangeable functions, and which derive their identity from equipment rather than from form. The arbitrariness of the physical form of buildings has been proven many times from Ledoux’s sphere house in the 18th century to the Cabazon Monster, still under construction in California. Ledoux’s sphere house could certainly adapt to many functions. And the Cabazon Monster shows that the activity of a restaurant can even be housed inside a dinosaur shape.

Architectural form has become more a symbol than a direct reflection of internal functions of a building. Today, however, with more complex and faster changing functions, a building having become a sign or symbol can be quite limiting with regard to the type of function that can take place inside it. There is little need for a store that sells milk to take the form of a milk bottle or for a hot dog stand to look like a super-size hot dog. However, once a store has taken such a shape, its image will make it difficult to adapt to another function. This kind of form symbolism is a leftover from the time when architectural form was the only means by which to convey the message of architectural content. Today, however, with less illiteracy, graphics might lend itself as a more appropriate and powerful means of communication. Architects should acknowledge the fact that a billboard or even a hologram can and will replace the church tower. Graphic communication will identify the content of architectural packages just as as it identifies the content of other consumer products. Lettering on architectural packages will not only improve orientation, but will, as Cedric Price has suggested, increase the learning process. To this day, however, lettering has not been accepted as a legitimate architectural media.

In order to expand the range of architectural vocabulary, architects have to abandon their limiting ideologies and concern themselves with the integration of many environmental factors which they have so far considered to be outside their realm of concern. This lesson, however, cannot be learned from the buildings of the great masters, but rather from environments uninfluenced by architects. To learn from the vernacular is by no means a new suggestion and architects have often studied native architecture. Corbusier loved the Greek villages and Team 10 studied the primitive architecture of North Africa. Generally, however, they were looking at settlements of a simple order in less developed countries, and everything learned from them only reinforced the old concepts of unity of materials, geometric structure and intelligible order. Their studies were based on the fallacious idea that a simple order, applied to a complex situation, would make the complexity more easily understandable.

But the often-neglected fact is that the needs and means of survival of the people who live in these primitive settlements are entirely different from those of the people who are to live in the “new” architecture. The environmental structure of a homogeneous and simple society, therefore, should never be applied to more advanced social orders without carefully checking their applicability. We should understand that the coexistence and conflict of heterogeneous institutions and individuals and the wide range of different technological means will in actuality always lead to a more complex order while only appearing as random or chaotic.

If we want to learn from architecture created without architects, we have to turn to our own anonymous environments such as the commercial and industrial vernacular.2 Architects who recognize the potentials of the vernacular have either never been able to integrate what they have learned into their design or tended to transform the vernacular into static and pretentious forms. le Corbusier admired airplanes and grain elevators, but his designs did not reflect this admiration. Today, many young architects look at the commercial vernacular, trying to integrate it into their designs. So far, they have only been able to transform it into the art form of supergraphics. These supergraphics ignore or even destroy architectural forms and spaces as do commercial graphics, the difference being that supergraphics are, by their very nature, architectural ornamentations, lacking the unselfconsciousness and the fascination of change which is inherent in commercial graphics.

If we want architecture to be part of life and not remote from it, we must learn to accept its vulgar vernacular as part of architecture. We must learn to integrate it rather than try to transform it. Artists could teach architects a lesson about integration of the vulgar and common into design. They could free architects from the still-common preconception that everything within the field of architecture which is unplanned and undesigned has of necessity to be undesirable. The commercial vernacular, which has been fought against by architects for years is suddenly seen in a different light when compared with the early collages of Carra, Schwitters, Braque or Picasso. The roadside cities of California for instance are nothing but constantly changing environmental collages; a fact easily appreciated when driving through them. For those who do not read the language, Chinese commercials on the facade of a supermarket take on an expression comparable to that of abstract painting such as that of Prachensky.

But the integration of architecture and graphic communication has not been deliberately planned. A total integration of lettering such as we have been seeing in painting since the early works of Braque, Schwitters, etc., and in certain architects’ proposals of the ’20s, can only be found in vernacular commercial architecture. So far, the “establishment architecture” has still disassociated itself from graphic communication. Billboards are never integrated into Mies van der Rohe-type glass boxes, but rather added to older buildings which do not matter, or to buildings which are out of the architect’s control. Frequently, billboards are free-standing structures completely unrelated to the building, and often much more impressive than the building in whose proximity they stand. In other respects also, architects can learn from art. Chamberlain’s painted metal or Cesar’s Yellow Buick suggest that we could even loo k at a junkyard with appreciative eyes. A fence around a junk yard to shield the onlooker from the view will certainly not be an answer to the waste problem; rather, it will in it self be a waste of resources.

It is time to reconsider our priorities in planning and architecture. As a first step, we should make sure that we do no t waste resources just trying to make the environment comply with outworn environmental concepts and old-time esthetic values.

It did not help the esthetic value of the area to fence in the 1000 or more oil pump s at Huntington Beach in order to protect the viewer against their “ugliness.” They are, in fact, kinetic sculptures as exciting as Tinguely’s machine art. Los Angeles only deprived itself of one potential and very fascinating visitor at traction. To make up for the loss of the Huntington Beach sculptures, I propose a super-size “ready-made” kinetic sculpture for the Civic Center of Los Angeles to enrich the variety of sculptures already located there.

The way we look at the environment becomes far more important than the environment it self. If people could for a moment forget the ordinary purpose and function of Los Angeles’ high voltage electricity pylons they could enjoy them as much as they enjoy Rodia’s Watts Towers which attract many visitors every day. Unfortunately, one has not been trained to look unbiased at the environment. Architects have generally been dissatisfied with the existing, and their proposals have been statements advocating the overpowering or neglecting of the present order rather than those of understanding it and expressing the intention of living with it. Our attitude is still fairly close to Marinetti’s when he advocates the destruction of Venice, or Corbusier’s when he proposes to erase and rebuild Paris. What has to be learned is that an attractive environment will not be achieved by replacement of the existing with an architectural diagram. This would only create monotony. Complex and diverse environments, which provide in creased richness of life resulting from expanding choice, will not come about from the simple transformation of one man’s views into glass and concrete.

One will have to forget architectural corsetry and will have to allow for the coexistence of what is already built with the new emerging artifacts. The resulting relationships will turn the environment into a complex agglomeration that can be enjoyed and experienced in constant change.

Helmut C. Schulitz is an Assistant Professor of Urban Design at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches in the field of Systems Building.



1. Christopher Alexander: “The City is not a Tree,” Architectural Forum 4–5, 1965.

2. D. Scott-Brown and R. Venturi: “Learning from Las Vegas,” Architectural Forum 3, 1968.