Monday, November 28, 2011
The Isolated Hive
Architecture surrounds us. From the dawn of humanity men have sought shelter, but how has this shaped our psyches? Architects like Le Corbusier and Antoni Gaudi believed architecture to be an extension of how we perceive ourselves connected to the world around us, subsequently creating a perception of how man views himself in the world. In the past architecture has been a physical embodiment of “permanent values.” Architects today know that such a claim is dangerous. For what kind of “values” can a building hold? A building can be environmentally sustainable, it can emit zero carbon, it can even have a grass roof, but architecture has always been an idealized symbol. A symbol that has absolutely nothing to do with how the building’s occupants actually live their lives. As Le Corbusier so eloquently stated, “A house is a machine for living” yet a house is not a machine, it is more similar to a time capsule.
When we talk about architecture soon enough it becomes apparent that it is not structures that make architecture important, it is how structures shape our attitude about the world in which we live in. Architecture is all around us, but how often do we take the time to realize how it emotionally affect us? Alain De Botton states in his book The Architecture of Happiness that, “Works of design and architecture talk to us about [the] kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them” (72). Thus when an architect is designing a building or a city plan he/she knows that the plan will manipulate those who interact within its walls. Eighteenth century poet John Ruskin believed, “Buildings speak” (Botton, 71), what it is that they actually say is naturally up for debate. If Le Corbusier is right, buildings have always promoted one thing: safety. Safety from elements, safety from your neighbor and safety from the unknown. Who knows what evil deed a seemingly courteous neighbor can be concocting in their newly refurbished basement. Frankly, it is better to just turn up the heat and lock up, stay indoors your neighbors are crazy!
Thus buildings inherently promote isolation. Caves saved men from dangerous creatures and stormy weather, huts kept men dry, castles saved men from the Huns, Turks and the Romans, and churches isolate you from worldly temptations. Buildings promote isolation, but not necessarily individual isolation, it is isolation from, as the seventeenth Century philosopher Georg Hegel coined, the “other” (17, Hegel).
There are two basic models that illustrate this idea: The Forest and the Hive. The Hive is a mass model of excellence, it is a model for productivity and efficient living, keep everyone doing what they are told to do (or programmed to do) and they will forget the outside world’s distractions. When one thinks of a beehive there must be a queen and naturally thousands of worker bees, all willing to work for their entire lives on the maintenance of the hive and the queen’s prosperity. The Forest is a bit more exclusive and abstract, it implies that the human spirit is an immensely difficult thing to pigeonhole and thus must have a certain amount of freedom. In the Forest system, there is an element of chaos (just as there is in a natural forest). Chaos to let the mind run free, but controlled chaos nonetheless. The forest is not anarchy, it is its own society. In a Forest society the mind can wander, but it can never escape the forest.
These two models are contrasted perfectly in two works by the writer Aldous Huxley. The first is Brave New World and the second is Island, both are visions of utopias in there own rights. Brave New World illustrates the psychosis of a Hive society while Island is an example of a functioning Forest society. The inhabitants of the fictional island of Pala are encouraged to be aware of their surroundings for they believe that all things on the island are significant. On Pala family is encouraged, but not in the traditional sense, children are “free to escape” from their own families. They can switch moms, dads, brothers, and sisters to find something that was lacking in their previous abode. (Huxley, Island, 106.) This is contrasted between the inhabitants of the World State, for they have no concept of family. The people of the World State have been brainwashed into believing that, “Every one belongs to every one else” (Huxley, Brave New World, 31), making the entire idea of family appalling. Both novel’s reestablishment of the family structure created societies detached from any other social stratosphere, due to the set of values that were engrained upon them. The system was put in place so that the inhabitants could never leave their islands (whether in a literal or psychological sense) because why would they? The inhabitants of both worlds have no inclination to join the outside world because at a young age they are taught that there is nothing but insanity out there. They are taught to negate the “other” from their collective ideology (111, Hegel). This is not so different to how media works in reality as well. Our news shows incite fear and cultural ignorance upon viewers, promoting nationalism which is merely isolationism without sounding as lonely.
On a personal level, beyond Hive and Forest metaphors, buildings shelter us, they shelter us from the elements yet they also do something else. Something far more fragile and poignant. A building stores our memories. A building holds happy times, sad times, and everything in between. A building is an inherently real entity. Architects know this, they understand that life happens inside of a building’s walls. What many unintentionally do, however, is create a privatization of experiences. A happy home has nothing to do with the way in which the house was built, for happiness is in the moment. A house gets filled with these memories of moments, it gets filled with the byproducts of life. The smells from home cooked meals, the scuffs on the stairwells from bustling children running off to a full day of school, the wear and tear that a house endures so that the memory of its inhabitants can survive. But on an over popularized planet this dreamy idea may become no more than a fantasy.
Paul Hyett, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) described architecture’s modern requirement; “There are thresholds which cannot be crossed without endangering the basic integrity of the system. Today we are close to many of these thresholds; we must be ever mindful of endangering the survival of earth” (6, Abley and Heartfield). What Paul Hyett says is true, there are thresholds which cannot be crossed, yet have those thresholds already been crossed? I say the system is in danger, according to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) 980 million people did not have access to a clean, protected water supply. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the planet has 6.92 billion people on it. Our system is failing, and our only solution is urbanization.
Aldous Huxley prophesied the ultimate urban Hive in Brave New World, in this world it is people who have become efficient to maintain stability, of course in this work of fiction the World Controller maintained the population at a healthy 2 billion. The Controller insists that the “primal and the ultimate need” for humankind is “Stability” (Huxley, 28). But what happens when stability is out of the question? First off, Politicians, Architects, Engineers, and Scientists need to find a way to preserve the resources that we still have, maintain them, and then attempt to stabilize them.
Stability is important, for most people find themselves anxious when confronted in an unstable environment, just as someone naturally would after losing a job when they have bills to pay. In Huxley’s World State the Creator’s job is to maintain a world in which people are unable to have those feelings, “Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can't.” The rulers bypassed truth and gave their pupils a lavish supply of distractions. The true horror of Brave New World is that the inhabitants of the World State do not know they have given anything up. The Controllers saw truth as it naturally is: unstable. Thus truth can never dictate the planet, because it is far too unstable. Thresholds have been crossed, this is reality. Turn on your television, get your new I-pad, tomorrow there will be a million new ways to preoccupy yourself. Don’t worry about the river, don’t worry about the jungle. Enter the Hive or go live in the Forest. Isolate yourself from the real world and the media will tell you what’s truly important.
Since architecture is the structure of civilization, and truth cannot dictate a civilization, architecture can never embody truth, only ideal. We can see that ideal manifested in the Ancient Pyramids of Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome, buildings of such a grand scale that their purpose becomes a second thought to the wonder that their construction evokes. Man made those architectural wonders, yet it was not a union of individuals it was a collective of slaves or “others” who did the labour. The architect Antoni Gaudi stated back in the eighteenth Century that, “In the society of the insects...each individual works for the good of society as a whole” (56, Ramirez) and since Gaudi was a proponent of a Hive society it is no stretch to believe that he viewed the Egyptian and Roman slaves as mere pawns in a game for kings. In a natural beehive there is obviously a queen bee, a leader who is exempt from all the due-diligence of her subjects. She is just as any CEO of a large corporation, free to enjoy the fruits of their workers labour, for it is those who lead that work the hardest... or so they’d like us to believe.
The Imperialistic nature of all civilizations, even in the animal kingdom, stems from a deep rooted belief in isolationism. Isolating oneself from “the other” for this is what creates Nationalistic pride, this need for isolation. Build me a castle, then build me a moat, then fill it with sharks with laser beams attached to there heads! Oh, who knew how culturally relevant Dr. Evil could be? Sadly the days of moats and castles are over, imposing architectural structures such as the pyramids and the Great Wall of China are now merely tourist attractions. Today tyranny is ruled by politics, which is why it is important to understand the implications that Hive and Forest mindsets have on their subjects. Truth cannot reign, it is deceit that is marketable. For a mass public, small bits of truth can glisten through the cracks of consumer culture, yet for the most part it simmers away. Thus the Hive takes into effect
The utopia that Gaudi found achievable was on a significantly smaller scale than an entire society. Gaudi states how he was able to create a working collective of like minds by “adopting the principle of saving now in order to make the future more bearable” and how that allowed them to “build a factory and after that nobody was able to impose conditions on [them]” (44). In this case the idea of a worker bee was successful, yet what Gaudi did was isolate himself from society.
Thus today’s architecture must be bound “to the destiny of the city” (42, Tafuri) “Sustainability is no longer about what you do...it is about who you are. This is architecture as social policy with sustainability as the new secular religion” (46, Abley and Heartfield). “Sustainability as the new secular religion”... Wow, if Huxley’s World Controller could have heard that statement. Sustainability creates stability in a world ruled by science, and it is technological advancements that push science farther than could ever have been previously imagined. So technology promotes science and science promotes sustainability while all the while sustainability is creating stability, so let’s just admit that soon enough our world will become a brave and new one. Technological advancements have pushed Hyett’s sustainable religion to the forefront of architectural feats.
Projects such as the eco-friendly Masdar City, located in the United Arab Emirates, which requires its inhabitants to completely reinvent the way in which a city dweller interacts with his/her surroundings, will soon be the new business model for sustainable design. However, Masdar is the a text book case of isolationism. A walled in city with no cars allowed within its walls, Masdar’s inhabitants will have to rely on railways and personal rapid transit. It will be a zero carbon, zero waste mega city of the future (328, Jodidio). This city is walled in, resembling an eco-castle of the dark ages. The capitalist market is in town and the world is buying. The United Arab Emirates illicitly promotes consumerism by housing the largest shopping mall in the world. They also hold the annual Dubai Shopping Festival, on top of that the Emirates have even created fake islands off their coast to promote real-estate sales. Sustainability has never looked so superficial and elitist. The world is changing, and the paradox is that even something like sustainability and eco-awareness really is just a mask for the hive, a mask for isolationism, and an excuse for more consumerism. Because the truth is, there are no solutions to the big problems, the nature of sustainable design is merely allopathic, attempting to cure an ailment that is so deeply connected to the story of man, its almost like we don’t know how it ends.
What memories are left in an abandoned hive, its fibrous walls and arches disintegrating above in the branches of a withering oak? The stench of productivity and ideological stagnation emit from the crusty honeycombs, they that were so full of the life blood of a society, that of the Hive. And once the winds come as they always do, followed by the rains, eventually leading into a frozen tundra, the hive will fall. It will crash to the ground and disappear from memory. All there will be left to say is a Bob Dylan quote, “Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.”
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