Provisional Architecture

04.23.05

Something I’ve noticed in my experience with architectural finish work is its character.  Specifically, work constructed during my generation.  It is suggestive.  The color, the implied richness of a material, the form are all suggestive in a general sense of whatever atmosphere is being created…is it nostalgia for wholesome, down-home, American-crafted woodwork and country-town inspired finishes?  Is it dark woods, hues of green, brown, and yellow – indicative of stately and reserved decadence and status?  Is it rough-hewn wood and earthy tones – for the frontiers’ person?  Or perhaps steel and glass and concrete Modernistic?  Or perhaps a mixture of them all?  Is it a Cracker Barrel, a Friendly’s, a Barnes and Noble, an Applebee’s, a Champ’s Sports, a trendy furniture boutique, a tapas bar, a Hilton or Holiday Inn lobby / room / ______, an anchor store, a boutique, a doctor’s office, any office?  Is the plywood with a hardwood veneer stained dark and used to create the impression of richly finished wainscot, rails, columns?  But isn’t the joinery peculiar?  It looks rough.  It is very noticeable.  No all of the finish nail heads have been filled with wood putty.  Sometimes where the wood has been filled, the spots are conspicuous.  The miter joints have the precision of a radial arm saw and a light finish sanding.  The workmanship is poor but passes because it is kept clean and consistent and it is new.

The quality of finish work of this sort, the way it makes sense to read it, is as a sketch.  There is a program of spaces for a given occupant.  But also, there is a program agenda for the atmosphere.  Should the building project luxury, economy, decadence, reserve, country-atmosphere, state of the art materials?  What is the image that the building is selling?  This atmosphere is not created really.  It is created as a sketch…just enough to carry the illusion.  It is fashion.  Will that Barnes and Noble be a Barnes and Noble in fifteen years?  Or will its steel roof deck and masonry walled shell be gutted and converted into a Bed Bath and Beyond?  Or perhaps its lot in life is to become a Big Lots?  The architecture serves nothing more than a marketing strategy.

Defer a value judgment for a moment.  Do not yet consider whether there is anything inherently good or bad to this state of affairs.  Is there a way that this strategy makes good sense?  To the extent that the forces which drive the markets and that the state of our technologies change very rapidly, and to the extent that these changes spur a torrid pace of cultural change, and to the extent that developing a market strategy is dependent upon engaging the culture of the society, it does make sense that the worth of a marketing strategy is very limited because even if well done, it has a very limited period of relevance.

Obviously this reading has a targeted scope.  It addresses an aspect of middle-class, middle-American, suburban culture.  It does not address the conditions of architectural finishing at either of the extreme ends of the spectrum of wealth.  It does not address those few institutions of such importance and intended for such permanence that exceptional finish work is justifiable.  It does not address finishing in the industrial sector where high quality finishing is a necessity to ensure proper functioning of equipment, production, and storage of material and product.

These admissions withstanding, the significance of the provisional character of architectural finishings of the institutions of middle-class America cannot be underestimated.  The provisional-ness acknowledges and legitimizes provisional-ness as an aspect of life, not in general, but for the individual within the group.  It is not meant as a philosophical statement.  It does not say, “LIFE is provisional.” It is rather an admission there to be read between the lines of activity yielding unanticipated consequences, and offering a perspective driven by short-term economic and political exigencies.  It is insidious and devalues humaneness because it says to its occupants, “Your life is provisional!”

While this is a negative interpretation, I’m not really sure it’s where I want to head with this topic. The point is that this type of architectural finishing is provisional and that there are implications to that.  It is possible to see this as an honest and conscientious strategy to the extent that it addresses the realities of the role, value, and life-expectancy of most architectural finishing, as well as most users of constructed space.  It also presents interesting imagery.  So many of the finishing materials can be – and increasingly are – recycled, so that it is possible to see people pouring these materials into the form of the moment, using them in that form for the short duration that they are marketable, and then deconstructing them, returning them to a base state, and reshaping them in a new form.  These are provisional, liquid, plastic finishes that describe our environments.  And while the previous paragraph was perhaps polemical and mistrustful of the phenomenon’s value, there is a point to be appreciated at some point short of that extreme argument.  There is a traditional view of what architecture is and does and part of this view entails the idea of timeless aesthetics and quality of craftsmanship targeted on endurance and artisanship.  This view is strongly challenged by the provisional architecture paradigm.  And so provisional architecture asks that the paradigm be redefined.  What are appropriate ground-rules, benchmarks, and a frame of reference from which to value this form of architecture?

Lastly, there is a more fundamental question.  Does such a paradigm shift serve humanity?  Clearly, it functionally serves the current state of Western civilization in the throws of a warped, despotic form of capitalism.  But what is the goal of humanity?  Do we strive to be great cogs in the service of whatever sort of organism human civilization as a whole may be characterized as?  Alternatively, do we strive to identify and embody the highest ideals and principles of which we can conceive as a way to honor and celebrate our limited time on Earth?  In this case, perhaps it is more important to build every building as a shrine and celebration of our humanity.

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