Romance and Illusion in Architecture

July 4, 2018



Paulo Alcazaren

The architect has always been a romantic figure. He (until recent times the profession has been a manly one) is perceived as an artist constantly trying to keep his “creative vision” uncompromised by the aesthetic and budgetary constraints of clients or, often, the actual needs of the people who eventually use the buildings he designs.

My design professor, with literary name Honorato Paloma, advised us to be ready to suffer or starve in pursuit of our art. The portrait of the architect as an artist, starving or otherwise, has been reinforced in literature and cinema. The iconic image is that of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, from her novel The Fountainhead. The 1943 book is an acknowledge albeit controversial work of American literature. The big screen version was a clunker though, with a wooden performance by cowboy star Gary Cooper. Obviously being fast on the draw did not mean he can play someone who drew for a living.

The practice of architecture, however, is not merely a way to earn a living. For many—sorry—drawn to it, it is life itself; at least from the biographies of great architects I’ve read. Architecture is a profession and one cannot profess something unless he or she loves it, has a burning passion for it, and is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve perfection. (That’s why it’s also called a “practice.”)

Perfection in architecture is obviously not visible in a mad metropolis like Manila. The few attempts at it are marred by an incongruous urban context of spaghetti wires, utility poles, and mega-billboards. There is little to love in the architectural scenography of our present-day city. Little remains too of the exemplary architecture from historical eras—Spanish, American, pre-war Art Deco, and post-war International Style.

You can’t love anything or anyone “just a little.” Love is grand. Love is big. The famous American architect and planner Daniel Burnham admonished us to “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized…

READ MORE: The politics and problems of placemaking in the Philippines

The realization then is that contemporary Filipino architecture fails to “stir men’s blood.” What has been built is not attractive, or sexy, or visible enough. The profession of architecture has fewer and fewer converts drawn to it by just the love of architecture and design or by the sense of fulfillment and accomplishment from nothing but lines on paper or vectors on a computer screen.

The odd thing is that there are hoards of young Filipinos in our architectural schools. The driving attraction does not seem to be the high romance of architecture, but the more pedestrian promise of a job abroad or substantial salaries working as glorified draftsmen in local sweatshop outsourcing firms.

Cash is king, but the King said, “Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete and I love you so.” What we seem to be training in our design schools then are incomplete professionals, artists of commerce whose fulfillment is measured by OFW remittances or admission to the emerging vacuous sub-culture of call center youth.

The call boys and call girls of our outsourcing industry do find romance but it is in the isolated cubicles and “chill out” spaces generated by the new architecture of labor arbitrage. This new design typology creates Fordist structures that emphasize efficiency and nothing else. Three shifts of workers keep these centers going “24/7.”

Call kids cope with the stress with a mixture of Red Bull, beer, and condoms. The canoodling in cubicles continues after shifts in motels of the biglang kaliwa variety. These offer “short time” accommodations with fascinating interior design. Fantasies, aesthetic or erotic, are fulfilled in Star Wars, Matrix, or Harry Potter rooms.

This brings us back to the movies and the romantic escapism those flickering image provide. Architects have cropped up regularly in Hollywood productions since The Fountainhead. The architect as a character has been cast mainly in romantic dramas or comedies or dramadies (a combination of both). They are usually portrayed as “successful professionals.”

Steve Martin in The House Sitter, Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby, Mark Ruffalo as a landscape architect in Just Like Heaven, Jude Law as another landscape architect in Breaking and Entering, Keanu Reeves in The Lake House, Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever, and Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day are all fairly accomplished yuppies—this despite their romantic predicaments. Real life is tougher and it takes an architect between 15-20 years to establish a practice. Of course, there was Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal, but his character was on his way to career success and resorted to dirty deed only because of recession.

On the opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum were Gary Cole in The Brady Bunch movie and Charles Bronson in Death Wish. Cole’s character was a caricature of an architect stuck in the split-level Sixties while Bronson’s carried out what many of us dream of being able to do—take bloody revenge on those who wrong us. Bronson committed mayhem and murder because of love for his wife and daughter. Real architect are a little more restrained…although there are some whose designs could be called criminal and an assault on a hapless public.

There was one movie though where no romance was involved. Towering Inferno was a 70s blockbuster starring Paul Newman as Doug Roberts, the architect of the world’s tallest building and Steve McQueen as the Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan tasked to rescue the inaugural party trapped by fire that broke out due to substandard wiring. The shoddy construction was due to a client decision made without the architect’s knowledge but Newman’s character accepts the responsibility and helps put the fire out. The most memorable exchange in the movie between the two: Chief O’Hallorhan: [sighs] Architects. Doug Roberts: Yeah, it’s all our fault.

Love is not possible without commitment and responsibility. It’s all our fault as designers if we let outside pressures water down the burning passion we out to invest in everything we create. We can bring the romance back to our architecture and our cities if we only can separate the chic from the chicanery that pervades the marketing and profit-driven market briefs.

Romantic salvation is only possible is we can replace the illusion with inspiration. True love also requires the resolve to continually work at maintaining and building the relationship. People will relate to the buildings architects design if they sense it was design and built with care and conviction. We owe it to the people who eventually have to live in those buildings and use the settings we conjure up from concrete, steel, glass, or grass for moments routine or romantic.

We ultimately owe it to ourselves. Ayn Rand said, “To say ‘I love you,’ one must first be able to say the ‘I.'” Architects needs to be more reflexive and figure out how to complete themselves technically and ideologically first; before asking others to complete them. The foundations of whatever we create can only really elicit the approval of others if we are sure on where we stand.

Ain’t love grand? 

This article was originally published in BluPrint Volume 1 2009. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

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