What I am facing today is a fight between beauty and reality.
I am working on a housing project of 140 apartments built along the river, in the center city of Paris. As for its location, the project is pretty political: there are not that many new private housing projects of that size in the “City of Lights”.
A famous architect from Berlin won the competition and against his will, the real estate firm hired us, a little parisian architecture studio, to lead the building process. The conception architect comes from time to time to follow the process and to remind us, as scornfully as possible, how better they are than us. They don’t trust us in properly doing the job and look like secretly accusing us, even before the start, to already accept compromises and alterations on the building. They come regularly to keep an eye on us, and be sure that the concept stays intact, and pure.
The question here is about purity of architecture, savagely ripped off by reality on the building site. I am the witness of harsh discussions between the architect and the construction company, which is one of the biggest in France. The architect fights “body and soul” to keep the details as he drew them. The builders try to propose solutions for the detail to become possible in real life, or to make cuts in the budget. The problem might come from these two different reasons being mixed up. The architect is over-defensive, always doubting the firm’s intentions. He might be right, as the ones facing the table are cunning ones.
The developer, playing us like dolls, asks us to be harsh on one side or the other, whether preferring the interest of the project as it was “bought” to the construction firm, whether opting for cost cuts and time savings.
In the end, all is about money. How much is this, how long takes that, what’s my benefit to do this for you. Only the architect cares about his baby and is stubbornly convinced that it shall never change a thing. It is as if coming to maturity would suddenly be possible without doing compromises, without loosing innocence, without pieces of you becoming something you didn’t expect.
Of course, as immorality and bad intentions must never invade our heart, money concerns and easy shortcuts should not remodel the architectural project. We, as architect and educated to protect beauty, are employed at this aim. Still, as my all-star professor would say, “the good architect is compelled to flexibility and humility”, he doesn’t possess absolute knowledge and needs others to get the project from imagination to the real world. Unfortunately, dreams are far away from building for real and still need to adapt to material and to the bunch of constraints composing reality, which can often resume to money in the end. As a craftsman said to me once, “everything is possible on earth… you just have to pay the price.”
These questioning of the project is usually over once we start the building process. But when it is not, the architect goes on conceiving the project on site. Choices need to be made, solutions need to be found, the unexpected is to be faced. The building then becomes a dexterous composition, by architect and builder together, to be as beautiful, clever, and nice to live in, as possible.
We might not all have the same level of appreciation for the word “possible”, as we sometimes meet those old architects, tired and disillusioned, who gave up the fight. Maybe that is why architects necessarily are so full of themselves. This would be the only way to accept the best from yourself and not give up too much of your creation, not even the details. The pride sort of protects the dream and its core. Why is reality so hard on us? Why is it necessarily so difficult to get things done as neatly as we would do it ourselves? I guess the answer is large, and is a bit of everything. It is a bit of us expecting too much (well, this is what makes humankind so fascinating!) and it is a bit of them being ruled by other concerns than beauty, such as time and money (in a capitalist western society, what did you expect, dummy?).
What is the value of beauty then ?