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Monday, September 7, 2009


On Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects

Bernard Rudofsky’s picture book, Architecture Without Architects, is a delight to page through. It consists mainly of pictures with brief commentary showing what people who have no university training in the design of buildings actually build. The illustrations are intended to illustrate more than just the buildings themselves. They also illustrate the ideas Rudofsky expresses in words in his preface to the collection of pictures.

In the preface, Rudofsky (himself a trained architect) justifiably belittles professional architects, most of whom “are concerned with problems of business and prestige”. He describes the lessons to be learned from “non-pedigreed architecture” – what people build for their own use and enjoyment when left to themselves. First of all he points out that “The untutored builders in space and time… demonstrate an admirable talent for fitting their buildings into the natural surroundings. Instead of trying to ‘conquer’ nature, as we do, they welcome the vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography.” Certainly, a capacity to create our spaces within the living environments that surround us, to actively participate in these environments rather than battling them, is essential to discovering new ways of living beyond civilization.

I found it particularly interesting when I read these lines: “A town that desires to be a work of art must be as finite as a painting, a book, or a piece of music.” I am not interested in creating towns as such, but when I dream of how the world might be decivilized, I imagine space-times in which large groups of people may come together to share knowledge, stories, gifts and skills, a situation in which chance encounters can easily occur. Not only would the space of these temporary “towns” be finite, but so would the time. In fact, they would be more like festivals, carnivals or powwows. But their creativity and beauty would depend precisely on their finitude.

Rudofsky is no friend of Progress. He recognizes that it has not improved the art of building, because it has suppressed the art of living. This process has occurred as a result of the fragmentation that makes specialization the norm in this society. Fragmented life can only be ugly as it attempts to force its unconnected pieces into an artificial order. The capacity for bricolage (the art of putting a whole together from seemingly random bits and pieces – the art of collage applied to fulfilling the needs and desires of everyday life), which will certainly be needed in the process of decivilizing life, can only grow from a wholeness of life that industrial/post-industrial capitalism perpetually undermines.

This wholeness develops when individuals grasp their lives as creative projects that weave together with the projects of others. It provides the basis for a world in which the “general welfare” as an aspect of the welfare of each individual can put an end to the domination of profit and capitalist Progress. Not that Rudofsky is a radical. Rather he seems to be a utopian liberal. He believes (or at least hopes) that things could be done differently within this society to make it more humane. Still his emphasis on building as the ongoing, spontaneous, collective activity of people creating their lives together is itself a challenge to the atomized, specialist world of the state and capitalism, and so opens the door to broader vistas.

The pictures that make up most of the book illustrate the points Rudofsky makes in his introduction and, furthermore, offer amazing evidence of how beautifully people can build without the help of experts. As a whole, the book illustrates the potential for human creativity that makes the dreams of anarchists seem like real possibilities, even the dreams of those who desire a world beyond civilization.

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