Community and Architecture
People have an intrinsic psychological need to exist within a community. Community building, however, is not sufficient in itself; cooperation has to be maintained constantly. According to the ethologist Vilmos Csányi: “Communities are held together by three things: their members organise joint activities, they have shared beliefs, and they create common social constructs. As long as these three things are present, a fourth comes into play: loyalty to the community. These, together, are what give rise to a community.” All four of these elements are connected in some way to construction, as the means of making a place fit for habitation – for evidence of this, we need look no further than a well-known, yet highly complex joint activity, the ‘kaláka’, where the members of a community work together to complete a major task, such as bringing in the harvest or building a house.
In the public mind and in public discourse today, architecture is often depicted as some kind of lofty and mystical intellectual property, which – despite being a part of our everyday lives – is viewed by most people from a distance, as something to be marvelled at in the course of our travels or while leafing through the pages of glossy magazines. Internet search engines also flash up similar interpretations; on the one hand architecture is presented as a branch of the arts, and on the other a science or discipline of engineering. These definitions originate from the classical concept of culture formed during the age of the Enlightenment, and they continue to be used today by public consensus, while a growing number of individual interpretations are being articulated, and the content of their meaning expands considerably. Without going into the complexities of these, let us just accept that every era defines architecture as a part of culture, and as such, something that changes in space and time. By now, the changes have accelerated spectacularly, and inevitably this is also altering our conceptions with regard to architecture.
The relationship between humankind and its environment today is being shaped by three dramatic changes: population growth, climate change and the technological revolution. These are three, partially known yet highly complex phenomena. Each one has already occurred in history (sometimes repeatedly), and its appearance has always led to a major cultural shift. One example is the change in lifestyle that followed the ice age, the settling that was a prerequisite for the agrarian lifestyle, and which permitted forward-looking, careful planning, the accumulation and redistribution of reserves in both an intellectual and material sense. It was this change that also led to the establishment of permanent settlements, which developed into the first towns; and thus architecture emerged as the framework of community life. But equally profound cultural shifts also resulted from literacy, and later the introduction of the printing press or the series of industrial and technological revolutions underway in the present.
The intensive population growth at global level (with a decline in certain countries) has fundamentally altered societies, and continues to do so. It is still only February at the time of writing, but according to the online population counter, the Earth’s population has increased by more than thirteen million souls so far this year. In addition to those of us who are already here, this country-load of people also demand subsistence, and living space in the finite biosphere. The narrowing of living space is a reality, both in relative and absolute terms. In the former sense it is caused by the increase in population density; and in the latter by the change in climate, as habitats are eliminated by droughts or flooding. The new technologies can beneficially assist with some of the difficulties, but elsewhere they cause damage and generate new problems. An unforeseeable future is presaged, for example, by the emergence of virtual communities organised via data networks, and the phenomenon of the “single-person community” (Csányi).
Architecture is partly a cause, and partly a victim of the changes. A cause, because while serving the constantly arising new needs of humanity is a necessity, construction in itself is a harmful activity for the environment as a whole. Almost 40% of Europe’s energy consumption is accounted for by buildings, while the built environment is responsible for 36% of carbon-dioxide emissions. A victim, because instead of following its own, rational (inherent) logic, it functions in accordance with systems of rules, on the mitigation of the damage it causes, that are increasingly aligned with the interests of lobby groups. According to the American political scientist Patrick J. Deneen, moving beyond the age of ideologies, there is a need for community thought in which good practices, the rediscovery of culture, and reliance on the micro-community fulfil the leading role. I believe that the architecture of common sense, which has concerned me for almost a decade now, can be related to these ideas. It is my conviction that – as in the case of art and science in general – the approach to architecture that is based on a classical education no longer has exclusivity. We have entered a new era, in which the relationship between humankind and its environment is driven by a logic that differs from those of the past. It is clear that the social changes taking place in the world also have architectural consequences, and the exhibition unit presented in the context of the National Salon of Architecture provides snapshots of three key aspects of these.
Architecture and education: focusing on children
Developing sensitivity and responsibility towards the natural and built environment is essential in order for architecture to be understood by society. Ideally, the proper definition of objectives and choice of tools for achieving them should be born of a cooperation that presupposes dialogue between the community and the architects. An ability to do this is one of the most effective ways of ensuring the presence of architects in public education with the aim of shaping attitudes. As a part of this, teaching critical thinking is just as important as developing creative abilities and engaging in joint activities. In the centre of all this lie the children, with their openness, curiosity and untrained nature, in the positive sense of the word. This receptive state leaves space for the world of discoveries and realisations to flood in, and fills the soul with joy; the experiences gained in this way are indispensable tools of learning. Ultimately, architecture itself is about discovery, the exploration and forming of our own selves, and of our social and natural environment. Activity and adventure have a special importance in this process.
Community building: focusing on the creator
Here the community is primarily seen as a creative group, which interprets construction as an exercise and sequence of actions that strengthens internal cohesion, consciousness, and self-identity, without losing sight of social utility. These projects are excellent intellectual workshops for the self-formation of creative communities, experimentation and the creation of new schools of thought, which have an unquestionably positive impact on community thinking. A particularly fine example of joint thinking by and architect and a community made up of clients is the flagship Prezi office building. Its unique design method, known as “unfinished design”, is as innovative as the building itself.
Solidaric architecture – focusing on the community of users
This category is comprised of groups that cooperate with the primary aim of looking after, improving and maintaining the built environment of a community in need. The concept of architectural quality has an entirely different connotation here: in place of the classic artistic and aesthetic approach to architecture, the aspects of goodness and rightness are dominant. This is the category of solidaric architecture. Due its social sensitivity, it is often referred to as social architecture; but perhaps the frameworks of this exhibition make it possible to understand the use of the these two names and the subtle differences between them. The meaning of solidaric is closer to “accepting and cooperative”, which are not necessarily a form of operation expected only in relation to questions of social sensitivity.
There is no doubt that architecture has numerous scientific and artistic aspects. Nonetheless, I believe that architecture is neither a science nor an art, but a broad network of relationships encompassing all forms of individual and community life, which extends through space and time, and carries the opportunity for synthesis. Architecture, as a synthesising force, has the responsibility, and opportunity, to create a living space that is capable of alleviating the increasingly visible tensions of the present day. As we further develop this idea, the role of architecture inevitably becomes more nuanced. A new approach is beating a path for itself, one that foregoes the primacy of the aesthetic judgment of architecture and the unconditional central role of the “author”, and places the idea of the community and cooperation in the focus of attention. This path is characterised by strong empathy, and its roadsigns are engineering expertise and common sense.
Mihály Balázs DLA