Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Media & Architecture: Reading Response for 4/22

The readings for this week were a little bit different. We read from a couple of novels, which was fitting because the theme of this week is architecture's relationship to the book and the printed page. Distinctly removed from the printed work we talked about last week, the zines and publications, books are a solid work like any stone building. They stand on their own as monolithic accomplishments.

I've read a great many books, I hope to read many more books, and yet there are still so many books out there that I don't even know to seek out. I have always wanted to read Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and this week we read the second chapter. I'll have to run out to Strand and buy a copy because the chapter we read was simply fascinating. Hugo talks about architecture as the great art of mankind prior to the invention of the printed word, which he goes on to say will "kill" architecture. Now he obviously doesn't mean this in the most literal sense, but I find his argument distilled in the following quote:

The great accident of an architect of genius may happen in the twentieth century, like that of Dante in the thirteenth. But architecture will no longer be the social art, the collective art, the dominating art. The grand poem, the grand edifice, the grand work of humanity will no longer be built: it will be printed.

As we have seen through our study of architecture and media, Hugo's prophecy has more or less come true. Architecture in the 20th century focused almost exclusively on the private home and the corporate headquarters. With a few deviations here or there this is pretty much the rule. Through media like magazines, radio, television and now the internet and beyond we have cultivated an architecture which is infinitely more personal than the classical architecture Hugo calls "the great book of humanity." We no longer create great buildings to awe and inspire, we create buildings to turn a profit or show off our wealth. As Hugo says, the most inspiring works to come out of the 20th century were "printed"...or I would also argue photographed, recorded, filmed and programmed.

We have been somewhat removed from the arduous work of building the monument, the temple, the castle and have internalized our collective aspirations, dreams and beliefs. Instead of experienced them in the Parthenon or the cathedral we want to see them on the screen, listen to them in a song or read them in a book. Architecture was not killed in the strictest sense, but it was all but rendered impotent to move and inspire us. We will see great buildings as long as we still have great architects with us. They will remain works of art, but as Hugo says, never again will they be "the total art."

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