Architecture for its own sake

Architect Sam Kebbell of KebbellDaish Architects finds a silver lining in the recession and the Canterbury earthquake as he ponders the positive effects of encouraging experimentation in our built environment. 

Building Culture 

At one level, architecture is an instrument for making culture. Making culture happens at all sorts of levels: companies are constantly trying to build and maintain a certain culture, and very often bricks and mortar are a vital component of it. Similar objectives often underlie the construction of a new home, even if they are less overtly stated. As an architect, getting one’s head around the priorities and values of any given culture is one of the most satisfying intellectual tasks of the job. Architecture is an instrument for customizing different cultural environments for different groups of people at different times in different places. 

Recessions and Theory

Recessions though, are often periods when architectural culture itself can move forward in leaps and bounds without the pressing requirements of a client’s needs. To extend the metaphor, it is a good time to rethink the instrument itself and conduct some critical experiments. The Oil Crisis of the 1970’s, and consequential lack of commercial work for architects, helped produce an enormous boom for experimentation and architectural theory in the United States and the issues raised then form a large part of the thinking in architecture schools now.

Experimental Houses

Many of the experiments were conducted on houses: sometimes never built, but very often they were. Houses did, for a large part of the twentieth century, dominate the notable architectural experiments of Modern Architecture’s evolution: Villa Savoye, the Farnsworth House, Falling Water, the Eames’ House, Eisenman’s Ten Houses, Hejduk’s Nine Square Grid experiments and so on. Houses are a good building type to experiment with because they are culturally complex but relatively simple in many other ways. 

New Zealand Houses

New Zealand architecture is well regarded internationally for its houses, more so at least, than its public buildings. There are many good houses by New Zealand architects from Gummer and Ford, Gray Young, and Chapman Taylor to Miles Warren, Ian Athfield’s houses of the 1970’s, and the many brilliant houses of the last few decades. By and large, New Zealanders like a good new house and architects have generally been pretty good at delivering them. 

New Zealand Experiments

New Zealand is not well known around the world, however, as a hotbed of theoretically bent experimental practicing architects; but it could be. Almost all of us have at least been introduced to architectural theory at architecture school. We have a tradition of house building that is robust enough to take on critical thought, we have a beautifully presented recession which has freed up time for at least some architects, and we have just had a massive earthquake in our second biggest city. This is to say, we have plenty to think about and plenty of time to think about it. It is a good time to exhibit, write, critique, hypothesize, explain, provoke, and extend. It could turn out to be a brilliant few years of Architecture for its Own Sake.