|Lego Advertisement, c.1980 (source)
When I was a child, like so many others I built little Lego cities. And like so many others, I filled these cities with buildings of all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors. Blue towers that zigged. Yellow houses that zagged. Round buildings. Square buildings. Blobby buildings, stepped buildings and pyramids. The possibilities were endless and, when successful, awarded by the jury of 8-year-olds that ever-coveted title: cool.
As evinced by the shortlists of international design competitions, the covers of major design publications, and the overall output of many of today’s best-known practices, ours is an age of ‘cool’ architecture. Not Robert Mitchum cool, mind you. Unlike that actor’s famously understated performances, today’s coolest work—typified by new forms, structures, materials, and a host of other novelties—is anything but relaxed and easy. Rather, ‘cool’ today usually means what it did to the kids in our mid-1980s youth: fresh, wild, exciting, unpredictable…
Perhaps it’s time for architecture to grow up a bit.
|Promotional image from Rebel Without a Cause, 1955 (source)
To be cool one must remain aloof. This is a near impossibility in architecture, as the discipline demands that designers take a position within the discourse. While some architectural agendas hint at ambiguity—Rem Koolhaas’ generic approach or current West Coast trends towards producing amorphous affects—these are highly constructed and as a result they form distinct niches within the larger discourse. These niches must be defended from competing agendas, which can produce tensions that make it difficult to remain cool.
As a result, maintaining a relaxed demeanor is something that architects and their buildings regularly struggle with. Aside from inclinations towards bouts of drama, a lack of ease extends into the production of architecture, which is arguably labor intensive at all stages from conception, to materialization, to construction.
However, the labor that develops detail can also have the opposite effect. The specialized character of certain forms of architectural practice can make it difficult to access, as it tends to detach and distance itself from more mainstream design. As its scope narrows, architecture may find itself losing a few degrees on the hot-cold spectrum.
As coolness embraces a certain looseness, it rejects conformity and supports an individual’s ability to stand out. The rare moments when architecture does manage to successfully achieve cool status is when it produces novelties. This is a tenuous brand of cool however, as fashions change and innovations become conventional with time.
Erandi de Silva
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