Colombo Telegraph

Salvaging Socialism: The Role Of The Architect

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody –

Ruwan Jayakody

Architecture is the production of an idea, the physicality of which envelopes the lives of all who function within the interior and exterior spaces and fabrics of built environments comprised of various building types and construction projects including stationary human habitation forms, designed and constructed through heterogeneous processes. In addition, there is also the physical environment created by civil engineering. 

In seeking to better articulate this idea of architecture against the backdrop of a universal right to housing, it can be said that in the context of the role of the architect, the forager and the scavenger intersect. The forager rummages among the detritus while the scavenger scalps the carrion, both, for purposes of nourishment. 

In this context, dominated by urbanisation and globalisation, much has rightfully been made in architecture regarding the needs and plans of both, the client and the architect, as consumers:- concerning resources; services; the geographical and regional character of lands; locations and the placement of buildings; materiality and the adoption of materials including recyclable and biodegradable, recycled and second-hand items and materials, architectural salvage and reclaimed material, low-impact building materials, and man-made products including partially or completely synthetic ones; the practice of reusing and recycling; the biology of buildings; the origins of architecture; elements including structural components; languages; proportion; syntax; expressions; references; objectives; spatiality and structure; geometrics; sizes and scales; shapes; forms; patterns; models; systems; design methodologies; construction methods and techniques; the supervision of the construction of buildings; installations; estimations; cost accounting and management, purchase prices of building materials, energy and ecological costs, and social costs; the utilisation of energies and their flow; energy efficiency and self-sufficiency; cost-effective building; low energy or zero energy, and centralised energy; carbon neutrality; renewable energy for power generation; passive buildings; the use of technologies and computational techniques; traditions; norms; customs; practices; manifestations; motifs; styles or ways – national and international; theories; principles and philosophies; perceptions; perspectives; relationships; standards; consistencies; contemporariness; quality; liveability; trends; legislation; rules and regulations; building codes and controls; environmental and material sustainability; durability; feasibility; practicality; environmental friendly and green buildings; economic and organic looking designs; footprints – carbon and ecological; size and maintenance; waste management including disposal and rainwater collection; and environmental benefits; among a host of others. 

Yet combined with wealth, most of these concerns have become anachronisms symptomatic of a new breed of greed and the flaunting of temporarily acquired wealth. 

What are the roles of the contractors (clients) and the producers (architects) as members aspiring to the intelligentsia, in a country that purports to be a democratic, socialist republic? What ideas and concepts are to be communicated to the client through the architectural brief? What must they force humanity to see? 

Firstly, the architect as the creator of both order and beauty, must exercise restraint with regard to the client’s requirements. What is practiced in short however is that when there is the articulation of even the slightest offence taken by the architect at a wanton display of wealth or waste and the architect subsequently intends to save the client’s wealth, a very shaky premise by itself, such expression if articulated is almost never to prove a point concerning the economics of scale even though it is made out as such, but to instead make a point about the practice of architecture. 

It is fashionable to make a denouement of a certain brand of architecture, defined, venerated and even denounced under the umbrella terms of – modern regional architecture in the tropics, regionalism, tropical regionalism, Sri Lankan regionalism, neo-regionalism and/or new regionalism and tropical modernism – for it stinks of class and reeks of the monied; a faux world bloated from excess. It is an architecture of money for the monied, which is to be rejected and dismissed not just as elitist drivel whose beastly bellies (the interior design) are furnished and embellished by the semiotics of culture through expressions of cultured-ness masquerading and posturing as culture, which are mostly snobbish expressions of so called pseudo-bourgeoisie ‘high’ culture, an architecture bred for the rich by the rich, but also to be rejected and dismissed most importantly because it is a practice of architecture that is certainly not cognizant of the zeitgeist where most architecture is a case of constructing buildings of refuse for the refused by the refused, punctuated purposefully by the abject lack of historical value or interest and elements of style. 

A sense of taste or culture cannot be bought but can only be developed through genuine appreciation stemming from seeking to uphold the experimentation of modernism and its sensibility, and cultivating a sense of irreverence towards what followed it. 

So where does one discover or even recover a new sophisticated portmanteau of a set of values or ideals, where there are none? Architecture is neither an elevated symbol, nor an artefact, nor an aesthetic and nor is it antiquity of faded glory and outmoded value. It is a living, breathing organism. 

Should the ‘salvage dawg (a professional who engages in architectural salvage operations)’ then attempt to salvage from this wreckage of lumbering behemoths of the so-called accomplice generations of De Silva (Minnette), Bawa (Geoffrey) and Gunasekara (Valentine) protégés (including sometimes also the man Bawa himself, in parody), reminders of the country’s individual and perhaps even intellectual preoccupation with nursing and nurturing the collective colonial, post-colonial and neo-colonial hangover? 

Whatever the improvements and usurpations made upon the two originals (De Silva and Bawa) and their iconic iconography by the subsequent tropes of architects, their virtues are near indefinable. No matter how audacious and foolhardy the claim, it may even be possible to declare this style dead. 

For those that followed and are following in footsteps of these giants in their attempt to stand on the shoulders of the giants, the bargain with the anxiety of influence when solitude prevails at the drawing board, has not been a Faustian one. Their sequels to ‘art’ will not be lasting ones. Therefore, by reviving and reinterpreting the past, has the architect given rise to vulgarities and homogeneous in look banalities, which have in turn given rise to the propagation of class values which result in the sense of class or the acquisition of it becoming exacerbated? 

What is genuine in culture and vernacular architecture and what is mere insincere adoration for the indigene, for that which is allegedly our own and ours only? How does one tell the difference? 

A symbiosis must therefore be achieved. Artifices must be stripped bare down to their bare essentials and must then be furnished austerely. Neither the apathy of brutalism nor the excesses of post-modernism and deconstructivism is what is being advocated for here, but simply a sustained effort towards using architecture for the reconciliation of the classes. The architect must destroy beauty, its archetypes and prototypes. The architect must synthesize all classes in the social order of man so that humans in a community live under socialism with none of its trappings. 

Identity is an idea to be violated and transgressed and at all times done violence to. The same is the case with an architectural identity or multiple architectural identities and associated claptrap. The architect’s role is to humble the patron or the client, to literally and metaphorically drag their yearning for an aristocratic order through the mud. The architect must be a purveyor of ideals as opposed to class values. An architecture of refuse composed of refuse. Does the answer lie in the construction material, or does the architect have to undergo unction, through a transgressive confession, through which the architect declares that values are and have been dead, and are useless. The architect’s role is not to stun by creating awe but to humble. To practice this brand of architecture is a form of anarchy and so like the snake sheds its skin, the architect sheds beauty. It is of an architecture composed of ideals instead of values. In salvaging from the wreckage of history, in embracing a material culture of refuse, one is not retelling or reviving one’s past but resurrecting or perhaps even portending of an age of socialism. This is the story of the salvage dawg and the architecture of socialism. The death of architecture will certainly not give rise to humanity or galvanise it or save it from man’s monumental inhumanity, but it will in this case salvage a nation riven on its road to reconciliation.

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