These ideas started a few months ago when I read Paul Goldberger’s biography of Frank Gehry. I just came across a write up by Witold Rybczynski in Architect magazine that comments on that book and a few others to explore “The Biographers Elusive Quest“. His writing raised several interesting points and questions that I have been considering myself. In particular the question of why so few recent architect biographies have been written, and when they have, why there is so little in the way of explaining what actually drives the architect. The biographies I’m aware of do a great job of describing the work and the history, but I’d really like to know what aspects of their personal and inner lives were brought through into their work.
As an answer to the question of why so few architect biographies, Rybczynski first claims that architecture may just not be that interesting to the general public. This may be true, but not in my casual experience. Design seems to be the one thing that almost everyone has an opinion about, but I suppose not with respect to what anyone else might think about it. And it is true that the architect’s career is somewhat regular and the work and it’s process can be routine. However, I would say most architects have had a great deal of struggle; the profession is volatile and often careers have dramatic swings. He also sites the fact that architecture today is far more complex than it was when Frank Wright or Le Corbusier were practicing. He believes it is much more difficult to explain or parse out who has done what with so many consultants and experts participating in a project.
I would go further and say that in the era of YouTubes and iPhones and apps that create art with the touch of a button, everyone is an artist. And while there may be an artist in all of us, the artist in one person may not necessarily agree with the artist in another. This can be a problem, especially when views on what art is are narrow. It becomes even more problematic in urban settings where all of the artists live next to one another, and their ‘art’ is their own home. While critical debate is essential, an effort to obliterate expression is not particularly useful. On the other hand, it’s a wonderful thing when many voices are expressed and we experience that range. Individual voices need to be heard undiluted to receive the complete picture. Requiring that they be diluted by majority opinions only creates monotony. Which is where we are in most municipalities when it comes to architecture. This muddling of ideas is called design review. Design by consensus makes it even more difficult to parse out the true author of a project. Many parties contribute, and even more lay claim.
In the cases where an architect’s intent appears to remain in tact, Rybczynski concludes that it is difficult to understand, capture or explain where the magic came from. He explains that the personal life of the architect is not apparent in their efforts or theories, and particularly in relationship to the final design product itself. As examples, he sites that Wright running off with his client’s wife doesn’t explain ‘Organic Architecture’ or that Kahn’s polygamy did not explain his ‘chaste’ designs. But what is fascinating and remains unexplored in most biographies, is how the psychology of the subject has affected their work, whether it be in the final product, or in the method for constructing the firm, or any other aspect of their passion. This is disappointing, because it is no small thing. It provides the why of what they did. The motivation for the work. Perhaps Kahn’s chaste architecture was his way of making up for his polygamy, or Wright’s Organic Architecture was derived from the notion that we should simply be true to our nature.
It was once suggested to me that my strategy for adaptive architecture, the transformable, robotic designs in particular, were a direct extension of my personality. I further explored the roots of this personality trait that extended to my childhood. One aspect of that analysis considered that I come from divorced parents. It occurred to me that a great deal of flexibility was required in trying to keep both parties happy, which is what we try to do for our parents in the beginning, as we depend on them for survival. Given that they had very different beliefs, and I was in the middle of them my personality adjusted accordingly. I developed a particular flexibility, which has been a large part of my success and my struggles. In the past I felt victimized by this; today I feel it has made me resilient, and given me a clear path to know when it’s time to set a boundary. I believe the architecture I create is a direct reflection of that psychology.
Interestingly, the drive to success, how ever you may define it, is also closely linked to psychology. Many noteworthy individuals experienced trauma in their childhoods in some form of rejection or abuse. Perhaps we all do. This phenomenon is well documented in the book ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’, but also touched on in many biographies of people who loom large in their fields. It could very easily be assumed that abuse leads to a form of overcompensation; that it drives a need to prove value, to show we are worthy of love. And this is interesting because it speaks to how fundamental love is to us as humans. This may be the underlying paradox of those we consider ‘genius’. In many cases their primary motivation was to be loved, and no amount of fame or success will bring the love that comes from family, friendship, or community.
In conclusion, the biography of the architect is of value to me, if not to anyone else, architect or not. I hope we will see more written on them, and especially more written on their psychological struggles and inner lives than we have in the past. If nothing else, this may give us insight into their successes and failures, and how they connect to more than just the events that occurred and how the public were able to view them. They may begin to inform us on how to see the the things we desire more clearly, and how to shape our own lives around what we truly desire.