Architecture and Obedience
Updated: Oct 28
We generally think and do as we are told by authority, or by mass momentum (which comes first, or if they’re interchangeable, I’m not sure.) This is particularly true for architecture. This occurred to me when, coincidentally, I was watching the film ‘Experimenter’ and I was forwarded a manifesto by the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia (thanks Travis). I may never have considered the relationship of these ideas prior, but the timing was good. The Experimenter is about Stanley Milgram and his psychological theories on obedience. The Agentic State summarizes our tendency to obey authority, even when confronted with a moral dilemma. We pass responsibility on to the authority figure. More on the Milgram experiments here. The truth in this may not be so extreme as to explain how the Nazis were able to perpetrate the Holocaust, as suggested by Milgram, but it clearly pervades our psychology. It persists in our need to angrily cling to historic architectural styles, and Sant’Elia’s writing describes why we shouldn’t look to history, or authority, when creating architecture.
To begin, a summary of Stanley Milgram’s theory: The essence is that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument that is simply carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. This can, I might suggest, lead us not just past notions of right and wrong, but beautiful and ugly. The Milgram experiments allowed the ‘teacher’ to be influenced by authority on what they ‘must’ do. The ‘learner’ had to be taught, even if it meant inflicting pain, possibly death. It is much easier to imagine something less consequential, such as aesthetics, to be controlled by authority. Notions of ugly are simply a matter of assumed authority, as demonstrated so well in this passage from the futurist Antonio Sant’Elia: The house of concrete, glass and steel, stripped of paintings and sculpture, rich only in the innate beauty of its lines and relief, extraordinarily “ugly” in its mechanical simplicity, higher and wider according to need rather than the specifications of municipal laws.
Notable is his separation of need and law. He is suggesting that ‘ugly’ is being deemed so by governmental authority, and denies the truth of that notion. He presents the concept that there is more to beauty than simply what we are told. In further contradiction to authority, he denied the notion that nature and machines are in opposition. He derives need, and perhaps being, from another notion of who we are as humans and our connections to the machines we’ve created (see our posts on ‘Making with Machines’ and ‘Living is a Machine for Architecture’). Simply put, all that is ‘artificial’ has come from us: That, just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created, and of which architecture must be the most beautiful expression, the most complete synthesis, the most efficacious integration; And in concluding on this point: That architecture as the art of arranging forms according to pre-established criteria is finished.
Drawing by Sant’Elia
Which in many ways brings us to our current situation. As often as architects are asked to do it, arranging forms according to pre-established criteria is in many ways finished. It is impossible to replicate the past, but moreover, there is no need to do so. We can be free, creating without restraint. But so often, we don’t take, or even see this opportunity. We have come to understand that everyone is an artist. Given the expanse of new creative freedoms, why cling to the past? I would suggest fear is the barrier. Sant’Elia recognized the possibilities if we could break free of the past: That by the term architecture is meant the endeavor to harmonize the environment with Man with freedom and great audacity, that is to transform the world of things into a direct projection of the world of the spirit; From an architecture conceived in this way no formal or linear habit can grow, since the fundamental characteristics of Futurist architecture will be its impermanence and transience. Things will endure less than us. Every generation must build its own city. This constant renewal of the architectonic environment will contribute to the victory of Futurism which has already been affirmed by words-in-freedom, plastic dynamism, music without quadrature and the art of noises, and for which we fight without respite against traditionalist cowardice.
Incredibly this suggests, through the words ‘impermanence’ and ‘transience’, that even what we think of today will erode in time, and embraces it. Perhaps the fear we experience is tied to the fear of mortality, or irrelevance, or that there is no real truth. In any case, we won’t last forever. Why cling to the past, to the idea that we ought to be immortal? We can be in the now, and appreciate that which we have been given. This means we embrace the present, and look to the future. We do not need to ask our children to owe us (or blame us) for our legacy but allow them to create their own. We are not responsible to them, we are responsible to ourselves. Ultimately, it may be a matter of self-respect.
It has been noted that Sant’Elia’s work was used as the underpinnings for fascist architectural forms around the time of World War II. (Sant’Elia was killed in the fighting during World War I; ironically the technological future about which he was so optimistic produced the killing machine that ended his life.) But this clearly was not his message. He did not want an architecture of control, or of permanence. It is plain to me that he believed architecture should be a response to its time, and to a hope for the future. He believed that architecture is not beholden to the past, and should not be, no matter what the authorities tell you.