The onset of the plague in the winter of 1575 was a recurring nightmare for Venetians, having witnessed numerous outbreaks in previous decades. However, that epidemic was extraordinarily virulent, and by the time it left as mysteriously as it arrived, one in three citizens had died an agonizing death. Whole neighborhoods were littered with corpses. Yet this event, traumatic as it was, would be the impetus for one of Venice’s great architectural treasures: Palladio’s Church of the Santissimo Redentore.
It is a curious thing: So often, inspiring buildings emerge out of or are created because of the tragic need for reinvention. Perhaps their creation reflects our innate desire to survive or our fierce ability to believe in a core set of humanistic values, much as the Venetians were motivated by their belief in the Christian notion of a merciful god. The votive church Il Redentore is at once a statement of man’s humility as well as our ability to persevere, its interior an eloquent essay of light and shadow—that which can be explained, and that which cannot.
While hardly the plague, there is currently a whiff of dystopia in the air: with the recognition that climate change is real and its impact profound; America in the grips of an emotionally stunted president; and ugly sociopolitical legacies resurfacing in Europe, threatening fragile alliances. As makers of our built world, architects and planners should ask these questions: What do we believe in? Can our work suggest a future we all want to be part of?
There is something about being brought to the brink that recalibrates us as architects. Lately, a revisiting of established tropes about the origins of Modernism has led some architectural historians to the realization that the motivations were much simpler—and much more profound. Many of the Modernist masters experienced firsthand the front lines of battle and the destruction of Europe in World War I, a war that that killed an astonishing 7 million citizens and 10 million military personnel. Having seen their world crumble around them, architects as different as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Hans Scharoun came together in an informal group that became known as Der Ring, seeking a way forward.
As a group, they were far less the strident iconoclasts architecture historian Sigfried Giedion would have us believe—they were a group of architects and designers with diverse agendas brought together by a desire to articulate a way forward in a time of inconceivable tragedy.
Twenty years later, and emerging from the tatters of World War II, Japanese architects such as Kunio Maekawa and his disciple, Kenzō Tange, defined a new architecture that fused Shinto Buddhism with elements of Western architecture, creating a delicate, uplifting form of Modernism best exemplified by Tange’s masterpiece, the Tokyo Olympic Arena, a building at once boldly monumental yet intimately human. In Japan as in Europe, the tragic need for reinvention brought about new form-making that exquisitely expressed what it is to be alive at a particular moment in time.
Which brings us to our moment in time. The indicators are not good. The United Nations recently released an exhaustive—and extraordinary—report that paints a stark picture. We have so dramatically altered the earth’s ecosystems that food security and clean water are threatened across the globe. One of the most important findings of the report: “ad hoc” piecemeal solutions will not slow the accelerating rate of degradation, only “transformative changes” with solutions not yet thought of will potentially slow the process.
Yet, we have been slow to respond. William Butler Yeats’ description of postwar Europe seems oddly appropriate today: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The recently completed Hudson Yards, the largest privately developed project in U.S. history, brings together some of the most influential architects practicing today. Ironically pitched in public relations material as “Manhattan, Reinvented,” the result is a frightening solipsistic take on urban life, an island within the island of Manhattan.
All the while, many of the leading architecture magazines no longer publish plans and explanatory diagrams when they publish new buildings, succumbing to the idea of architecture as a Pinterest post, a stylized photo shoot.
Which is not to say there are not many architects and planners striving to meet the challenges we are facing and reinventing how we think about community—Studio Mumbai and RMA Architects in India or Wang Shu in China come to mind—but in the end, are they merely the ad hoc solutions the United Nations warns us about?
The response to the April 15 fire at Notre-Dame de Paris circumscribes the point I want to make. It has been fascinating to read the many poignant remembrances of what that building meant to Christians and agnostics alike—the sheer exhilaration of what it felt like to stand within the great nave. Plundered and reinvented numerous times, each time more noble than the previous, Notre-Dame conveys to a broad spectrum of people a single, profound message: Look at what we are capable of accomplishing.