09 August 2010

Why Architecture Matters

From a distance, one might hardly deny the beauty of the skyline of Hong Kong. But from up above, the landscape of Hong Kong, surprisingly, evokes a sense of architectural pessimism. Rather than presenting to us the aesthetic equivalent of the skyline of Hong Kong Island, an overwhelming number of skyscrapers invites us to the possibility of reconciling two values that seem to be inherently incompatible on one single landscape, depending on how one views it.

If our appreciation of architecture has been hampered, it is perhaps because it runs counter to the ideals of a financial city. To care about a field that achieves so little, yet consumes so many resources, is to risk harbouring in us an idea that artistic merits don't always necessarily align with economic reward. After all, a beautiful work of architecture, whatever its moral messages are, doesn't always make us better. How six million of Jews could have been spared of their lives if beauty could command Hitler to emulate its spirits of what an utopia might be like.

If architecture has failed to change us, it is because there is hardly an objective criterion for beauty. The beauty of a work of architecture is largely based on persuasion, instead of forcing us to adopt the values it suggests, it only offers suggestions, rather than laws, which we are not obliged to follow. But in the age that only makes room for certainty, that only gives birth to people whose thinking is critically dependent on traditions, customs, and taboos, it seems architecture lacks the authoritative status to order how we should live.

It is, perhaps, why the property developers, whose minds only bear the notion of profit, in Hong Kong are carpeting the landscape with utilitarian style of buildings, office buildings and apartment buildings alike, whose every window is of the same size, whose every floor offers no improvisation, and whose the exterior displays a lack of the use of a variety of construction materials. Though we rarely wish to be blown away by novelty, their obsession of order provokes in us not a feeling of admiration, but rather, a feeling of condemnation, as a proper response to their tedium. How much I feel sorry for the people of Hong Kong who always work in the compressed environment of corporate waters, and after a long day of work, come home to see this. How easily our wish to escape from the monotonous everyday rituals may be wiped out by their insensitive aesthetic logic.

If the power of architecture only lies in persuasion, it doesn't necessarily mean it lacks the power to change us. What is valuable about a work of architecture is precisely that it only offers suggestions, rather than exciting our admiration with indisputable evidence, it merely suggests a way of living that might differ from our own, about how we might live and what we might become. To learn to appreciate persuasion is to understand the art of entertaining doubt. Our reluctance to be sceptical largely stems from an exaggerated sense of what we can achieve and that the world must be composed of black and white, nothing more. We are most hurt by what is most unexpected because we have obsessively clung to the idea of absolute certainty. Our frame of mind is either endowed with undue optimism or undue pessimism which makes no allowance for the idea of probability, rendering inherently complex human behaviours so simple.

The most precious value of architecture therefore lies not in its functionality, but in allowing us to speculate what may on the surface seem so certain and promising. It equips us with a rather pleasant form of cynicism, the sort that wrests us out of delusion instead of destroying all our hopes in human nature. It won't pull us away from taking sides, yet leaves us to remain fresh open to new evidence.

The sentiment that what has been happening in Hong Kong provokes in us is the outcome of our inability to admire the merits of doubt. The fear of Shanghai and Peking might one day take over Hong Kong, the illusion of "One Country Two System", the betrayal of the Democratic Party, and the incapability of the League of the Social Democrats, all these disappointments stem from the naive romanticism we have invested in our political future that one day we might be as capable as the British.

If we are to escape such naivety, we may have to arrive at a more charitable assessment of architecture. It is not necessarily an indication of self-indulgence and our social status. Many great religions understand the significance of architecture and use it to subordinate people to attend to certain beliefs that depart from the norm in light of persuasion. If architecture aligns with our personal ideals of what a good life should be, it might help plant the seeds for creative originals rather than obedient drones.


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