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Overcoming Ambivalence

Jonathan Ochshorn


addition images for ambivalence essay

From left to right: exterior stair to roof deck; view of studio from mezzanine; completed addition with existing house; schematic model of addition and existing house

Architectural design is a process influenced by both abstract ideas (about form) and practical ideas (about reality, including issues of cost, construction, program, structure, energy, etc.), the two sets of ideas often being in conflict. While this tension between appearance (form), necessity (gravity, thermal behavior, and so on), and utility (programming, planning) is part of what gives architecture its charm, it also makes the design process potentially difficult for architects who value both the utilitarian and formal aspects of design. In my case, this difficulty has led to feelings of ambivalence about the design of a residential addition.

Being ambivalent means harboring illusions about the relationship between feelings and logical thought, as if the two are inevitably in conflict. However, of the three overarching architectural design strategies I am aware of, only one necessarily brings artistic feeling into conflict with logical thought. This strategy involves the purposeful distortion of a building's logical form to the point where functionality is compromised. For example, hyper-articulation of a building's programmatic elements — a type of distortion often rationalized in terms of both functionality and expression — may so effectively fix programmatic elements in place that even minor adjustments are difficult to implement. Here, ideas about programmatic "logic" are mined for their expressive potential, but are not themselves taken seriously.

A second strategy is to make architecture by adding something superfluous to a building which is otherwise designed logically with respect to utility and necessity (Ruskin's definition of architecture). Following this strategy adds expense, but only creates a conflict between feeling and logical thought to the extent that spending money for art is considered illogical. I like the idea of other people gratuitously spending money on architecture so that I can then enjoy it at no personal cost, but I'm not inclined to spend my own limited resources in that way.

My ambivalence is therefore only overcome by employing a third strategy: that is, by making architecture out of what is already both necessary and useful, neither harming functionality nor increasing cost. It turns out that many stylistic options already exist under this strategic umbrella, including variations on the traditional wood-framed steep-roofed residential geometry of my existing house. But for various reasons, I choose to design my residential addition in a derivative modernism consisting of simple cubic volumes correctly and magnificently brought together in light.

Still, it is not enough to simply design and build something that makes sense and has recognizable formal attributes. Architecture gains legitimacy in academic circles only when it can be criticized in terms of prevailing attitudes about style. Since my work does not fall within, or contribute to, the rarified discourse of academic criticism, I again have a dilemma bordering on ambivalence: I can either build in a way that makes sense only to me, or I can articulate a critical framework through which the work and its rationale might reach a larger audience.

Having chosen the second path, it becomes apparent that the appropriate literary form for this exercise is not the critical essay, but rather the manifesto. Intolerant of even the slightest hint of ambivalence, the manifesto serves not only as a provocative and efficient means of communication but, in my case, as a form of therapy. In what follows, I use the collective "we" to suggest that more than one person in the world may actually subscribe to these beliefs.


1. The world of private property, in which each person uses his wealth against all others, and in turn is excluded from the private wealth of everyone else, is, of necessity, a world of competition. Architecture is useful for competition. Architecture is not, never was, and can never be revolutionary. Abolishing property as the form of wealth is revolutionary; the rest is nonsense.

2. The state builds buildings, not in opposition to, but as a necessary condition for, private property. Such architecture decorates our lives, much like clothing, but less effectively. A robed judge in a bare room is more impressive than a judge in a tee-shirt sitting in a courthouse. Still, both the robe and the courthouse serve the same purpose: they supply ideological cover for the innumerable tasks necessary to sustain bourgeois life: in this case, the dispensation of justice.

3. Architecture also engages our feelings in other ways. While it is true that feelings engendered by artistic production may be linked to all manner of false consciousness about political life (ideology), and contribute to the usefulness of architecture as a means of competition within the private sphere, we reject the view that feelings about architectural form need be constrained by these factors.

4. So Vitruvius basically had it right: architects provide more than utility ("commodity") and respond to more than what is structurally and environmentally necessary ("firmness"). They also manipulate form and, in doing so, stimulate feelings and coax meaning out of mere appearance ("delight").

5. Architecture that seeks meaning in the willful neglect of utility or necessity is simply foolish, although that is no reason for us not to enjoy it. Unless it actually hurts us personally, we can find delight in all sorts of foolish artistic expression since, and to the extent that, such formal manipulation tickles our imagination, or expresses something interesting about our culture. Still, that is no reason to engage in such foolishness ourselves. We choose only to make architecture that makes sense while parasitically enjoying the whole spectrum of architectural expression.

6. We design things that make sense not out of some moral compulsion, nor out of a wish to change the world by engaging people's feelings, but precisely because we entertain no illusions about the game we are playing. We understand the world through logical reasoning, and extend that discipline to questions of utility and necessity ("commodity" and "firmness"). At the same time, we cultivate our feelings about appearance, since from this source much pleasure ("delight") is derived. But we don't confuse the two types of mental activity.