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Form Ever Follows Courtesy

Sebastián Irarrázaval

Form Ever Follows Courtesy
By Sebastián Irarrázaval -

I want to start with two stories that raise notions regarding the issues behind the title of this essay, “Form Ever Follows Courtesy”: awareness and purpose, which today rest on theoretical and emotionally unstable grounds.

Before telling the two stories, and if I can anticipate a conclusion regarding the orientation that should guide our mission as architects today, I would say that architects no longer must follow the old saying “Form Ever Follows Function” but “Form Ever Follows Courtesy”. Why is that? Because courtesy is the fundamental humane attitude that allows us to negotiate the presence of others. Courtesy organizes and articulates our encounter with the other – with the loved one, the adversary, the familiar and the foreigner. Courtesy teaches us how to handle welcome and rejection. Courtesy teaches us where and when not to touch and the subtle modes of touching. When we are guests, courtesy teaches us how to behave. Courtesy teaches us to see beyond ourselves and into the infinite otherness of others. Courtesy also teaches how to translate their signals. In this regard, we can affirm that to be a good translator (and a good architect) is to be a perfect host. Finally, the notion of courtesy embraces other concepts I will mention during this essay, such as care, coexistence, inclusion, and co-immunity – ideas that are more than necessary to cultivate nowadays.

Casa 2Y, Colico, Cile, 2013 © Felipe Díaz Contardo courtesy Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

These are the stories:

A few years ago, I gave two lectures on timber construction, one in Sicily and the other in Arkansas. The same projects, all done in wood, but different receptions. In Sicily, after finishing the presentation, someone raised their hand and started to insult me for having used timber and killed a thousand trees. They remained enraged even when I explained that I had not used native trees but harvested trees. For them – for good reasons – there was no difference between native and harvested trees. Both were, according to them, living species with the same right to live. Somehow, I felt like a disgusting insect or as if I were wearing a fur coat, and the timber buildings that I was so proud of were mountains of dead elephants. 

In Arkansas, it was the opposite. The lecture took place in an academic seminar on timber construction hosted by the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design of the University of Arkansas and financed by the Arkansas Timber Association. The lecturers considered timber construction the only way to solve the climate crisis. Data abundantly proved that the building industry produces a significant percentage of carbon emissions and that wood not only reduces emissions in the construction process but also stores other people’s emissions. So, the mood of the assembly was an evangelizing enthusiasm to communicate the Divine good news of this chosen material untainted by original sin (concrete and steel are sinners), and with the same capacity as God to wash away other human sins. It made a lot of sense in a culture where religion is vital. Still, it made me suspicious and uncomfortable, especially since outside the auditorium were around 20 commercial stands of the timber industry animating the coffee breaks, and the conference fees were more than generous. To complicate matters further, I have to admit that the territory in Chile where the forest industry thrives and from which all the timber for my building came is viewed by some radical groups as a continuation of the colonization process initiated by the Chilean State against the Mapuche, the original inhabitants of the country’s south. Let us say it is good for the environment but bad for the locals. As you can imagine, I was very confused and unsure of what was good or evil. Because of this unstable moral ground, I declined to sign an international manifesto in favor of wooden construction. I was not the only one, I have to say.

Casa Caterpillar, Lo Barnechea, Cile, 2012 courtesy Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

I mentioned these two stories to underline the following: first, we must recognize that our strategies and methodologies involve ethical assumptions and decisions, and that we are accountable for our knowledge, beliefs and designs. Therefore, awareness is mandatory to separate the rhetorical wheat from the chaff. Second, we must learn to live with guilt because, no matter how we frame our assumptions, somebody will blame us for our actions. After all, as in life, in architecture there is no space for purely inoffensive and neutral performance. We simply must achieve a balance and be aware of our limitations. We must also consider that all living creatures fight for survival (including humans and trees), and that human groups or individuals can behave well and have favorable environmental impacts. For example, harvesting trees to construct buildings and store other people’s carbon emissions in those buildings, is good. If we do not consider this, we would have to worry that, 50 years from now, using timber as a building material would be as politically incorrect as it is wearing a fur coat today. And this would undoubtedly be an irrational and fatal error.

These personal stories also show how important it is to guide our actions through awareness founded in data. Steps should not be based exclusively on romantic, subjective and irrefutable beliefs (let us say the rights of trees) but on the concrete consequences of concrete actions. For example, facts show that timber construction does reduce and store carbon emissions, and armed with an awareness of these facts, we are justified in saying that we are on the right track to preserve the life of the planet, including that of trees. Of course, there is a moral dilemma here: some trees have to die to preserve the Earth if we keep growing. It is true that some propose cutting back on our economy as the only solution to the environmental crisis. But this takes us in another direction.

Biblioteca pubblica di Constitución, Cile, 2015 © Felipe Díaz Contardo courtesy Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

Given what I have said, we can affirm that whatever project selected will be the product of the possibilities and restrictions posed by the following:

1. A problem
2. The means at hand to solve that problem
3. A sense of purpose that leads, orients and restricts the use of those means

Regarding the first – the problem – the challenge is evident and linked to the fact that the planet’s survival is at risk, and the risk is twofold: physical and social. Therefore, a climate urgency also brings social intemperance, since the two are interconnected. However, climate change creates economic, social and mental health challenges that are opportunities for new approaches to design. For the second – the means – our tools have always been a set of words (walls, doors, floors, roofs, windows, etc.). As to the third – the purpose – the means at hand must be arranged following patterns or orientations that are both ethical and esthetic. 

Modernism followed the dogma coined by Louis Sullivan: “Form Ever Follows Function”. Now, however, it seems that the creed should rather be: “Form Ever Follows Courtesy”. Whatever the latter implies, we know that form can no longer adhere to a mechanistic dogma. Why is that? Because the mechanical metaphor posed by Modernity is no longer helpful to figure out and prefigure the only possible world we are confined to live in. Modernism’s approach does not help us understand the telluric shifts in tastes, values, and, ultimately, the new ways of living that have arisen today, some of which are connected with what is known as “eco-anxiety”.

Padiglione Valparaiso, XIX Biennale di Architettura e Urbanistica del Cile, 2015 © Cristobal Palma courtesy Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

For the Spanish philosopher Eugenio Tras, these changes in taste are what explains why, in the universe of music, Beethoven’s “shares” have lost value while the shares of Mozart are on the rise. Today’s popular taste is less prone to black-and-white configurations and more to trans, gray and blurred forms. Less inclined to a “male” epic of conquering and more disposed to a “female” narrative of caring. More open to viewing boundaries as territories where binary and mutually exclusionary oppositions no longer exist.  These kinds of inclusionary thoughts would, for example, explain the new ways of naming things and situations that prefigure new realities, such as the verb co-habit, which explains why Berlin is now the city with the most biodiversity on the planet, surpassing the countryside where exclusionary monoculture practices have reduced it. The same can be said of using “different abilities” rather than “disabilities”. It also creates a new universe in which differences are accepted, and different cognitive habits coexist. We must remember the strength of language.

Running counter to all this is the mechanistic creed “Form Ever Follows Function”, i.e., the use of a unique form for each function and meaning, such as a street only for cars, a path only for pedestrians, windows just for seeing, windows for light, and windows for ventilation only. The different grammatical configurations for every activity and institution of “Form Ever Follows Courtesy” suggests not exclusion but inclusion in the form of coexistence. The notions of coexistence and care are paramount if we look at what is published in well-respected, indexed architectural magazines. 

Juan Luis Undurraga Integral Stimulation Center, complesso multifunzionale per bambini, Talagante, Cile, 2020 © Cristobal Palma courtesy of Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

On the one hand, coexistence is valued for promoting the interconnection of habitats, co-inhabitants and habits in the context of the dichotomies of nature and city, humans and non-humans, the natural and the artificial. Plants rather than machines emerge. As a result, plants are now regarded as the king of metaphors, foreshadowing, and acting on the world. I am not an expert on plant behavior and cannot go any deeper into the subject without the risk of being superficial, but the only thing that I can say is that coexistence and co-habitation open the question of intercultural communication and, therefore, the need for translation. Since, to live is, after all, to communicate, and since biodiversity is the diversity of languages, the creation of symbolic value necessarily needs to consider the translation between different languages. If we are to seriously consider coexistence as an enriching opportunity for a better life, we must address translation. So, the final question – if we assume that not only living species but also inanimate objects communicate – is with whom architecture must communicate in a post-humanist world, and how the transition from one medium to the other will be carried out. Beyond that, new philosophical trends such as object-oriented ontology (OOO) are addressing the communication of inanimate objects in a world where humans are no longer, as Heidegger put it, the only thinking entities. 

Juan Luis Undurraga Integral Stimulation Center, complesso multifunzionale per bambini, Talagante, Cile, 2020 © Cristobal Palma courtesy of Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

This poses new challenges for architecture regarding, for example, the processes of the symbolic production of identity and belonging. Who are the recipients of our future projects? Will our projects have to speak three languages simultaneously: of humans and those with different abilities, of plants, and of machines? Are these languages to be perceived visually, or are they merely chemical and therefore invisible to us? Soon, an ecological corridor for both rabbits and foxes will be necessary if we are to accomplish our ethical mission responsibly. Much more will be expected of us if we want to avoid a public outcry against us.

On the other hand, the concept of care, often fueled by emotional reactions to irrefutable catastrophic facts and eco-anxiety, soothes our extreme and unprecedented sense of vulnerability. It is generally agreed that anxiety-related risks exacerbate health and social inequalities among those vulnerable to these psychological impacts. There is evidence of this sense of fragility not only in Olympic athletes who, in the name of mental health and self-preservation, renounce the Beethovenian call to conquer, but also in the creation of Ministers of Happiness and Ministers of Solitude, and in the diverse urban strategies developed to embrace vulnerability through the so-called “Politics of Care”, like those implemented in the Madrid City of Care plan aimed at improving citizens’ quality of life by implementing simple strategies such as the prevention of unwanted loneliness, overcoming the disadvantages of everyday life, and wellness at the end of life. This fragility was accentuated in the recent past by the Covid-19 pandemic. Vulnerability made us aware that architecture’s primary role is to offer immunity against disease and death, and that living together means creating co-immunity, as posited by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. This concept of community as co-immunity implies that we must prioritize physical and mental self-preservation in our mission.

Scuola di design e istituto di studi urbanistici, Pontificia Università Cattolica del Cile, Santiago, Cile, 2010 © Cristobal Palma courtesy Sebastián Irarrázaval Arquitectos

If there is any conclusion to what I have exposed above, it is that the saying “Form Ever Follows Courtesy” is a call for awareness. First, awareness of our condition as beings defined by limits: ethical limits that frame our knowledge and actions, and technical limits that define our spheres of immunity for self-preservation. Beyond that, we must conclude that self-preservation actions must unfold within the boundaries of the architectonic body and be guided by the notion of care. In doing so, we will honor and perform our mission as architects with less uncertainty.

But questions remain as to where to look for examples of good practice and the extent to which we need to innovate. We must learn that in many, if not in all cases, innovation should be thought of not as a novelty but as a retrieval of neglected and, maybe, archaic ways of dealing with vital issues. In that sense, what has been named “the rural” is a rich territory offering guidelines and inviting the rediscovery of practices associated with values, such as virtue, justice, correctness, honesty and appropriateness.

The projects produced in our studio that accompany this essay gravitate around notions of coexistence and care. In the context of increasing vulnerability and the need to create better immunity and better communities, all of them address the boundaries of the building as the predominant territory of intervention, look for guidelines in the rural world and intend, with varying degrees of success, to be site-specific.



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