Architecture against HIV/AIDS
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/05/13
“Using architecture to consider HIV transmission” could easily be taken as a hoax or a satire, even though it seems to be intended seriously as it discusses how a planned environment could bring HIV to contemporary attention and help with education for prevention.
The temptation to class this as hoax or satire is heightened by text reminiscent of Alan Sokal’s hoax of post-modernist discourse *:
“Architecture is constantly inventing, reinventing, denying, or embracing the notion of crisis. Whether it is a crisis of professional identity, social responsibility, or representation every moment of stagnation is multiplied by the speed of the world in which we live. . . . While architecture is used to bring HIV into focus, it steps back and acts as a canvas instead of the subject”.
Yet anyone with experience of architects would understand that there is nothing satirical or hoaxed about this stuff: some aspects and members of the profession of architecture display a naïvely arrogant hubris and airy-fairy approach coupled with a high degree of practical incompetence. A few reports from first hand:
When I was Dean of a College of Arts & Sciences that included such typical departments as philosophy, history, and sociology as well as music, art, and theater arts, I was taken aback to find that the College of Architecture believed it could teach any and all of those subjects to its majors not only as well as our specialists could but even better, given that Architecture is “interdisciplinary”, one might even say meta-disciplinary or metaphysical.
I was perhaps even more taken aback to discover that engineering or building construction was not regarded as an important feature of the Architecture curriculum. Such prosaic details as how to build solid structures of appropriate materials, with good ventilation, heat-exchange properties, and the like, are the concern of engineering companies, not architectural firms. Perhaps that should not have surprised me, since I had already experienced in Sydney (Australia) a Chemistry Building whose windows were constructed in the glass-and-aluminium cladding that was then the fad. That building, had to be modified as soon as it was occupied because it was totally unsuited to the climate: it became unbearably hot under the normal sun. The solution was to add huge sun-blocking panels that are eyesores and also make artificial lighting necessary.
Still, perhaps Melbourne’s experience had been somewhat worse, where a tall building in the city periodically shed part of its fashionable cladding with a certain amount of danger to the streets below.
A couple more illustrations of such occasional architectural incompetence:
In Australia I had become well acquainted with a practicing architect, I’ll call him Dennis, who happened to be rather down-to-earth and who shared with me a couple of interesting stories.
An architect well known to Dennis once confessed to him that he had made a little blunder when designing a personal house for a client: He forgot to put a front entrance in the construction plan for the building contractors. The client went almost daily to see how construction was progressing, and by the time the outside brickwork was close to finished, he noted the absence of a front door, and asked his architect about that. Dennis’s friend displayed sorely needed intellectual brilliance: He explained to the client that he had come to believe that a house’s structure was stronger if the walls were fully completed before a hole was broken open for the outside doors.
The Sydney Opera House is rightly world-famous for its design of sail-like roofs on the shores of the magnificent harbor. Not widely publicized is that the initial cost estimate of about AUS£3.5 million had been exceeded about 15-fold at ~AUS£50 million. Dennis explained to me that entries in international architectural competitions, like that held for the Opera House, are judged by panels of architects on the basis of sketches of the proposed building and supporting text that does not go into details of how the structure might actually be built. Nothing like those sails had ever been built, and the engineering firm engaged to do it could not find a way to accomplish the original shapes. So almost everything about the original sketch had to be later changed, including the size of the main hall, acoustic features, building materials . . . . Hence construction took much longer than originally estimated, the design-wining architect was fired and replaced, and the cost became ever-so-much greater.
But all’s well that ends well. The Opera House now works well, and in a certain sense the Opera House cost nothing, because it was funded by the proceeds of lotteries established by the government for that particular purpose. Gambling has long been an honored Australian pastime, and the Opera-House Lottery didn’t even cut into the proceeds from the other, longer-established twice-weekly government lotteries.
* Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the boundaries: toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity”, Social Text 46/47, 14 (Spring/Summer 1996) 217-50; Alan Sokal, “A physicist experiments with cultural studies”, Lingua Franca, May/June 1996, 62-4; see also Janny Scott, “Postmodern gravity deconstructed, slyly”, New York Times, 18 May 1996, pp. A1,22; Alan Sokal, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009); Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, 1999); The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy by The editors of Lingua Franca (Bison Books, 2000)