In times of uncertainty and turmoil, efforts toward sublime and beauty appear trivial in comparison to the necessities of shelter and functionality. Currently, the novel coronavirus pandemic is spreading at an exponential rate throughout the world and many people are suffering as a consequence. Constructions are being shut down indefinitely and architectural projects that are in the pipelines of many offices are poised to be put on indefinite hold or canceled due to problems of the economy and the realities of social distancing required to stop the spread of disease. An economic recession is on the horizon that can spiral down to another great depression.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pyramidal diagram that organizes human needs from necessity at the bottom that supports higher activities above. For example, without the basic needs of food, the highest need for self idealization cannot be met. Philosophical inquires made by humans were supported by times of prosperity in which thinkers were allowed to spend time considering the nature of existence rather than going through the turmoils of simply existing.
Architecturally, great achievements such as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Vatican were built with money from a period of immense prosperity and a product of a zeitgeist that reflected abundance and peace. Unlike other creative endeavors such as music, literature, and paintings, buildings require clients with deep pockets. Buildings of great importance not only negotiate issues of money, but also labor and materials along with logistics and codes. If the current crisis leads toward a deep economic downturn, the construction of exuberant buildings will likely be on indefinite hold.
In the upcoming period of downturn, there are two possible scenarios for making good architecture that does not betray the circumstances of the economy and the zeitgeist.
First is to focus on the fundamentals of the necessity of function while striving for visual effects that soothe the spirit. Examples are the buildings produced during the 1930’s America under the funding of Works Projects Administration (WPA). Public buildings built during that period under the direction of WPA were not sparse sheds but ornamented boxes with flourishes of Beaux-Arts influences. There is a conservative element to the projects from this period that looked back at the past as a time of prosperity. Built projects in the foreseeable future will likely be more conservative and restrained if the past depression is any indication for the future outcome. However spartan this approach might be, architects and clients must remember that WPA projects never forgot the importance of aesthetic qualities for lifting human spirit.
The second option is to pursue speculative architecture that escapes the bondage of immense capital investment. There is a place for cultural production in crisis to maintain a sense of humanity. This inclusive approach does not treat the arts as the pinnacle of a stacked pyramid, but sees beauty and sublimity as part of a holistic approach for living life without fear. What used to be called paper architecture, and now digital architecture, exists not to envelop the subject who enters the building but exists to enter the minds of the subject through imagination. The visual representation of unbuilt projects has reached a level of realism unthinkable even 20 years ago. Much as recorded mediums of music expanded its outreach and popularity beyond the immediacy of attending a concert, the proliferation of unbuilt projects over the internet can excite or soothe the minds of audiences experiencing it via the transmitted medium.
Until the crisis becomes unbearably difficult, humanity must be affirmed through continued engagement with beauty and the sublime. This struggle should manifest all efforts in both built and unbuilt projects and leverage depression into an opportunity for growth.