Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Will of the Epoch , The Spirit of the Age

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once commented that architecture is “the will of the epoch translated into space”. His mentor Peter Behrens (and also mentor to Gropius and Corbusier) made a similar Zeitgeist argument : that architecture needed to embody the “Spirit of the Age”. Corbusier revisited the same theme when he insisted that the Machine Age demanded a new Machine aesthetic. All three were convinced of the inappropriateness of the beaux-arts approach and concerned with how architecture should accurately represent its day and age. [click on link for wikipedia entries on "Peter Behrens" and "Zeitgeist"]

Throughout the ages, the production architecture has been inextricably linked to the culture that was its setting. Gothic cathedrals were earthly manifestations of divine perfection of heaven for Medieval city-states. The mathematical precision of perspectival urban axes during the Renaissance was yet another manifestation of this divine order for a different age of absolute reason and knowledge. Mies and Corbusier were fascinated with the new technologies availed by the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps with the same predictability, one observes the very same phenomenon today, with the proliferation of digital technologies, powerful computer modelling tools and daring computer-generated forms produced by Asymptote Architecture and Zaha Hadid. I find myself at once awed and, yet, unconvinced by today’s expressions of our digital-age. I therefore pose this question, “Is this digital-computer-internet age the will of our epoch?” If not, then “what is the will of our epoch?”

Ironically, this question is at once relevant and irrelevant. Indeed, the trajectory of history has progressed to an extent that our digital age of sophisticated technologies is a far cry from that medieval era centuries ago. Yet, both ages were inhabited by homo-sapiens. They had eyes, hands, and feet, enjoyed music and human pleasures like sex. Socio-cultural practices notwithstanding, they each carried a soul, a will, and capacities for emotion and complex reasoning. Across the ages, the human spirit has remained universal.

The same overwhelming emotion of experiencing the light entering through the oculus in the Rome’s Pantheon touches the inner core of today’s jet-setting tourist as it did the inhabitants of Rome centuries ago. The same lines from a Shakespearean play incited the same emotional intensity of Globe Theatre patrons 400 years ago as they continue to do to many today. Similarly, that “ineffable space” in Corbusier’s Ronchamp cathedral touched the deep unconscious core of visitors then, as it continues to do to architectural pilgrims to this day. [click on link for images]

At this point, that I realise that there are two (and possibly more) poles pulling architecture (and myself) toward different directions. On one extreme is our location in the trajectory of history and “the spirit of our age,” and on the other extreme is the universality of the human spirit. I realise that even as Corbusier pandered to the machine age, Aalto re-adapted this will of a machine aesthetic to affirm the human spirit. Aalto was Corbusier’s nemesis. [click on link for images]

As I attempt to re-root this discussion into a Singaporean context, in an age of globalisation and technological revolution, the question lingers. I realise that any question involving a deeper expression that accompanies architecture in the built fabric of Singapore has to contend with the issue of Singaporean-ness. I thereby ask these questions:
What is the will of this Singaporean epoch?
What is the Singaporean spirit of our age?
How do we translate it into form and inhabitable space?

In view of my pluralistic aspirations for Singapore, I shall audaciously suggest that there exists in our epoch not just a single will, but multiple Singaporean wills. In each of us, there exists a deep-seated vision for what we want our Singapore to be. Our interests, and thereby our inner-wills may be different, but may our spirit be universal.