Lebbeus Woods On Living In And Thinking Outside ‘Dumb Boxes’
Architect Lebbeus Woods recently posted an essay on his blog discussing the effect banal rectangular buildings (‘dumb boxes’) have had on the practice of architecture and cultural thinking in general.
Architects are today routinely indoctrinated against the dumb box. Even advertising urges us to “think outside the box.” Why? Because it is thought we all hate the box for being too dumb, too boring, and we want to escape it. If we do escape, by buying the advertised product, we usually find ourselves inside another dumb box populated by boring people just like us. It is clearly possible to live an extraordinary life inside a dumb box. Question: is it possible to lead an extraordinary life in anything other than a dumb box?
Woods makes the case that society needs the box and that contemporary architecture is caught in a trap of ‘can you top this’ syndrome. He proposes that extraordinary conditions make devising extraordinary architecture relevant. He sees the need for some sort of balance to emerge where we gain greater understanding of the common ground.
Let us make the extraordinary only when extraordinary conditions demand it. Radical social and political changes. Recovery from war and natural disasters. The reformation of slums. Cultural ‘paradigm shifts,’ such as computerization, or the greening of technology. Let us refrain from dressing up old building types in extraordinary new forms that do nothing to transform the way we actually inhabit or use or think about them.
While you could argue that looking at the world this way throws a wet towel on creativity, it does start to make some sense when using this as a lens to look at China. Much of the worlds cutting edge architecture recently has happened or is happening there. But what is the significance? Modernism emerged in the West as a way of thinking that affirmed the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of technology. It encouraged thinking that rebelled against tradition with the goal of fostering progress. While China now has a nice collection of new and unique buildings, it’s a wonder if their meaning is more important to their architects on the other side of the globe rather than the people who use them.