I have heard it said before and, for reasons that will soon become apparent, with increased frequency in the last few months, that architects should be obliged to live and work for a few years in the buildings they design. Nothing exaggerated, just a period sufficiently long to allow them to exercise their empathic skills and think of people other than themselves when they start those drawings.
Never mind the moral obligation, it should be a major safeguard that any intelligent society should put into practice to defend itself from the architectural crimes that, through a combination of strong thirst for notoriety and a very weak concern for their victims (I’m not ruling out stupidity plain and simple), they perpetrate on us.
Needless to say, the same should apply even more strongly to those who commission, select, approve and proudly inaugurate such monstrosities. They should move their offices with us into the belly of the whales they help create.
Until now, I have inhabited offices of different qualities, sometimes a bit too hot in summer or not very airy, or without an inspiring view, sometimes small and with furniture that could be better designed for bipeds. But in general I’ve been satisfied with them. I saw other people’s offices in universities around the world and I never thought myself particularly lucky. It turns out I was. I’m only realising this now because I’ve been forced to move to the recently inaugurated Centro Carlos Santamaría of the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, Spain. Thus sharing the same fate as some of my postdocs (who for some reason don’t seem to smile as much as they used to).
For the first time I must confront the joys of working in a window-less, air-conditioned, open plan environment, of grey walls, and furniture of a grey so similar that one must make an effort to make it out to avoid walking into a desk or tripping on the cupboard (my first action will be to glue some yellow/green stripes on particularly risky corners). My desk is in a big, 50 sq m room with 4 desks and several empty bookshelves. I was promised a partition so I can have supervision meetings with some pretend privacy – that was more than 7 months ago and I’m still waiting – but that’s early days by local standards. Like this space, parallel rows of several square, grey, window-less, air-conditioned rooms lie one next to the other, with no way of telling whether it’s day or night, except for a tiny 1 sq m glass sealed opening in the ceiling near the entrance.
The building (photo), which also houses the university library is designed along time-honoured principles for academic buildings, such as the principle that too much natural light thwarts knowledge production, that fresh air induces serious risks such as letting the ideas that should legally be the university’s intellectual property float out freely into the world, that recycled and droning air-conditioning is the best way to keep us alert and creative, and that windows are known to be conducive to suicide in academic circles (this one may be true).
Plan of first story of the building where my new office is. My desk will be located in one of the little squares on the right. On the left part of the library where light is less of a problem. There’s also a little garden in the middle, “far from the noises of traffic” where one could expect to find some peace, except nobody is allowed to step into it – we can stare at it through a glass door.
Perhaps this eco-friendly marvel (lights on: check, air-conditioning on: check – and yes, this is in Spain) should be better appreciated along artistic lines (philistine me). Modern art must be painful, says Zizek, and the architect who designed this building must have heard someone mention this at some cocktail party, because the effort was surely put on the pain, if not on the art (logic not being the architect’s forte). The result looks like the dead carcass of a concrete, legless crab after the seagulls have finished with it. Painful, yes.
What kind of brain damage makes a person capable of commissioning, selecting, and accepting such a working environment for academics? What kind of childhood trauma explains their total lack of foresight (and they’d better claim it was lack of foresight because otherwise we need immediately to raise some more difficult questions). I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame on the architect, since we should expect certain lack of common sense within their cast, especially among those that intend to make a name for themselves in their quest for the oddest, most useless, headline-grabbing form; it’s not their fault and they need society’s understanding and care, institutional if possible. It’s the ones who say yes to this who should humbly apologise. Those who once they realised they were actually commissioning an intellectual sweatshop, just didn’t care, or cared as much a 1 sq m glass un-openable aperture in the ceiling – the architectural zenith of last minute decisions – which lets in only enough photons to find the light switch and the thermostat.
Thank you so much… We needed this because we had it so good until now. This building should carry your name too. A bronze plaque with a list of perpetrators, lest we forget. Because in a few years time, when it looks as silly and ridiculously outmoded from the outside as it now does to those who are actually trying to work inside it, they should prevent you from commissioning another one.