There are some things in life that must be experienced in small quantities to fully comprehend their complexity, richness and subtleties. Fine chocolate, a well-aged single malt and certain culinary delights spring to mind, but occasionally you encounter a piece of text that requires a similar treatment. I have a title in my library that I have been digesting slowly since 2009, and, like most of the finer things in life, it gets better with age. The book in question, Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism, was first introduced to me in graduate school, but only a brief excerpt. At the time, I was completing my thesis and I was warned not to read the rest of the book as it would only confuse me. As it turns out, that was sage advice. After taking a couple of weeks reading and rereading the introduction and first chapter to understand what, exactly, historicism is (I still have to flip back…), I finally moved to the second chapter. The book is by two authors who argue their respective position on the issue in alternating chapters. Chapter two introduces the argument of Carroll William Westfall, which he summarizes in the following three points:
– Politics is more important that architecture;
– Content is more important that form;
– The enduring and general is more important that the unique and particular. (49)[Before I proceed, a bit of clarification is in order. Westfall speaks of politics in the classical sense, that of the contemplation of humankind’s best existence in the city (society) – not the current connotation of partisan gridlock and bickering.]
In previous posts, I alluded to the power of influence and experience and how these have a profound impact on who we are. As we mark the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom today, my mind returns to this day 10 years ago and an experience that has shaped my life. This morning ten years ago, I sat with fellow pilots and airmen as the deadline for Hussein’s surrender passed, marked shortly thereafter by a solitary plume of debris in Baghdad. Without any additional fanfare, we looked at each other and, without further guidance, retired to sleep the day away prior to our regular night schedule. About halfway through the day (night) I heard a faint announcement through the haze of slumber announcing that the base was under missile attack and that we should don our protective gear. Missing the normal blast of air raid sirens, I wasn’t sure if I imagined it, but not liking the odds if I hadn’t, dutifully donned my gear and patiently awaited the all clear. This was the first of many such alerts (they finally got the sirens working, or at least remembered to press the button) but stands out in my mind as the true beginning of the war. Over the following days and weeks, the 524th Fighter Squadron would fly hundreds of sorties (if not thousands), employ over 600,000 pounds of ordnance and conduct ourselves in a commendable manner in support of Army and Marine ground operations in Iraq. A friend and fellow aviator, Col (sel) Mike “Johnny Bravo” Drowley eloquently shared his experience of the same period in a TEDx Event at Scott AFB along with other amazing speakers and thought leaders.
So what does this experience have to do with architecture? As I think back on that period, I am intensely proud of my service, of the work we did and the men and women I served with. As the dust settles and the nascent Iraqi democracy continues to scramble for purchase, I can only hope that the opportunity for self-determination is not squandered. Democracy is hard, but as has been born out again and again in nations around the world, it is worth the work. Looking back at Westfall’s argument, I earnestly believe that freedom and liberty are the enduring and general and that oppression and suffering are unique and particular. Westfall goes on in his argument to argue that while politics is more important than architecture, architecture will ultimately support the political form as it seeks the enduring and general. Rather than viewing my transition from professional officer and pilot to architect as a non sequitur, I see it as a continuation of the same goal, vision and ethic – the best existence of mankind in the city. We are fortunate as Americans to have the luxury to ask these questions and the resources to aid change as we see fit.As we mark this day, I urge you to take a moment to contemplate the best existence of your city – and then do something about it.