Commencement Speech 2014

School News

Commencement Speech 2014

May 16, 2014

I am very happy to be here with you on this special occasion, and delighted to say a few words about our common passion for architecture at the beginning of your professional lives. You are the 100th class of architects educated at the University of Southern California's School of Architecture, which makes this occasion most auspicious. Your school is renowned for its excellent professional program and its stellar service to the community, for producing passionate architects bent on improving civic life and contributing to society's well-being, and for leading the way in engaging different cultures meaningfully in global practice, through real cultural dialogue. I am therefore deeply honored by this invitation.


I began my own architectural education some 45 years ago in Mexico City not knowing much about the complexities of our discipline. I remember choosing to become an architect after experiencing the eloquence of places, of intimate corners in rooms that offered me protection, or magnificently coloured baroque domes whose light made me think of the ineffable. I believed that I could contribute something beyond planning and engineering to the built environment. But while in school I found it hard to understand exactly how modern architecture could do the trick. I spent five years designing functional modernist buildings. The experience was interesting, but I finished my degree with more questions than answers.  I perceived a troublesome disconnect between the rather dogmatic positions of my teachers and the realities of the complex and varied Mexican cultures, the habits and ways of life of the society that I was supposed to serve. Surely, I thought, if architecture's obvious aim was to provide a meaningful and resonant environment for culturally rooted human action, we could not simply impose our aesthetic fancy or technical recipes on others. I could not imagine spending my life designing one-of-a-kind houses for wealthy clients. I instinctively felt that I needed to study more before I could practice ethically. I had the sense that understanding architecture in its wider cultural and historical context might enable me to make more sense of my own predicaments. Although I chose to work in history and theory, my questions have never strayed far from the pressing issues of practice. Perhaps the best personal note of encouragement I can convey is the fact that even now, and despite my tendency to be critical about the difficulties facing our profession, architecture has kept me engaged; I remain truly in love with its potentialities and difficulties, and I am convinced more than ever that it offers crucial contributions to cultures and to the well-being of humanity through the configuration of public and social space.


Early on in my academic endeavors I found that my uncertainty about the cultural relevance of architecture was not only my own, but in fact had plagued the last 200 years of modern industrial civilization. Architecture deployed in a technological world provides anything but a sure path. The knowledge required for understanding how to act appropriately in the world is very different from that of technical operations. In short, we must recognize our inevitable responsibility as agents of change and creators; this is a modern imperative. And yet our actions and creations fall short unless they can accommodate and respond to the cultures we serve, and embody their wisdom as it appears in our ways of life and deeply held values.


As you prepare to embark upon your own careers, I suspect that you have already felt some version of this uncertainty in the relentless fashions celebrated through our electronic media; the vanity of starchitects and their self-aggrandizing; and the futility of an architecture addressed merely to an elite or reduced to consumer values.  So here is my first advice to you: cultivate this uncertainty. It is a source of strength and wisdom. Remain critical of your aims and of the means and tools by which you pursue them; be always humble, and try to retain the freshness of a beginner. Follow your deeply felt insights, your understanding as an inhabitant of buildings and cities rather than as an objective critic. Trust these perceptions.


Furthermore, do not take for granted any preconceived professional paths in architecture. The fact is that when we examine our discipline through history, we see that it has had many different incarnations: architects have not only designed and built buildings, but also wonder-producing objects in Ancient Greece, ephemeral settings for urban theatrical performances in the Renaissance, gardens and fireworks in the 17th C., and more recently some have expressed a full architectural experience through drawings or literary narratives. All of these contributions were aimed at providing meaningful atmospheres for human events.


Always ask why your architecture matters and how it may contribute to the well-being of others. Ethics should prevail over economic imperatives and govern how you choose to direct your work; not every task is noble. Historical examples abound, but you must be careful in finding them. Look beyond the forms that buildings take and the evident structures of power they represent to grasp how spaces have always provided us with existential orientation in the most diverse situations, and in ways that lead to our self-understanding. Be courteous with the past rather than dismissive; there is great richness in our human heritage.


These are the questions that make our discipline worthwhile: they demand effort and constant critical attention, but they will keep you fascinated throughout your life. Asking these questions is crucial for others, but it is just as important for you. Architecture is not only a profession; it is your life, and sooner or later, its authenticity will be called into account.


By framing the rituals and civic life of world cultures, architecture has mattered immensely to humanity's well-being. Is this still the case today? The French and American revolutions ushered in new values that are now shared throughout our global village, which was founded upon the promises of technological progress and universal human rights. This new world celebrated our individual right to happiness, which has most often been identified with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of all pain. A hedonistic value system is well served by merely comfortable buildings, the selfish private enclaves of gated communities and urban condominiums, and titillating spectacles posing as civic and cultural landmarks. Yet we always know that human life is far more than this: it is primarily social, lived with others, and it only obtains meaning when confronted with limits. Furthermore, today cognitive scientists insist that our consciousness does not end at the skull, but that it is embodied, intimately associated with our biology, as well as in the world. In other words, the architecture of the cities we build is truly important for our psychosomatic health, for our personal attunement and for cultural sustainability, which is not a matter of a more efficient economic or technological operation. Neurology now shows us that contrary to what scientists and philosophers had generally assumed, emotions actually contribute to our capacity to reason; the environment therefore must be emotionally responsive: it must reveal the bitter-sweet space of desire that is our most durable human characteristic, our capacity to understand purposefulness in the present moment, in the actions and work we engage in, while remaining open to our personal mortality. Such is the nature of architectural meaning: though we may pursue the creation of beautiful forms or the sheer efficacy of technological applications, architecture is first and foremost lived space, intertwined with the temporality of human action, it is not images objectified out of time. For this reason we should always remember that a project is an ethical promise that can be drawn but also should be narrated, it expresses a political position that must be responsible, otherwise formal novelties run the risk of becoming trite or irrelevant.


Let me conclude with a set of ten fragments around these topics, a perfect number according to Vitruvius, that will finally serve as a countdown to your well-deserved celebration:


TEN. Architecture happens when a place strikes us with wonder.  The place is there first, neither found nor made, but a condition of being; and it is usually best brought forth through storytelling. Regardless of its program, location, cost, or historical significance, a great work of architecture is at once surprising and familiar—like a dream that speaks to us of our desires.


NINE. Architects do not just design buildings; we propose ways of living in a given culture. By responding to a given task, an architectural project provides a material interpretation of a set of habits or way of life. These activities—what we conceptualize as architectural program—are not to be assumed or taken for granted, like a list of parts with proposed dimensions. Rather, they must be imagined, negotiated and narrated though words, and eventually designed as a promise for a better collective future.


EIGHT. Architecture is like noodles.  Even if the basic recipe might seem to be the same in China, Italy, and the United States, the taste is always different.  Variations across cultures that range from gestures and languages to expressed values, manifest as preferences for materials, details, and patterns of inhabitation that together add up to the real differences in architecture around the world. These are very much worth preserving.


SEVEN. The best architecture is usually not photogenic.  The most moving spaces are often impossible to render through photographs, like a traditional Chinese garden, or even a simple panorama from the top of a mountain. The fact is that we do not see in perspective; neuroscientists now agree that visual perception is not picture-like.   Yet, even though we must use images in our designs, we should not let them use us.   The images we choose express intentions; they are not merely neutral means to an end. And avoid mistaking sophisticated geometries and hyper-realistic renderings for the creation of powerful built spaces: these are very rarely the same thing.


SIX. An elevation grows in height when it is built.  From the point of view of a person standing at ground level, an elevation will be experienced as taller than its actual measured height. This is not simply an optical illusion; it is rather a lesson on the real, embodied dimensionality of all architectural spaces.


FIVE. Sometimes an architect builds a cathedral, sometimes an architect moves a stone, and sometimes an architect touches nothing.  Each is a choice, and each can be equally meaningful, depending on the context.


FOUR. Never worry about developing a personal style.  Real poetry is not like an adolescent verse; it does not speak about an author but about a shared and resonant world. Self-expression is the last thing that makes good architecture. Search for a new beginning in every project.


THREE. Whether built in concrete or canvas, architecture is ephemeral, just as everything else in our mortal world. Understanding this does not mean that you will become depressed or adopt a nihilistic attitude.  On the contrary, this realization is crucial for discovering the spiritual potential of architecture, whose essence is as temporal as it is spatial. Consider that the primary temporality of our existence is the present, the present of our living consciousness where we co-emerge with objects and find ourselves in place, engaged through our actions. This living present is not a non-existing point between a past and a future, but a zone with dimensions, ranging from the immediate past to the immediate future, from our memory and history, to our imagination and our projects. This temporal experience is the reality for all embodied human consciousness.


TWO. Material matters immensely, for the temporal experience of architecture to which I have just alluded is fundamentally material. We touch with our eyes and see with our ears. We think with our feet. Human conscience is embodied, and always enactive and kinetic; this is what architecture enhances and limits. Materiality is therefore crucial; it is arguably more primary than geometries by virtue of its capacity to characterize and qualify emotive atmospheres. It is here that we find architectural meaning, and not in any stylistic formalism, as if it only depended on a choice among simple orthogonal tectonics, blobs, biomorphic or parametric complexities. This is the reason why Le Corbusier, obsessed with the right angle in 1926, could admire Gaudi's work and call him the most important architect of his generation. This is all to conclude that the framing of human events through appropriate emotive atmospheres could well be considered our most important gift to society.


ONE. And last but not least, always be compassionate. The only way that you will be able to design spaces that allow others to truly feel at home is if you feel like the other.  For this, imagination is crucial. It's not so much a question of serving the client, as it is of giving to society what, in your felt wisdom, is best. Remember always the famous words of Eupalinos of Megara: “My temple must move men as they are moved by their beloved.”


Congratulations! And my best wishes to all of you, the class of 2014, for a very rewarding and prosperous career.


Alberto Pérez-Gómez