May 12, 2017: The Sublime and the Ridiculous

This week Cintia and I are on holiday in Port Macquarie which we’re discovering is a delightful place. Apart from getting to surf everyday we’ve been on wonderful walks along the coast, had delicious meals in fancy restaurants and today we went to visit the koala hospital. They really are the most adorable creatures and the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital does very important work helping to ensure that the species survives in the face of multiple threats from loss of habitat, disease, feral animals and vehicles.

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

‘David’ – a permanent resident at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

Holiday Reading

Another joy of being on holiday is having some time to read. So far I’ve finished two books which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

The two books I've read this week.

The two books I’ve read this week.

The Sublime

Regular readers will know that I often rant about the absurd global obsession with ‘GROWTH’. Countries all over the world measure growth in terms of Gross Domestic Product or GDP. This is an awful measure of the success of a nation. Focusing on increasing GDP creates the illusion that consumption is good and should be encouraged. This leads to increased waste, debt, environmental problems, health problems, over-population, etc, etc, etc.

Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world that has chosen to focus on something other than GROWTH. I have a few friends who’ve spent time in Bhutan (located in the Himalayan mountains between India and Tibet) and it sounds like a truly remarkable country. One of these friends is lending us their apartment for the week and I found this amazing book ‘Bhutan – A Mosaic of the Dragon’ sitting on the coffee table. I couldn’t find any information about the author or publisher so I’m guessing it was produced by the Bhutanese government.

I was particularly impressed with the chapter entitled ‘NORTH STAR FOR THE NATION – Gross National Happiness, a Beacon of Hope for a Better World’ by Thakur S. Powdyel who was Bhutan’s first democratically elected Minister for Education and winner of the Global Education Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education.

For anyone who’s interested in reading the whole chapter (which I highly recommend) you can click on this link to download a pdf of the full text. The essence of it is that Bhutan, which has been insulated from the development obsession that has gripped most of the rest of the world, has had the opportunity (and the wisdom) to learn from everyone else’s mistakes and to develop a different plan.

170512 Happy Bhutanese

Bhutan’s over-arching development philosophy of Gross National Happiness is founded on the belief that:

  • The ultimate desire of all human beings, regardless of time and space, is to be happy. It is, therefore, the responsibility of governments to create the necessary conditions to support the experience of happiness.
  • The profound needs of human beings are not necessarily material or physical, but that there are other deeper dimensions of life – natural, social, cultural, spiritual, psychological, aesthetic, moral – that make life worthwhile and meaningful, and that they need to be
  • There is no necessary relationship between the level of material well-being and the level of happiness – they could in fact be antithetical to each other.
  • The goal of life cannot be limited to an endless cycle of production and consumption, more production and more consumption…
  • The conventional, linear, uni-dimensional measure of progress, otherwise called GDP, is too limited and reductionist, as it leaves out other significant, non-economic factors. Gross National Happiness is therefore, a more holistic, integrated, and balanced approach to

In honour, therefore, of the integrity of life and of society, Bhutan has made a conscious decision to harmonize the needs of the body with the yearnings of the soul. To this end, we have identified four principal domains otherwise called pillars to support the architecture of the Gross National Happiness programme.

  1. Balanced and equitable socio-economic development,
  2. Conservation of the natural environment,
  3. Preservation and practice of culture, and
  4. Promotion of good governance.

We believe that if we care enough and share enough all of us in the world will have enough…

Isn’t that a beautiful philosophy? Personally I would have chosen a different word than ‘Happiness’. To me it is just as absurd to expect people to be happy all the time as it is to expect economies to grow all the time. I disagree with the idea that ‘the ultimate desire of all human beings… is to be happy’, to me this seems much too shallow and one-dimensional, but I do think that people generally want to feel good about themselves and most seek some sort of contentment in their lives. So if I substitute ‘Contentment’ for ‘Happiness’ in the statements above I think it makes a great deal of sense.

To me the four ‘pillars’ seem remarkably similar to the Triple-Bottom-Line philosophy, which considers the Environmental and the Social as well as the Financial results of our decisions, and was a guiding principle in the design and development of the Greeny Flat. And the addition of ‘Good Governance’ is particularly welcome in the light of the appalling leadership we are witnessing in both Australia and the USA.

The chapter continues with equally moving paragraphs on the importance of protecting the natural environment, educating the population to become the realisors of the national dream, preserving cultural identity and holding the countries leaders to the highest standards of integrity and service. If more countries around the world adopted a similar national plan for BALANCE rather than GROWTH we could find ourselves living in an entirely different future than the one we seem to be headed towards.

So, just in case I’ve inspired you to read the whole chapter… here is the link again to the full text.

The Ridiculous

The other book, ‘The Architecture of the Absurd – How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art’ by John Silber, is about how ‘super-star’ architects like Frank Gehry have abused their position of trust and influence in order to persuade naive clients to build ridiculous buildings that cost absurd amounts of money and do not meet the needs of the people who use them.

Frank Gehry explains his philosophy of architecture

Frank Gehry explains his philosophy of architecture

To me this is the logical result of the way architecture is taught and practiced around the world. My own personal experience of studying architecture at Sydney University was deeply disturbing. The entire focus of the program was on ‘originality’. It was all about making grand ‘aesthetic’ statements and nothing about creating functional buildings that are affordable to build, heat, cool and maintain, keep out the weather, serve their purpose and delight their occupants. From the buildings I see getting built, it appears that this method of teaching architecture prevails in schools around the world.

Gehry to me is the epitome of the grand-standing modern architect who adds ‘weirdness’ to his buildings simply to be original. The bizarre curves and ‘organic’ shapes that critics seem to think are so wonderful simply add enormous cost to his buildings without adding anything in the way of improved function, reduced maintenance, better energy performance or greater protection from the elements. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. His buildings are horrendously expensive, awkward, difficult to upkeep, expensive to run, leak like sieves, don’t meet the needs of their occupants and, in my opinion, generally ugly as sin.

Gehry's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts

Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts

Thankfully, it’s not just my opinion, in his book Silber (who was President of Boston University for 25 years and commissioned countless buildings) states

I am not critical of Gehry’s twisted metal shapes because they are different but because too often they make no sense, are out of scale, wastefully expensive, and on the underside offer not the honest exposure of Louis Kahn but what seems more akin to indecent exposure…

His misconception… that architecture has no distinct purpose or consequent limitations that distinguish it fundamentally from painting or sculpture has led him to impose on clients works that are profligate in cost and grotesquely unaccommodating to their purpose. Perhaps there will always be clients who are happy to fulfill Gehry’s artistic ambitions, despite the waste and inutility inevitable when architecture is practiced as a fine rather than a practical art.

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks Gehry’s buildings are over-priced rubbish

And he’s just the figure-head for a global movement in architecture that ignores the needs, budgets, and practical requirements of building owners and occupants.

But hey, Gehry won’t be around forever and hopefully this trend in architecture won’t last either. Perhaps tougher economic times might cause the people who commission and pay for buildings to be more careful with their money and more concerned about the ongoing running and maintenance costs they’ll be forced to pay.


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