In defence of the humanities

Victoria University's Professor Daniel Brown makes a case for the humanities being central to finding new solutions to complex issues

The importance of the humanities and social sciences, and the need for professional disciplines to embrace them, was highlighted in Daniel Brown’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Design Studio in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture.

During a 14-year career practising architecture before becoming an academic, Brown was Vice-President from 1990-96 of one of the most prominent architecture design firms in New York, Emilio Ambasz and Associates, whose highly innovative and provocative new solutions for design have won innumerable awards.

In his wide-ranging and multi-media lecture, entitled ‘The Voice of Architecture’, he referenced religion, mythology, classical studies, history, art, literature, music, film, politics, philosophy and linguistics in order to expand understanding of architecture and its inspirations.

“When I first left architectural practice to begin my career as an academic, I assured my students that architecture can have a voice,” said Brown. “And I alerted my students that, as young New Zealanders born on the cusp of a new millennium, you also can, indeed must, have a voice. But like architecture, you can only develop a voice when you build upon ideas.”

He recalled the National Government’s 2015 Tertiary Education Strategy advocating closer links with industry, the sciences and engineering, with the strategy connected to its business-growth agenda.

“And this Government emphasis was tragically being made at the expense of the humanities and the social sciences. Our [then] new Vice-Chancellor, Grant Guilford, published an important rebuttal in the Dominion Post, writing: ‘The humanities and social sciences are not just about the joy of living ... The arts, languages and literature, and other humanities subjects, play a central role in the celebration and critical reinterpretation of our national identity and our place in the world  … The humanities are also central to the cultivation of creative capital.’”

Guilford had defined creative capital as “the curiosity and insight that finds new solutions to complex issues”.

Professional subjects like architecture play an important role in the emphasis on greater links with industry and business growth, said Brown.

“But architecture cannot be studied in isolation, without drawing deeply upon the humanities and the social sciences.

“For professional disciplines like architecture to have a voice, they must be built upon the foundation of a knowledge of subjects such as philosophy and religion; history and political science; languages and linguistics; classical studies; environmental studies; literature; film, music and painting,” he said.

“Award-winning architect Lebbeus Woods wrote: ‘Is architecture only an end-product that people can physically inhabit, or is it also the matrix of ideas, concepts, and designs that serve as inspirations for constructions that can be inhabited …?

“‘… The views about it that prevail will greatly influence not only the direction of architectural education but also the priorities architects, clients, and public policy-makers set for the field in the future.’       

“Lebbeus Woods is referring to The Voice of Architecture, architecture’s ability to provoke as well as to provide. Architecture can tell stories about issues that truly matter: human laments, philosophical quandaries, spiritual quests, cultural empowerment, politics and persecutions.

“The first time that I explored storytelling as an architecture student, I realised that I would never understand it – or even recognise it – if I looked only at buildings. So I began by looking at the humanities and social sciences, and the tales they have to tell.”

Brown went on to recount 10 such tales, first from the voice of the humanities and social sciences and then from that of architecture.

One tale involved a piece of music.

“For almost 50 years, from 1944–1991, the country of Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, which actively discouraged religion and promoted atheism. For this reason, Estonian composers had to be exceedingly careful, when writing religious music, to conceal it from the authorities.

“In 1976, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt wrote the religious instrumental work In Spe, which in Latin means To Hope. He explicitly selected a title that would conceal the religious connotations of the work from the authorities, but the composition was in fact based on the Kyrie of the Christian Orthodox Mass. Pärt analysed the Latin words from the religious text, and he reinterpreted the structures of the text into musical rules for the melody, rhythm and dynamics of the composition. Each syllable of each Latin word was assigned a specific pitch of music. The number of syllables per word determined the number of beats per measure of the rhythm. And in this way the sacred text remained in full view, yet unseen.

“Later, in 1984, Pärt rearranged In Spe for voices and organ, and this time his title was a line taken from the Bible’s Psalm 137, but in German. Voices were added to sing ‘Kyrie Eleison, Christie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison’ from the Christian Orthodox Mass. But to conceal the sacred Latin text, Pärt removed all the consonants, and the voices only sing the vowels. Once again, the sacred text remains in full view, yet unseen.

“A student might ask, how could an extraordinary story of innovation like this, that combines politics, religion, languages and music, become inspiration for innovation in architecture?

“In 1982, architect Raimund Abraham entered a speculative architecture competition to design a Christian church next to the Berlin Wall, at a time when religion was not allowed in East Berlin. And like Arvo Pärt, his concept was to conceal religion in plain sight.

“Raimund Abraham’s original architectural concept sketches included a series of horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements that would define a gathering space – but not be recognisable as a traditional church. His original concept was to arrange the architectural elements such that when the sun rises in the morning these elements would cast a shadow of a crucifix upon the Berlin Wall, which would move continually across the Wall from morning until dusk.”

Film inspired another of Brown’s tales.

“When I was in my third year of architecture school, one of the first things my design supervisor did was to show us an old movie by French film director Jean-Luc Godard, who was considered to be the most radical filmmaker of the 1960s and 70s. Godard challenged the conventions of traditional filmmaking, by drawing explicitly upon alternative disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature, classics, fine arts, politics and architecture.

“My supervisor, John Hejduk, challenged us to learn new ways of thinking about architecture by investigating radical filmmakers.

“The 1963 Godard film that he showed us was called Le Mépris (which translates as Contempt). It is a film – about the making of a film – about an epic poem from ancient Greek history, The Odyssey. So the film is a story, within a story, within a story. Most importantly, the film is told through the voice of a building that has a story to tell, the Casa Malaparte, designed in 1937 by architect Adalberto Libera. This house is sited on the island of Capri in Italy.

“This is how John Hejduk described to us, his students, the story of this house: ‘Libera’s Malaparte house is private. It is a house of paradoxes. It is an object which consumes. It is filled with unrequited histories. It is a relic left upon the pinnacle after the seas have subsided. It is a sarcophagus of soft cries. It whispers of inevitable fates.’

“Imagine designing a house that would be described like that, long after you are gone. Imagine describing yourself as having unrequited histories, whispering of inevitable fates.”

View a YouTube video of Professor Daniel Brown’s lecture, incorporating paintings, music and other works he references.

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