When we look at building, we are often not told how to look at a building, or what exactly to look at. Oftentimes, we’re given to notice certain things: the shape of the roof, the presence of wood or glass or concrete, its size, its ease of access, but we often stop there. Rarely, if ever, are we asked to think of why a building has particular elements. For many of us, or at least for me before I started studying architecture in college, buildings are simply structures that provide shelter: their site, their history, their materials, and their relation to the cities that they both inhabit and compose are often completely ignored.
To me, this is a travesty. Buildings can tell us as much about human history as any other material can. Literature, art, tools, decorative artifacts, clothing, etc. can each tell their own story about human existence and the values, structures, and ways of living of the past. Similarly, architecture can do the same, but in a way that I find to be unique in that architecture is produced by certain historical forces and, as a function of the length of life of a common building, produce the very world that we, as contemporary humans, interact with. In a way, we inherit history through architecture, and it is because of this fact that it is through architecture that we can continue to shape our world and create new possibilities for human existence.
Take, for example, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Originally opened in 1937 for the International Exhibition, an event that was to showcase the bold and future oriented modernist art of Europe, the building was used by the Nazis to store stolen Jewish property. Most notably, the building housed 2000 pianos that were taken from Jewish homes. After World War II ended, it was unclear what exactly should be done with such a building, especially as its symbolic status came into question given its recent history. Thankfully, the French government decided that it would be better to reappropriate the building, instead of attempting to erase the recent history of Europe by destroying it. The building went through many functional iterations: first as a modern art museum, then as a film collective, a cinematheque, and then as an arts education institute. However, as other parts of Paris continued to develop, these different functions that found their respective homes within the building began to depart, and the question once again arose of what to do with a building that had such a particular history.
Many believed that the building had finally reached the point where it ought to be decommissioned, noting that the very walls of the building had been witness to one of history’s darkest moments. Instead, the then French minister of Culture and Communication decided to split the building in half: one wing for the housing and display of modern European art, while the other wing was to become a contemporary arts center. This second wing, the newly christened “Palais de Tokyo”—named as such because of the name of the street that the building was originally erected, the Quai de Tokio— was then re-worked by the architecture firm Lacaton & Vassal, who stripped the building down to its structural bones, leaving only bare columns and floorplates. This move, while at first controversial, had a point: it was to ensure that visitors understood the age of the building so that they would begin to wonder as to its origins and its history. It was, at the same time, an act of reappropriation and of memorialization. It demonstrated the power and importance of architecture.
It seems to me that the Palais de Tokyo can stand as one telling example of the importance of architecture. On the one hand, architects are tasked with designing spaces that are both functional and pleasant. Their goals are often as simple as ensuring that enough light enters into a space at the right times (and I can assure you that although this task is simple, it is far from easy). On the other hand, architects are also asked to develop our monuments and the very spaces of our existence. In other words, what architecture is always responsible for is not just sheltering us, but of actually producing the very stages of our social existence. As such, architecture is inscribed with the fluctuations of our history and the promises of our future.