Tonight, these two images shimmered across my monitor. One, from a Nova program on PBS, explored the depth of knowledge, subtle skills and artful perception it took to design and craft one of humanity's great buildings. The other, from an Architectural Record article, described an architect who sells design advice for a nickel at a Seattle farmers' market. Could there be a more vivid depiction of what our culture has come to? Instead of facing the hard boundaries of the material world with insight and grace, we throw wisdom and art into a tin cup and sell it to the lowest bidder.
For me the problem with selling architectural design on the cheap is not about money or grandiose architectural fantasies. I've written two books on finding sacredness in everyday architecture through shifting one's perceptions. What could be less expensive than that? The problem is that we've brought ourselves to value money more than experience. I don't blame the architect, John Morefield, the "founder" of Architecture 5 Cents, www.architecture5cents.com. He's a young guy doing whatever it takes to engage people in a dialogue about design that might lead to work with some descent pay. Rather, I'm sick about living in a society that is so damn ignorant about materialism.
The Walmart mentality that puts low price at the center of our thoughts and actions drains the power from material objects. Instead of savoring the rich experience of mind and body with form, color, sound, taste and smell, we focus on the senseless grabbing and storing of stuff. The result: we gain houses and storage lockers full of stuff, but live in emotional emptiness. The further result: economic meltdown, depression, obesity...
It's not the stuff that's bothersome. It's the belief that having the most stuff at the cheapest price is really living. In reality, it's the death of the planet, the death of creativity and the death of architecture.
But, there's hope. Also on my monitor last night was a TV series I enjoy called "Life." It's about a Zen L.A. police detective. Much less hokey that it sounds, the program ended with a voiceover: "Objects are not deceiving. They are deception. What we see, what we hear, all that our senses present to us is a fiction, no more real than a dream. We can only know that which we believe. That which we believe, that is all we have."
When we believe that architecture can be bought and sold for five cents, our life and culture has no more substance than a dream. When we believe that nature, creativity and objects are priceless, our lives and cultures engage the forms and functions of architecture in ways that point through the dream to genuine substance, the indescribable mystery at the core of being.