Architecture Beyond Design: In Which We Consider What Makes Architecture Significant | Features

Casa Madrigal. Or Casita. From Disney’s Encanto. © Disney

Casa Madrigal. Or Casita. From Disney’s Encanto. © Disney

“In our darkest moment we were given a miracle, the candle became a magical flame that could never go out and it blessed us with a refuge in which to live…And our house, our Casita itself, came alive to shelter us.”

– Alma Madrigal, Encanto

When we discuss the agency of architecture, we can easily make the error of assuming that architecture alone causes an impact or change to occur within a community. A school, for example, no matter how masterfully designed, is nothing more than a complex assembly of materials if there are no teachers, students, administrators, and staff to give it life. Human beings must first imbue a building with life. That building, having been activated, can then serve as a vehicle that enables its inhabitants to become more themselves, to become more human

When we pursue the fundamentalist formalism and purism so prevalent in traditional western architecture (especially academia), we forget about the constitutive importance of the end-user in activating a building and establishing its significance.

“Architecture has nothing to do with it”

I’m convinced that an architect’s design has little to do with how significant a building will become in the lives of its eventual inhabitants and surrounding neighbors. In a 1996 interview with Wired, when challenged that his diagrammatic approach to design might “likely produce a less hospitable environment,” Rem Koolhaas responded, “I disagree. People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that’s both liberating and alarming.” Now, we can say that this is a cop-out by Koolhaas to justify his designing whatever he pleases, but there is truth to it.

People inhabit the buildings that are available to them. Some buildings rise above the fold and become important to society, playing more active roles in the life of a community and the individuals within it, regardless of how it’s designed. (And let me just say it now to get it over with: good design matters, it is essential, crucial. We can’t just throw any old thing out into the world. There, you can relax now.). 

So, if we assume that it’s not (solely) design that makes a place significant in the lives of people, what is it?

Disney’s Encanto and identity-enhancing places

Disney’s 2021 animated film Encanto follows 15-year-old Mirabel, one of several members of the Madrigals, a Colombian family who lives in a magical sentient house called Casita. The house has a life of its own, able to express itself in anthropomorphic movements through the windows, stairs, furniture, and other parts of the house. Casita is, for all intents and purposes, a full-blown active member of the family.

The Madrigals are the caretakers of Encanto, the enchanted village where their home resides, and each member, at the age of five, is granted a special “gift,” a miraculous ability that they are to use to help the family and the village. 

Isabela, one of the sisters, can make flowers grow wherever she wills. This is an image of her room. © Disney

When the family and townspeople gather for Mirabel’s younger cousin Antonio’s coming-of-age ceremony, where he is to receive his gift, the young boy walks through Casita’s central courtyard, up a stairway to a balcony where he meets Abuela Alma, the matriarch of the family. 

“The greatest honor of this family,” Abuela says, “is to use our blessings to serve this beloved community.” She turns to little Antonio and asks if he promises to use his gift to serve the community and help make the family stronger. Antonio says that he will do so.

Antonio as he discovers his new ability to speak to animals. © Disney

The boy approaches a glowing door with a knob that holds his first initial. When he touches the doorknob, what seems like a surge of enchanted light covers the door. A toucan comes out of nowhere, landing on the boy’s arm, and we discover his new gift—he can communicate with animals. Several creatures of all kinds enter the house, and Antonio’s name and a picture of him surrounded by animals magically appear carved on the door’s surface. He opens the door, followed by his family, and discovers a vast jungle filled with vibrant wildlife. This is his new room.

Antonio’s Room. © Disney

Antonio has become more fully himself by receiving not just a miraculous ability but a place of his own that serves as an identity-enhancing environment where he can grow into a new kind of person. It’s the same for every member of the family. The room is an existential extension of the individual that inhabits it.

A philosophy of place

Philosopher Edward Casey alludes to the idea of place as contributing to human identity when he writes: “…It remains the case that where we are—the place we occupy, however briefly—has everything to do with what and who we are (and finally, that we are.). This is so at the present moment: where you are right now is not a matter of indifference but affects the kind of person you are, what you have been doing in the past, even what you will be doing in the future.”

Encanto makes the case that the role of the home is to strengthen the family, to make each member a better version of themselves. In turn, the family, with their miraculous gifts—gifts expressed and manifested in their respective rooms—are to use those gifts to take care of the home and the community. Casita without the Madrigals is just an abandoned building. The Madrigals without Casita, as we later learn in the film, is a family estranged and unclear of its identity and place in the community. The relationship between Casita and the family is one of reciprocal interdependency.

Casita without the Madrigals is just an abandoned building. The Madrigals without Casita, as we later learn in the film, is a family estranged and unclear of its identity and place in the community

Casita is significant because of the Madrigals and the role it plays in their lives as a result of the family’s engagement with it. The aesthetics of the home, though culturally conscious, have nothing, if anything, to do with its larger significance. The Madrigals can become a stronger family partly because of Casita. As the family grows older and more generations of Madrigals come to call Casita home, the grounding of the family’s identity will become more and more caught up in the house, and Casita, as a result, will become more and more synonymous with the family’s identity. 

The Madrigal’s story shows how important the home and any place can be to who we are and our development as people. The places most dear to us seldom have to do with how they look but with what has happened in them and the people who have shared in those experiences. 

A lie that tells the truth

Film, television, and literature, especially works of fantasy (like Encanto), tend to capture those abstract and often mythopoetic qualities of space that undergirds much of human identity and existence. There’s a reason they say “fiction is a lie that tells the truth.” Competent storytellers have a way of highlighting aspects of reality we all intuitively know exist but often have trouble articulating. 

In The Nature and Aim of Fiction, writer Flannery O’Connor explains that “The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation.” O’Connor describes this as “an enlarged view of the human scene” and “a way of reading nature.” This idea explains why some stories succeed in identifying and articulating characteristics of reality most of us miss: the writers have developed the enlarged vision O’Connor says is crucial for meaningful narratives.

Taking O’Connor’s instruction to the fiction writer, why can’t architects also enlarge their view of the human scene, pursuing this not only to become better designers but also to become better observers of reality? 

Seeing differently

In an interview with the Paris Review, James Baldwin tells a story of the moment he began to see the world in this enlarged way, when he first tapped into his anagogical vision. The interviewer asks if Baldwin had anyone to guide him as a young writer. “I remember standing on a street corner,” Baldwin says, “with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”

Architecture can take on new character only when we begin to expand the ways in which we see it, when push ourselves to look beyond form, proportions, and materials as ends in themselves but as means to something higher. The traditional posture of architectural design is to see design as an intervening solution, where we get terms like design intervention. Sometimes, that is an appropriate way to describe a project. But, the idea of intervention often ignores a project’s future inhabitants, something especially problematic in socially-focused, community-centric work.

The traditional posture of architectural design is to see design as an intervening solution […] But, the idea of intervention often ignores a project’s future inhabitants, something especially problematic in socially-focused, community-centric work.

A reformed posture for architectural design would view design not as something that abruptly intervenes but as something that grows out of a deep, empathic understanding of, and collaborative engagement with, a community. Such a posture would embrace the notion that Karsten Harries touches on when he writes: “The task of architecture remains what it has always been: architecture should edify [emphasis added].” We cannot achieve this if our vision does not expand to look beyond the physical building and see inhabitants as the oxygen and lifeblood of the built environment. 

The edifying edifice

The close reader will notice that the word edify from Harries’s quote sounds a lot like edifice, a synonym for building or structure. Edify means to “instruct or improve (someone) morally or intellectually.” It comes from the mid-14th century, “to build, construct,” or “to build up morally or in faith;” also from the Old French edefiier, “build; install; teach, instruct (morally).” 

The last few years have forced us to rethink several aspects of architectural practice. By exploring other modes by which we interpret, read, and understand architecture, places, and the built environment at large, the hope is that we can transcend the traditional western lens that overemphasizes purism and a kind of fundamentalist formalism. Our aim should be to recognize the constitutive importance of the end-user to our work and seek, as many already do, to not impose a philosophy or identity onto them but instead create an architecture that enables, edifies, and enhances.

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