Ladies and Gentlemen,
I cordially welcome you all to this year’s Forum 2000 Conference. I am firmly convinced that you will not consider the time you spend here wasted.
While I am aware of the countless more serious problems with human settlements on this planet – from the slums on the fringes of Asian or Latin American megalopolises to cities devastated by earthquakes or floods – with your permission I will start in a somewhat personal vein. Years ago when I used to drive by car from Prague to our country cottage in Eastern Bohemia, the journey from the city centre to the signboard that marked the city limits took about fifteen minutes. Then came meadows, forests, fields and villages. These days the selfsame journey takes a good forty minutes or more, and it is impossible to know whether I have left the city or not. What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city as I understand the term, nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, car and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote. And in between all that – and this is something that bothers me most of all – are large tracts of land that aren’t anything, by which I mean that they’re not meadows, fields, woods, jungle or meaningful human settlement. Here and there, in a space that is so hard to define, one can find an architecturally beautiful or original building, but it is as solitary as the proverbial tomb – it is unconnected with anything else; it is not adjacent to anything or even remote from anything; it simply stands there. In other words all the time our cities are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities, and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity or heterogeneity. And on the occasions it tries to imitate something local or original, it looks altogether suspect, because it is obviously a purpose-built fake. There is emerging a new type of a previously described existential phenomenon: unbounded consumer collectivity engenders a new type of solitude.
Where has all this woeful development come from and why does it go on getting worse? How is at all possible that humans can treat in such a senseless fashion not only the landscape that surrounds them but the very planet which they have been given to inhabit? We know that we are behaving in a suicidal manner and yet we go on doing it. How is it possible?
We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.
But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important.
However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride. The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.
And indeed, why should a developer go to the trouble of building a warehouse with several storeys when he can have as much land as he wants and can therefore build as many single-storey warehouses as he likes? Why should he worry about whether his building suits the locality in which it is built, so long as it be reached by the shortest route and it is possible to build a gigantic car park alongside it? What is to him that between his site and his neighbour’s there is a wasteland? And what is to him, after all, that from an aeroplane the city more and more resembles a tumour metastasizing in all directions and that he is contributing to it? Why should he get worked up over a few dozen hectares that he carves out of the soil that many still regard as the natural framework of their homeland?
I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.
But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.
We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
I believe that the recent financial and economic crisis was of great importance and in its ultimate essence it was actually a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.
Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.
And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth - were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.
I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.
In fact it is nothing extraordinary, nothing that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilisation. Human behaviour is not totally explicable as many inventors of economic theories and concepts believe; and the behaviour of firms or institutions or entire communities is even less so.
Naturally after this crisis a thousand and one theorists will emerge to describe precisely how and why it happened and how to prevent it happening in future. But this will not be a sign that they have understood the message that the crisis sent us. The opposite, more likely: it will simply be a further emanation of that disproportionate self-assurance that I have been speaking of.
I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.
The modern pride that I refer to did not manifest itself in architecture only recently. In the inter-war period many otherwise brilliant avant-garde architects already shared the opinion that confident and rational reflection was the key to a new approach to human settlement. And so they started planning various happy cities with separate zones for housing, sport, entertainment, commerce or hospitality, all linked by a logical infrastructure. Those architects had succumbed to the aberrant notion that an enlightened brain is capable of devising the ideal city. Nothing of the sort was created, however. Bold urbanist projects proved to be one thing, while life turned out to be something else. Life often demands something quite different from what the architects offer, such as an urban district consisting of the strangest hotchpotch of different functions, where the children’s playground is next to the government building, the government building next to a pub, and the pub next to an apartment house, which in turn is next to a small park. For centuries humankind lived in culture-forming civilisations, in other words, settlements had a natural order determined by a universally-shared sensibility, thanks to which every illiterate mediaeval blacksmith, when asked to forge a bracket, infallibly forged a Gothic bracket, without needing a teacher of Gothic or a Gothic designer. The designers’ civilisation in which we live is one of the many secondary consequences of that modern-era pride, whereby people believe they have understood everything and than they can therefore completely plan the world.
Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilisation of pride.
Can anything be absolutely self-evident?
Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at. And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder. But what is the point of having someone wonder at something? And what alternative is there to being? After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible.
Perhaps someone, just a few hundred light years away from our planet, is looking at us through a perfect telescope. What do they see? They see the Thirty Years War. For that reason alone it holds true that everything is here all the time, that nothing that has happened can unhappen, and that with our every word or movement we are making the cosmos different – forever - from what it was before.
In all events, I am certain that our civilisation is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.
It is necessary to wonder. And it is necessary to worry about the non-self-evidence of things.
I hope and trust that this year’s Forum 2000 will not only deal with architecture and urbanism, which it has taken as its main topic, but also with their wider implications. For what else should be the major challenge for reflection on today’s world than the manner in which humankind settles one of the many billions of cosmic bodies?
Thank you for your attention. I don’t take it for granted.