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Words:
Maria Smith

If you feel ready to die, reach for the sky – Maria Smith strikes a different pose

Dear Architecture,

Please stop pretending to be depressed so other professions will think you’re clever. Your penchant for brutal grey sobriety is impressing no-one, it just makes horrible environments that are genuinely depressing. Stop it.

Now, I know the connection bet­ween melancholia and creative genius has a long and seductive provenance. It was all the way back in the 4th century BC that Aristotle wrote: ‘All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts are evidently melancholic’. The idea gained purchase in English literature from the 16th century following the 1586 publication of ‘A Treatise of Melancholie’ by Timothie Bright, a creative man himself who, incidentally, invented modern shorthand. His Treatise was popular with Elizabethan writers – including Shakespeare – and contributed to the development of the malcontent as a stereotype. The malcontent is a hyper-aware character who seems distant and even aloof: he often represents the objective point of view, commenting on issues as though he himself is above them. He often wears black. Sound familiar?

Educated English gentlemen soon began to affect a melancholy disposition as a way to advertise their intelligence. In 1621, Robert Burton published ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy,’ and the English gobbled it up, wearing the symptoms it described as a badge of sophistication. In ‘The English Malady’ published in 1773, George Cheyne blamed ‘great, populous, and consequently unhealthy Towns’ for ‘nervous Disorders being computed to make almost one third of the Complaints of the People of Condition in England.’ Melancholia was firmly established not only as a mark of distinction, but an English one at that.

In swooning moments, perhaps we architects are distraught in our quest for beauty. Or perhaps we revel in the wretchedness of frustrated creativity

The idea persists. Last year, researchers from the University of Warwick published a study that connected the lengths of a serotonin-regulating gene with happiness and well-being. Apparently our Danish neighbours enjoy nice long genes and so a fulfilling life, whereas the British have runty serotonin regulators and are hence hardwired to be miserable. What is interesting is not simply that we Celts and Anglo-Saxons might really be a miserable lot, but that our reaction to the news was one of vindication and pride.

Architects seem to have taken this persona of the melancholic creative genius to heart. We love to feel we can relate to Frank Lloyd Wright sitting in a Paris café in the grips of a ‘despair that I could not achieve what I had undertaken as ideal’ or contemplating ‘the agonies of the sentimentality that vainly tries to hold life… until the simple inevitable becomes high tragedy to the soul’.

Maybe we really are deliciously sad. In swooning moments, perhaps we architects are distraught in our quest for beauty. Every day, as we tirelessly coax planners and contractors and clients with a staunch naivety that resembles optimism, are we really questing for a divine rightness that, un-swayed by the weaker emotions, seeks to create a legacy that spans cultures and eras? Or perhaps we revel in the wretchedness of frustrated creativity. In 2014, a survey in the Architectural Review revealed that 97% considered architecture a creative industry. However, reading between the lines of the comments (‘only 1 per cent of our time is devoted to creation’ etc) I’d suggest that people feel that architecture should be a creative industry but, in the harsh light of day, it often isn’t.

So when this gets us down, do we over-egg the blues pudding as a creative comfort? In our many moments of mini crisis, do we cling – in the words of another depressive, Edgar Allan Poe – to the hope embedded in that question which ‘is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence’.
Well, perhaps there are a few great melancholic thinkers out there. But as the output of Monet or Isaac Newton – both of whom suffered from depression – shows us, the work of a manic depressive bears no resemblance to the formulaic malcontent who slopes about wearing slovenly black like an emo teenager. No, if Ariadne is at her drawing board, she’s probably devising the most brilliant, colourful, textural, sentient design the world has ever seen.

So, dear, dear Architecture, I beg you, learn the difference. If you want to live a Byronian rollercoaster life of incessant cycles of rapture and despair, be my guest, but get over the renaissance idea that the creative intelligentsia can be spotted from a mile off by the black silhouette against rough cast exposed concrete, in the rain.

Maria Smith is a director at Studio Weave


 

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