Everyone’s an architecture critic. Last year one of us, Steven, was driving driving down Elliot Avenue in Charlottesville, Virginia, his hometown, with his 88-year-old mother. They passed a house designed and built by architecture students at the University of Virginia. To Steven, an architect, this model for affordable housing — a tough pair of stacked boxes, sheathed in corrugated metal — was, if nothing else, a bold design statement. But to his mother’s untrained eye, the house is a blight on the landscape, an insult to its historic neighbors.
“It looks like somebody piled a couple of boxcars on top of each other, then covered them up with cheap metal and whatever else they could find at the junkyard!” his normally sweet dispositioned mother said.
It’s easy to dismiss Mrs. Bingler as an unsophisticated layperson who just doesn’t appreciate ambitious design. But here’s the unsettling truth: Her dim view of contemporary architecture — student and starchitect varieties alike — is pretty much shared by the general public. We architects might not want to believe it, but outside our professional cloister — the choir we preach to in magazines, blogs, architecture schools and conferences — the vast majority of everyday people are either indifferent or openly hostile to our work. We mistake our robust professional discourse for a wide mandate,dismissing the public’s “uninformed” take on our work, even as we increasingly talk about making that work more relevant to modern life with issues like “sustainability” and “resilience planning.” Perhaps more alarming is the reluctance of architects to even acknowledge our responsibility for this disconnect.
In 2007 Steven’s firm, Concordia, was one of 13 from around the world invited by the Make it Right Foundation to create prototypes for sustainable, affordable homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, a New Orleans neighborhood deeply flooded following Hurricane Katrina. Early in the process, Make It Right’s founder, Brad Pitt, invited a handful of returning residents to critique the new designs. They weren’t entirely sold, asking perfectly logical questions like: What’s with the flat roofs — you know it rains a lot here, right? Why are the balconies just four feet deep when my rocking chair takes up three feet?
Following an early design charrette, one of the architects expressed frustration with the citizen input. “This is going to be a very difficult project,” he said, “because first we’re going to have to decide who we’re designing for, us or them.”
So, who’s the problem here: Mrs. Bingler and the folks in the Lower Ninth Ward or a profession that appears either unable or unwilling to connect with them? Architecture, of the capital “A” variety, seems exceptionally capable of creating signature pieces, glorious one-offs. We’re brilliant at crafting sublime (or bombastic) structures for a global elite who share our values (or acquiesce when told they ought to). We seem a lot less capable, however, of creating artful and harmonious work in the public realm that resonates with a broad swath of the general population: the very people we are, at least theoretically, meant to serve.
When we’re called on to communicate with the public — and step away from our role serving the wealthy, the corporate and the otherwise enlightened — we tend to toggle between provocation (which requires us to“educate” the uneducated) and pandering (phony Colonial mansions, clumsy Neoclassical knockoffs, i.e. the path of least resistance). Both tactics are fraudulent and marginalizing.
Our profession clearly needs a different approach. We must rethink how we respond to the needs of diverse constituencies by telling more of their stories and less of our own; we must hone our skills through authentic collaboration, not just slick salesmanship; reconnect buildings to nature, reevaluating our obsession with mechanization and materiality, and explore instead more universal forms and natural design principles.
How did the public art of architecture become so chronically estranged from the public? Although it might be tempting to blame it all on the Modernist movement, the roots of our disengagement stretch back even further, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the machine age, our built environment was much more intimately tied to the natural world, largely because we had yet to develop the technologies that control and override nature. Skyscrapers were pointless fantasies until the advent of the elevator; lighter-than-air curtain walls hinged on the development of new kinds of glass.
Ironically, in its early hours the shift toward a more industrial architecture delighted the very public that it later estranged. The Paris Exposition of 1889, with its Tour Eiffel, was wildly popular. But architecture’s infatuation with industrial idioms and processes (along with its top down approach to planning and implementation) continued to expand far beyond the public’s limited appetite, notwithstanding the Art Nouveau’s movement’s unsuccessful effort to broker a marriage.
The heedless but wildly successful effort to corral nature was the 20th century’s driving mandate, and of course it remains so to this day. As a result, for the past hundred years or so, the chasm separating architecture from some fundamental laws of nature has only widened — with disastrous consequences for both nature and architecture.
The public’s aversion to contemporary design isn’t just rooted in style (although if you took a poll, Brutalist concrete and corrugated metal would not rate very high). Instead it’s the symptom of a more profound unease: the building as shiny alien object. The Modernist movement, which was launched with exemplary social and artistic intentions, simply accelerated this trend. Buildings were proudly proclaimed “machines for living” and a cure for all manner of social ills. Today, increasingly detached from the movement’s deeper meanings, Modernism is a default mannerism, one among several historical styles blindly replicated.
Therein lies a paradox. While architects design a tiny percentage of all buildings (and the growing movement towards design/build procurement threatens to drive that number even lower), our powers of self-congratulation have never been greater. Although the term “starchitect” has become something of an insult, its currency within celebrity culture speaks to our profession’s broad but superficial reach. High profile work has been swallowed into the great media maw, albeit as a cultural sideshow — occasionally diverting but not relevant to the everyday lives of most people.
The problem isn’t the infinitesimal speck of buildings created by celebrity architects (some arresting, some almost comic in their dysfunction) but rather the distorting influence these projects have had on the values and ambitions of the profession’s middle ranks.
This might be an acceptable state of affairs if our only role were to serve those able to afford our services. And the truth is, the world would be a drearier place without Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House. The problem isn’t the infinitesimal speck of buildings created by celebrity architects (some arresting, some almost comic in their dysfunction) but rather the distorting influence these projects have had on the values and ambitions of the profession’s middle ranks.
We’ve taught several generations of architects to speak out as artists — but we haven’t taught them how to listen. Consequently, when crisis has called upon our profession to step up — in New York, for example, post 9/11, and in New Orleans after Katrina — we have failed to give the public good reason to trust us. In China and in other parts of East Asia, western architects continue to perform their one-off magic, while at the same time repeating many of the urban design catastrophes of the previous century, at significantly larger and almost unimaginable scales.
Architecture’s global disconnect is both physical and spiritual. We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand. In the meantime,we’ve ceded the rest of the built environment to hacks, with sprawl and dreck rolling out all around us.
It wasn’t always like this. For more than 3,000 years, architects, artists, masons and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on a myriad of iterative styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world.
And, contrary to popular belief in the design academy, these creative resources transcend style. They not only have wide aesthetic appeal, they’re also profoundly human, tied to our own DNA. They’re the reason both Philip Johnson and the proverbial little old lady from Dubuque could stand beneath the Rose Window at Chartres and share a sense of awe.
Today, respect for the natural environment is a baseline prerequisite for architects, but it must also once again become a primary source of artistic inspiration. The good news is that previous generations have been there before us. Great buildings are always connected to a deeper dive: Andrea Palladio’s elegant villas embody the sacred proportions of musical harmony; Antonio Gaudi’s effusive buildings express the complex geometries of the natural world; Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal evokes a bird in flight and deeply pleases critics and cabdrivers alike. In all of this work familiar truths find common ground on the creative edge of discovery and innovation.
Of course not all architects are equally proficient at producing seminal work, but we do have access to the same set of universal tools and inspirations. And let’s be honest: Reconnecting architecture with its users — rediscovering the radical middle, where we meet, listen and truly collaborate with the public, speak a common language, and still advance the art of architecture — is long overdue. It’s also one of the great design challenges of our time.
This is an excerpt from a work in progress entitled Building on the Common Edge. A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Times, on December 15, 2014. Top image: Doha skyline in the morning, courtesy Francisco Anzola