zaha trump image

Will Architecture Have Its Donald Trump Moment?

There are two architectures. Not officially, yet, but the perception is real and growing that there is an architectural apartheid. There is an “inside” (the AIA, academia, mainstream journalism) and an “outside” (building, client-serving, context-accommodating architects). Thought leaders edit the images, words and lectures we all see to a soft-focus similarity of defendable Modernist Chic. The vast majority of us who do not teach (literally 90%: 60,000-doing vs. 6,000- teaching) or write/edit/promote the “cutting edge,” or lead an ever-shrinking AIA, do not feel part of the discourse.

In theory, those who teach, report on and organize an ethic serve that ethic. But sometimes those who serve an ethic grow to want to define it, and to define it, you have to lead it, and to lead it you must control it. Gaining control and maintaining it runs the risks of losing relevance to those you’re meant to serve. That’s why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won in Indiana last week, defying the elites of their political parties.

Trump has only been a Republican for a year or two and will be on the ballot as that party’s titular head. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist who has only been a Democrat for about a year, is a viable alternative to the long-standing “leaders” of his new found party. The success of Trump and Sanders, however, is not fundamentally based on policy; it’s about a generation (or two) of suppressed discontent within their parties. It’s a rebellion of the patronized and ignored.

It’s simplistic to say that it’s a style split: obviously in promoted architectural aesthetics “Elite=Modern,” but the disaffection in my profession (normal in year 8 of a building bust) is more about the invisibility of everything except the “cutting edge.”

Will architecture reach a similar breakpoint? It’s simplistic to say that it’s a style split: obviously in promoted architectural aesthetics “Elite=Modern,” but the disaffection in my profession (normal in year 8 of a building bust) is more about the invisibility of everything except the “cutting edge.” Thousands of incorrect buildings and their designers are simply ignored as if they were infectious—like Bernie Sanders.

A recent event underscored the reality of both the canon of the aesthetically correct and its heretical apostates. Zaha Hadid died last month. Hundreds of obituaries instantly exploded onto the internet, on the passing of a seminal leader of “correct” architecture. I gave a bit of context to an architect who exclusively used context as foil but virtually all of the rest, as you would expect, was florid praise, ignoring many questions of the role of architecture in our culture her work provoked, for good or for ill.

The veneration was often religious. But the responses I received to my piece displayed both anger and disdain: “She set architecture back 50 years.” “Ding Dong The Bitch Is Dead,” followed separately by the YouTube video from the Wizard of Oz musical number. And there were worse responses I cannot relay. Success always breeds jealousy—internet trolls be trollin’—but the expressed anger of a silenced perspective was as tangible as that found at a Trump Rally.

Tone-deaf control of content, political or aesthetic, can only resist mass disillusion and obvious irrelevance for so long in the marketplace of ideas. Even the elites in the USSR, in complete control of all media, academia and law, eventually surrendered to their own absurd denial of reality.

There’s always a point where devotees to a faith-based reality breach that faith. I call it the “Bagdad Bob” moment. When US troops were within minutes of him, the spokesman for Saddam Hussein, aka Bagdad Bob, extolled the great victories that would insure Iraq’s supremacy for 1,000 years. The profession of architecture has exploding numbers of graduates, and yet is hemorrhaging jobs.  Technology at the large firm level reduces the humans needed to create construction documents, and the profession’s increasing irrelevance to the on-the-ground consumer continues to impact small firms as engineers design more and more buildings. Are we coming to the moment when architecture’s teachers, scribes and organizers lose the credibility of those whom they are supposed to ultimately serve?

The “other” Architecture, the building Architecture, spends its days getting work, making payroll and dealing with clients, consultants, regulators and budgets. In theory, the AIA should help with that, but like many institutions, self-perpetuation often precludes usefulness.

At what point does aesthetic and intellectual orthodoxy become propaganda?   The “other” Architecture, the building Architecture, spends its days getting work, making payroll and dealing with clients, consultants, regulators and budgets. In theory, the AIA should help with that, but like many institutions, self-perpetuation often precludes usefulness. Architect Neal Pann, like many others, finds the AIA part of an architecture that he can’t relate to. “Unless you’re heavily invested in the AIA culture and political scene, it’s difficult to justify the expense of attending,” he said, referring to the annual convention.

As the mainstream publishing platforms winnow to two, Architect and Architectural Record, with smaller staffs, hundreds of new platforms pop-up, and some flourish, like Architects Newsletter, Arch Daily and Architizer: but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands who find precious little diversity of thought amid the “correct” (mind-numbingly consistent Modernist) work unrelentingly published. Sites like Graham McKay’s “Misfits’ Architecture” are sprouting because as, McKay puts it, “I spend a lot of time fretting about the state of architecture but it’s really the state of architectural ‘discourse’ I object to, and not just because most of it continues without me.”

Academia used to be the “other” in architecture. But the “other” has grown to recent record numbers of students, professors and post grads as the academic imprimatur has reached far into practice. My five year degree is now both passé and “incorrect” enough to disqualify me for teaching (absent a few more national recognitions)—not that I seek that income stream. A few years ago a former Dean of the Yale School of Architecture bemoaned to me that the now adequate Masters will eventually be replaced by the far more “correct” PhD: “I see it coming, it’s what they want.” The “they” (presumably non-building academics) have an entire sub-economy that is less focused on the purpose of training building architects, and more on examining aesthetics in perpetuity.

To those of us building both a business and structures, we have increasingly felt the split growing for a long time. Boston architect Jeremiah Eck noted a decade ago that the ads in the architecture magazines had a rich reflection of images that the magazine’s readers could relate to, but the content after the ad pages was deadly dull in its “correctness”.  This schism is understandable as the ads need to attract the sales of the products they promote to the largest number of readers possible, not the editors and writers. The work those journalists select is always interesting and sometimes awe-inspiring, but puritanical in its orthodoxy. Published, award-winning work is not intended to be a representative sample of the best in all of what’s being built, but instead, the selection criteria is to define the  “correct” in architecture as an aesthetic prescription—almost always old-time Modern writ new.

Today, my eyes widen and focus when a Quantum Window ad/image comes across my Instagram feed. It’s not about the windows: it’s about the diversity. There are “modern” designs, crafty designs, “traditional” designs—a complete, healthy diet of diversity. I do not spec them yet, but the buildings are rich, versus perfected, and convey understanding of construction, versus avoiding evidencing messy building techniques in the frosting of white and glass. The diversity in that ad campaign is simply not found in other journalistic platforms.

Architecture, like politics, is devolving into an “us” and “them” binary: directly relatable to any given project’s “Design Architect” and distinctly separate “Architect of Record”.  We hear and see and are told to venerate the “Design Architect”—the rest of us have little or no voice. The vast majority of architects in the trenches are passionate enough to sacrifice income for built expression in a devotional profession. But that “silent majority” needs to have a voice or the split, natural in any complex human endeavor, becomes toxic.

Architecture as a profession will lose even more cultural relevance if it loses its natural embrace of aesthetic diversity. It took Nikolaus Pevsner and Robert Venturi, voicing similar reactions to monolithic aesthetic hegemony five decades ago, to give voice for a wider bandwidth than the “correct.” PoMo popped up for a few decades, but its term-limiting reality was that it turned out that the “Post” in the  “Po” of Postmodern was incorrectly abbreviated: “Po” turned out to be short for “populist.” Almost fifty years ago the Silent Majority gave Richard Nixon the White House. Now those feeling ignored and dissed by bulldozing orthodoxies are elevating Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as their voice against the white noise of dominating elites in each of their parties. When “correctness” denies the full spectrum of what it presumes to judge as correct, silence is broken.

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