duo control image

Architecture and the Illusion of Control

Humans like to feel in control, architects even more so. But for architects, designing and constructing buildings involves other people’s money, other people’s values, even the immutable certainties of gravity and the environment. So the desire to control the basic realities of architecture has for some always been compromised, if not impossible.

Compromise is felt most sharply in eras of radical social limitation. Wars, depressions, economic uncertainties—all inevitably distort the architectural zeitgeist. Today is a stark case in point. A worldwide pandemic with lockdowns and social-control imperatives has back-burnered many of the high-minded aesthetic notions that once ruled the profession. We’re all coping.

Architects are especially vulnerable in a world of abrupt change. Many of us have defined ourselves by the branding of a “style,” or the use of cutting-edge technologies, or even the elusive pursuit of “beauty.” But those crutches, tropes, and aspirations go silent when suddenly the game has no board.

How will architects find meaning in this new world? It starts with our fully accepting the reality that like the rest of humanity, we’re not in control right now. This is especially true for those whose central passion and purpose is to make the world a “better” place, because “survival” now comes first. 

The future of making buildings starts with our response to fundamental needs. Those of us who have helped create homes can see that people are seeing them for the first time after living in them for their entire lives. Architects need to bite their aesthetic tongues and resist the impulse to invent conclusions. In a time when homes are begging rediscovered, everyone is potentially remaking how they live in real time, right now. 

Listening is not a skill taught in architecture school, and that mindset is often bypassed in the chaos of getting things built. But in a changed world, this skill is essential to re-making. Those architects creating workplaces know those spaces cannot be the same. The designers with a fully loaded portfolio of correct urban futures for any city, anywhere, will need to see how everyone’s vision of “density” and “safety” are now moving targets. 

All humans inevitably jump to conclusions. We see endless articles about “the 10 ways our offices/cities/homes will change.” The think pieces proclaiming “work from home is here to stay,” “skyscrapers are dead,” or “people will grow their own food” may all prove to be correct. Or not.

We once thought there would be a new ice age, or the world would run out of food due to overpopulation, or just three months ago that 2.2 million Americans might die of COVID-19. Some thought there were weapons of mass destruction, or that the domino theory would protect freedom, or even that a black president would break the centuries-old cycle of racism. This belief in outcomes, based on limited information in a changing world, has often had disastrous results.

Like some architects I know, our office has had no cancellations and received a flow of new, small projects in the last few months. Having done this for over 30 years, the past does tend to be prologue. More important, our past was always centered and formatted to foster client expression, forcing us to listen to who our clients and sites are. 

In an unpredictable future, adaptation and responsiveness have a new value. The world may be telling us, again, to just get over ourselves.

 The future of architects can be found if the ethic of their design practice is fully open (versus willfully subjective). In an unpredictable future, adaptation and responsiveness have new value. The world may be telling us, again, to just get over ourselves. If we start by giving a voice to all those involved in making a building, including those in the community where we build (both living and dead), and then listen to and weigh all that criteria, this lack of control becomes a creative opportunity.

Cursing the reality of our impotence when things are revealed to be totally out of control usually causes anger or fear. After five economic breaks in the last 40 years, including this pandemic, change is not unusual, it’s the norm. Control was never possible, but value, and values, are universal truths. They’re the real currency of architecture.

For many architects, the world that made for cozy, self-defining niches has been rendered obsolete. The only way to have meaning in a radically changing world is to help meet essential human needs. One of those is building. Without that reality, architecture goes the way of the cruise liner.

Featured image by the author, who says the design of the house conformed to the existing 1950s garage below and the town’s zoning setbacks above, “with architecture in between.”

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