Architecture’s Cultural Cachet is Killing It
In the 2013 documentary Archiculture, Cornell professor Mary Woods says: “The remarkable thing to me is how optimistic students of architecture are…it’s almost a bit like an actor or actress, that they still cherish that belief that they’re going to break out of the chorus line.” In the film her quote is used as a segue into the notion of celebrity architects, which is unfortunate, because that metaphor shines a light on a damaging conflation often made between the performing arts and the vital societal function of making buildings.
Exalting as it may be, the cultural esteem that often surrounds architecture is actually detrimental to it, since it fosters a perception that providing visual distinction is the primary value of an architect’s work, ahead of providing functional shelter. This understanding is of course backwards. As important as both concepts are to an architect’s work, there is a fundamental hierarchy—one that’s central to our role—and it doesn’t seem to be widely understood.
This problem starts with how the public sees the profession. Popular culture, it seems, only has room for one or two architects at a time, with the most noteworthy practitioners hailed as “artists” for providing a break from the ordinary, often through the most accessible aspect of their work: its visual impact. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with this—appreciating aesthetic distinction is inherently valuable, and architects who provide this successfully should rightly be celebrated. But the public’s concern for the profession tends to end there. They don’t need to look past architecture’s aesthetic value because most people don’t use—and are barely aware of—the small percentage of visually distinct buildings in the world.
The problem germinates when a certain percentage of the public decides to become architects. Architectural education seems to push the same architect-as-visual-artist perception the students knew as laypeople. By emphasizing open-ended, individually-oriented design studios and spending little to no time teaching how buildings are constructed or financed, students are forced to compete with each other in the only way they’ve known so far: making their work visually distinct. In such a system, success can only be measured in aesthetic appeal.
Is it surprising, then, that a 2012 study found architecture students take on anywhere between 40% to 140% more debt than the average college student, while architecture salaries are notoriously lower than professions requiring a comparable investment in education? In this light, it seems the same aspirational prestige that surrounds many famous performers, and inspires countless hopefuls to follow in their footsteps, may also help feed the ranks of the architecture profession.
The parallels to acting stop there, because if an actor fails they merely waste our time, while an architect’s failure can leak on someone’s furniture, bankrupt a company, cost a fortune to cool or melt parked cars. Yet many young architects, after spending years cultivating the value of visual distinction, express dismay with the reality of having to consider constructability or project budgets upon reaching professional practice. Worse still, they likely know nothing about how either of those issues actually work in relation to them. This not only devalues the profession by cutting architects out of a majority of the process of making buildings, but it’s disastrous for a public that needs functional shelter more than artistic provocations. Thus, the prevailing perception needs to be flipped: function first, aesthetics second.
You may recognize this imperative as “form follows function,” but this isn’t a design issue as much as it’s a messaging issue. The least problematic part of this occurs within the profession itself, as many architects know that combining function with unique aesthetics adds irrefutable value to a project. High profile firms like Diller Scofidio + Renfro and BIG routinely draw acclaim for designing building elements that do something, but that sort of praise circulates almost exclusively among other architects. The right message—one that emphasizes a visually distinct building’s functional aspects over how it looks—isn’t getting through to the public.
How to fix this? Architects could start by re-aligning their notion of practice to encompass more of the building process than the small slice they currently hold. Expanding the boundaries of the profession to subsume segments like construction, finance and property development would give architects the agency they need to affect the sort of changes they can currently only theorize about. BIG’s in-house engineering and R&D departments, and SHOP’s penchant for design-build while taking a financial stake in their own projects, provide good examples. These are outliers, but if business models like this were considered the norm for architects, the profession would have more than just flashy formal moves to fall back on.
Architecture education could contribute to the solution by shifting away from the heavy emphasis currently placed on design studios, instead balancing their role within an integrated system that gives equal regard to how buildings are used, designed, built, and paid for. By imparting the currently established process of making buildings before asking students to design their own, studio projects would likely become far more viable and effective at addressing the problems they attempt to solve. Additionally, application of modest restrictions toward student projects, such as disallowing visually striking design elements that don’t also perform a valuable function, could reinforce the notion that visual distinction is not an end unto itself.
Property owners are typically preoccupied with a building’s function to begin with, but may often view aesthetics as a separate issue. Incentive to combine the two could be put forth through the prescriptive codes and regulations they’re bound to follow. A way forward here might be discernible through the municipal design review processes that are already standard in such areas as historically landmarked districts. While these sort of aesthetically-focused regulations are often bemoaned for stifling innovation, they also open the door, legally speaking, to the possibility of implementing guidelines that require visually singular design elements to be paired with valuable functional metrics, like ecological footprint reduction or the expansion of infrastructure.
These measures are cumulatively more broad and unwieldy, but a first step might be to recognize that letting artistic sophistication be the public’s go-to association for architects is ultimately damaging to the profession. Eschewing this label would signal a desire for architects to be associated with providing something more substantive to society than the occasional interesting-looking building. Get this message across first, and the rest can follow.