Channeling Andy Rooney: the Cranky, Complaining Architect

I graduated from architecture school more than two generations ago, which means I’m a Boomer architect. A white, male one at that. Who attended an Ivy school. This just might mean that my thoughts about architecture fall into the curmudgeon category. 

Thinking about shooing the kids off the lawn of my profession calls to mind someone who is likely only remembered by fellow curmudgeons: Andy Rooney. For 33 years, every Sunday night on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Rooney would be so predictably tetchy that he was criticized when he was insufficiently ill-humored. “I’ve had quite a few complaints lately from people who like it when I complain about things,” he reflected in one commentary. “They say I haven’t complained about anything lately. So tonight, for you complaint fans, I have a complaint.” 

One of Rooney’s daughters was a client of mine way back in the 20th century, so I feel emboldened to channel his cranky spirit, as though he were an architect now. Here goes:

Buzzwords are replacing a fuller understanding of how to make good buildings. Whole cottage industries seek to “brand” architecture, to “own” a design POV, to plot “alternative careers” in architecture, rather than just working every day to make buildings better. What building shouldn’t be “resilient”? Who doesn’t want to use as little energy as possible? “Net zero” is a wonderful goal for any new structure, but is it “cool”? Why is “density” salvational, beyond common sense for the past several thousand years of civilization?

My brain gets a cramp every time I hear the word “printing” applied to buildings. Nothing is “printed.” Like a million other industries, CNC (computer numerical control) technology is being used at the scale of buildings—and so far it looks pretty lame.

“Rainscreens.” If you want a “look” for a building’s exterior, and that look is not weather-worthy, you add a hidden, expensive fudge to ward off the moisture and create an aesthetic effect. Traditional, and cheaper, materials (stucco, clapboards, shingles) seal and finish building exteriors—no rainscreen needed. When style dictates the unseen impacts of cost, liability, and unnecessary carbon creation, something is deeply disingenuous.

Knowing how to build is no longer a criterion for gaining acceptance in architecture. Understandably, an intern in our office didn’t know how buildings were made, let alone described, but had put in the required time to qualify to take the licensing exam. This intern then quit the very job that exists to teach the ways buildings are made. The sole reason was to provide time to “study and take the exam as many times as I need to until I pass all the sections.” Putting in time, with no apparent need to understand or learn. So, another “licensed” architect will be minted who has little to no understanding of how to build. No problem!

How can color be dated? An architect I know looked at a building from the 1980s and said to me, “I miss those 1980s colors.” Colors are timeless. 

Every day, emails beg me to enter design competitions—and to pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege. This is revenue-generating, pay for play, ego stoking, done under the guise of “design excellence.” AIA awards that once had a handful of categories now have a dozen. There is a flood of profit-groveling that has created organizations that promise design credibility for those willing to throw money at them. Thousands of “awards” are bestowed, dumbing down excellence into persistence and budgetary investment (like getting licensed).

Every article is now a referendum on anything currently trending on the internet. I wrote a benign 700-word piece on the early embrace of Modernism in tweedy New England and was immediately berated for not including the racist zoning laws of Connecticut and the Nazi leanings of some of the architects that I referred to. “That’s a terrific idea for an article,” I responded. “Someone should write it.” I was then told that I was wrong in not writing that essay. Others, of course, chimed in as well. A simple essay became a lightning rod for righteous indignation over my lack of sensitivity to the need to educate the world about anti-Semitism. 

Ego porn solicitations pimp glory for cash. This era of creating one’s own “brand” or “owning your own story” is perfectly reflected in the daily pitches for cash, offered in exchange for the placement of design work on websites or in job referrals. No competency required, no building experience needed, just an active credit card. 

“Style” has become a pretext for fear and loathing. Patrick Webb, a decorative plasterer, posts images of nightmare developments and architectural excesses on Facebook and captions them, simply, “This is Modernism.” The hideosities that are shown (slums, pollution, even the explosion of a nuclear warhead) are declared to be the result of an all-powerful boogeyman: Modernism. An aesthetic is declared Evil: We’re victims of a worldwide conspiracy! Flat Roofs, Plate Glass, and the Interstitially in Fenstrational Hierarchy! Oh, my!

The era of no editors. Direct “publication” of incoherent, self-indulgent musings by anyone are everywhere—either self-published, jammed into magazines created by software to look “professional,” or pushed by incessant algorithms chumming the human heart for money. The laughable side of this dark distortion can be seen on Twitter and Instagram posts by architects, who breathlessly describe their own work. Every image is “fantastic,” every site “incredible,” every project “amazing.” Their posturing makes even an average publicist look subtle. 

Intentions are now praised as outcomes, as purity of motive has become the realization of good architecture, independent of construction. There are now organizations and websites that say little (and show even less) about building anything. Instead, the focus is on the designer’s intentions. There was once a central intention of architecture: to make better buildings. How that is done is an engaging topic, but to do it, you must make buildings. 

Let me take a breath. My channeling of Rooney is cathartic. The overwrought perms and shoulder pads of the 1980s, the $1,200 eyeglasses of the 1990s, even the edgy hair and tattoos of today’s hip Millennials are sartorial versions of the human desire to be both distinct and protected from judgment by following a path of cool.

These efforts at finding a “brand,” a POV, a social mission, an aesthetic, duck a central, but unavoidable, reality. When most people look at buildings, they don’t think of the designer’s “brand,” their motivations, or even the building’s “style.” They ask, “Is this a good building?” I think we should start there. If that makes me sound like Andy Rooney, then I guess I do.

Featured images of Frank Lloyd Wright and Rooney via Wikipedia Commons. 



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