Architect drawing wiki

Covid-19 Has Raised the Question: Why Do We Design Buildings?

The pandemic has force-fed change into almost every aspect of our lives. What does that mean for architecture? I have been in my office 135 out of the 140 days since Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont declared “construction” (and all its constituent trades, including “design”) essential. For two months I was alone, then one employee for a day or two a month, then others, eventually all, but most still working from home. The office continued to function. 

 We lost zero jobs in those 140 days and gained some wonderful new commissions. Our office is navigating uncharted waters. But I have been doing the work of architecture for more than 40 years. This pandemic is not just about coping, because the means and methods of designing and construction are ultimately not what the profession is about. Architecture is the manifestation of our humanity in buildings. How we execute that mission has changed radically in the last 30 years, accelerating in the last decade. Covid-19 has now completely transformed the basis for all of that work. 

When the culture changes, either voluntarily or kicking and screaming, architecture naturally follows. But this current global upheaval may impose a complete rethink of how architecture defines itself. A system of recognition—professional, aesthetic, even theoretical—has been in place since the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was formed more than 150 years ago, replacing a guild system of master builders. The world of architecture connected to form morphed into a recognized “canon” that incorporated education, professional organizations, and journalism. The last six months have disrupted all of those systems.

Two world wars, a previous pandemic, even the complete change from the analog world of physical craftsmanship to digital production did not change the criteria of success: innovation in the built form as defined by architects—and imposed on them. What evolved is the present two-tier system that supports a fine-arts establishment of published and taught architecture doing a tiny percentage of construction and a low-art building industry that responds to demand like any other product-producing industry. 

The rules of infrastructure, budget, weather, local customs, and code defined the built-for-profit vernacular buildings that dominate the landscape, while the thin crust of self-defined “cutting edge” architecture sought to wish away those criteria. But there seems to be another split in the offing: the “before Covid” and “after Covid” ways of assessing what truly matters.

The easy answers for what constitutes Architecture has undergone change. It’s not just the pat predictions of Dead Typologies Walking (sealed skyscrapers, open office plans, cool restaurant interiors, etc.). The belief that urbanism was the ultimate, unavoidable truth of where our civilization is going has, for now, been called into question. But more important, the “go along to get along” reality of the profession may be called into question, too.

Sitting alone on my office for those 135 days forced me to think about why we do this. What is our motivation? What are we trying to accomplish? These fundamental questions have a clarifying effect.

 

Sitting alone in my office for those 135 days forced me to think about why we do this. Perhaps performance (however we define it) is becoming less important than values. What is our motivation? What are we trying to accomplish, beyond earning a living? These fundamental questions have a clarifying effect.

Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic, sees both the forest and the trees: “Why we build has always mattered, even if it appears not to at particular times, and even if we’re often blinded to the big questions by the pressures in front of us. There is a wonderful Jewish proverb that goes something like, ‘Just as the hand held close to your eyes can blind you to the view of the grandest mountain, so do the pressures of daily life blind us to the grandeur and beauty of life around us.’ I think that’s the point—we get run down by the practical challenges in architecture, as in everything about life, and too often forget why we’re doing it, why we care about it, and why it can be as beautiful as the magnificent view that the hand, held close, blocks from us.”

If the motivations behind design take on new meaning, do competitions and other forms of recognition mean less? Architecture schools focus on form and presentation, a tradition that may have a different perspective in a Zoom-class world. Perhaps our ability to render virtually anything sexy or “cool” becomes less meaningful in a world where everything is being questioned. 

Most architects have to deal with the reasons people want to build, and that means addressing values. “The ‘why’ of design has always been the motivation and greatest end reward in doing what I do, which is solving a problem,” says New York City architect Andrew Wilkinson. “Architecture as a deeply inspired practical art has not varied for me in this post-Covid world, even though I may be solving different problems.” 

“The ability of an environment to help us feel secure, to lift our spirits, to reach outward, look inward, to engage nature, to be inspired by awe, all are still fundamental to our role,” says Leonard Wyeth.

Amid the pandemic-imposed disruptions, architect Leonard Wyeth sees continuity. “Our role of interpreting how we occupy space, interact, gather, entertain, amuse and comfort each other has not changed. The ability of an environment to help us feel secure, to lift our spirits, to reach outward, look inward, to engage nature, to be inspired by awe, all are still fundamental to our role. Performance is a baseline. Values and motivation are fundamental to the art of architecture. Success requires that they remain inseparable.”

Goldberger agrees: “The truth is, it is never an ‘either/or’ situation. It’s a fallacy to think of architecture as only serving practical and functional needs, and therefore as being bad, or as only as aspiring toward the making of art, and therefore being good. The greatest architecture has always done both, and there is architecture that exists at every point of the long, long continuum. That’s not going to change.”

But what has changed, profoundly, is everyday life. The values of object and celebrity worship, the architectural world’s fascination with novelty and invented aesthetics, suddenly appear trivial when millions are worried about survival. The pandemic has impacted everyone. Stories of canceled projects are common, as they are in every recession, but for other architects work has exploded. Architecture, a capital-intensive undertaking, is slavishly responsive to demand, so it’s easy to be distracted by either despair or hubris. 

This time of intense change might make it possible for architects to focus on the reasons we take the time (and money) to design anything more than the necessary. The pre-Covid mindset allowed for the execution of buildings as transaction, a commodity exchange. We’ve now had nearly a half-year to rethink that approach. In a transformed world, where everyone is forced to rethink everything, architecture is not immune from seeing beyond itself.

Featured image via Wikipedia.

 

Newsletter

Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.