I spent the first half of my professional life as a working architectural critic and writer, reporting on the hottest new Renzo Piano addition to Chicago’s Modern Wing; interviewing Zaha Hadid that one terrifyingly not-terrifying time (she was so friendly it threw me for all my Zaha-assumption loops); visiting architect Roy McMakin’s various houses (Seattle, Vashon Island, Venice Beach). And I spent the second half of my life with just as much peripatesis, but this time in doctors’ offices around the nation. I reported my symptoms to an integrative naturopath in Petaluma, California (he suggested a vision quest); interviewed my neurosurgeon at a famous California hospital for a terrifyingly just-straight-up terrifying time (I longed to bond with him as easily as I’d bonded with Zaha); visited five operating rooms in various hospitals.
Here’s the difference: in every hospital, I had rights. The buildings? They just happened to me. And why is that? Why should bad architecture—which exists for so much longer, affects our lives over such a longer span—be allowed, when bad doctoring is (at least ideally) caught in the early stages, before it’s metastasized? Not to get all Illness as Metaphor, but bad architecture—thoughtless architecture, model home architecture, houses made out of plastic and glued-together formaldehyde-laced plywood, is both literally a cancer upon the land (that shit is toxic) and, to be a little Illness as Metaphor, have you seen what happens when a mountain gets covered with tract housing? (Think the intro to Weeds, set in the fictional though totally true town of Agrestic, CA.
I have a Patient’s Bill of Rights that protects my brain from my neurosurgeon, my heart from my heart surgeon, my nipple from my breast surgeon. I have recourse and also the ability to participate in my care. But where I live? That’s at the whims of the economy, my credit score, and the Google Bus. What I see in my town? That’s at the whims of often-uninformed committees, back-room dealings and deals, and, again, the Google Bus. So, what if we had a Design Patient’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities? Let’s imagine…
DESIGN PATIENT RIGHTS
As a design recipient, you have the right to:
- Exercise your rights without regard to ancestry; age; color; culture; disability; economic or educational background; genetic information; neighborhood you bought into before it got hot and you got the wrong gentrification wave; familiarity with magazines from Dwell to House Beautiful; willingness and/or ability to figure out why Zillow is suddenly sending you pictures of kitchens when all you really wanted to know was housing prices in Oakland so you had something real to cry about for once; national origin; race; sex; sexual orientation; possibility that you’re a woman architect running her own practice; fact that being a woman architect running her own practice is still, in 2016, very remarkable and totally newsworthy; the source of payment for care; the level of your interest rates; or any other classification protected by law.
- Considerate and respectful care and to be made comfortable in your own home. Your home might not start out perfect, but you have the right to a toxin-free house that isn’t likely to be made out of shit that’s going to kill you (but of course the science isn’t in yet, so just see what happens in twenty years, you’re fine—check out this countertop!) You have the right to have your real estate agent tell you that your kitchen countertop is made of plastic rather than “high-end solid-style hard-surface” (heard that on House Hunters, what is that?).
- Knowledge of the name of the architect who has primary responsibility for coordinating your housing and shelter, and the names and professional relationships of other architects and non-architects who are responsible for the place in which you will spend a majority of breathing hours. It is your right to even HAVE an architect who has a name that isn’t Cordova, or Shenstone Reserve, or The Amberlea at Moorefield Green (not to be confused with The Huntington at Moorefield Green). It is your right to one day understand why architects like Zaha Hadid can completely disclaim responsibility for the fiasco at her Qatar stadium because it was the contractor’s fault. You also have the right to have architects and contractors and builders who work together like, say, your team of a surgeon, an OR nurse, an anesthesiologist, and not have you die and the surgeon be like, “Not my bad, that’s on the scalpel scrubber.”
- Reasonable continuity of architectural care and home residence without suddenly being foreclosed on, or, even better, not having been put in that position in the first place (cough, Michael Lewis, cough, I don’t have the best credit or the best rental history and even I’m starting to qualify for loans). You have the right to ask your landlord what his plans are, and not to be evicted for some spurious reason like you don’t pay as much rent as the guy who rides the Google Bus will.
- Participate actively in decisions regarding what is going to be built right next to you. Yes, Community Board meetings are insanely weird and often full of very long disquisitions on walls and, according to a recent Curbed report, someone calling housing a “poor old gay door.” You have the right to be grateful for Curbed’s having reported on community board hearings for years and years so you can keep yourself informed, but you also have the right to have community board hearings be well-run and mostly entertaining and interesting and actually informative instead of being a lot of discussion about aforementioned “poor old gay doors” and how, like, this thing “needs further study.”
- Not to be totally taken for a ride if you’re a wealthy client. I’ve interviewed hundreds of architects and the majority of them are stand-up, amazing, curious, great, well-informed designers who just want to bring a better life and home to their clients. And then I’ve interviewed some architects who have dragged the design process through years and years of “further study” and “deep study” and “research” and seriously, it can’t possibly take that long. To the extent permitted by law, you have the right to tell your architect—if you’re in the 1% of people who can hire one—that you refuse the four years of archival study that he’s proposing to figure out just where the swimming pool would best be put to avoid that extremely dangerous systemic problem of leaves in the pool.
DESIGN PATIENT RESPONSIBILITIES
(because we’re ALL complicit, and we can all change!)
You have the responsibility to:
- Make informed decisions. If you’re a critic, look at the building if you can. If you’re a writer, look as hard at the pictures you’ve been given as you can. If you’re a writer and the building you’re writing about is relatively nearby, make the effort to actually go see it. (You’d be amazed what happens when critics do this one simple trick!) If you’re a client, interview your architect a few times before you sign with her (or him, or them), because, as the Stanford Bill of Patient Rights and Responsibilities, reminds us, “you should ask questions to fully understand each document to be signed.”
- Understand. If the explanation of the architecture is not clear, ask such questions as:
- Not have to suddenly start paying bills that WERE seriously every time routinely covered, as in that’s the entire operating ethos of the institution: as in Cooper Union suddenly charging tuition because they spent too much money on Black Hole of Formalism + Confusion Thom Mayne.
- Respect others, even when they’re disagreeing with you. Don’t be like Frank Gehry and give a reporter the finger because he was asked about practicing “the architecture of spectacle.” Acknowledge you’re doing spectacle, and then consider giving yourself the finger for continuing a trend that seriously doesn’t work anymore! The Bilbao Effect is over!
- Recognize the effect of lifestyle on your understanding of a building. If you’re suddenly coming down with all kinds of weird ailments and no one can understand why, do like I didn’t and pay attention to the ribbons of black mold covering your window frames. If you’re suddenly suffering from affluenza, ask yourself if you’ve been on so many sponsored press junkets that you forget that it’s totally not normal to hop from suite to suite to suite, and really not normal to just expect that and really really not normal to ever complain that the organizers got your free dinner vouchers mixed up.
- Be an awake and aware person. Architecture is everywhere, and you’re going to encounter it no matter what, even if you take super great care of yourself and have never even had a cold! We have become too used to our lack of power as regular people without the millions or billions of dollars required to architecturally intervene into our own lives, and so we’ve done the best we can with housing developments and new construction and “hardwood-style” flooring in our overpriced condos because we don’t think we have a choice. But everyone has a choice. Even if you’re fucked up in a hospital bed, you have a choice. So start thinking about it. Start a blog about parking garages you have known and loved. Write to your local councilman and tell him that everyone in your complex is getting sick. File those papers to the Alameda Healthy Homes board because those ribbons of mold fucked your shit up for MONTHS. Read the critics who are writing amazing stuff, and there are many: Mark Lamster at the Dallas Morning News, Alexandra Lange at Curbed, Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times. Keep yourself informed, because there are actually three things you can never avoid: Death, Taxes, and Architecture.