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In Architects We Trust? 10 Trusts Worth Busting

It’s a strange time to be an architect. Record numbers of people trust enough in the profession’s future to spend the highest tuitions in history to become architects. Simultaneously, new technologies of Revit, BIM, etc. mean far fewer humans are needed to design buildings than ever before. And while we’re perceived as cool by many, we’re clueless about what our job will be in ten years. Trusting in architecture has become a faith-based proposition. Like all self-appointed artists, architects trust in the fashions of our profession to the point where we become caricatures of ourselves. Here’s some things architects often trust that delude our value and sabotage our relevance:


1) Trusting in Image Over Performance. Architects want the authority of Frank Lloyd Wright or Zaha Hadid, but confuse persona with talent and freakish drive. Movies like The Architect show the downside of projecting affect, in lieu of expertise. Alas, a few stereotypes are rooted in some truth.


2) Trusting in the Rich. Like the fashion industry, architecture’s public face is most often linked to the elite. It is amazing architects can’t see, even with all of their assets, that the rich and famous routinely eat their young (and sycophants). Just watch an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.


3) Trusting in Technology. We used to throw thousands of dollars at ever better drafting machines, groovier Letraset fonts, the next edition of Sweets, or Graphic Standards (remember Pin Register Drafting?) But shallow thinking, technical incompetence or cultural tone-deafness are not solved by any technology: Sorry Revit, you’re just a robot. (Oh, and flat roofs always leak.)


4) Trusting in the Aesthetically Correct. Herding is not limited to lemmings. Architects defend visual tropes until they jump the shark: must-cantilever will soon follow shipping containers, blobitecture, supergraphics, and Corbu glasses into the dustbin of been-there/done-that.


5) Trusting That Obscurity = Meaning. Like the inside baseball linguistics of economics or philosophy, creating meaning with language works until its non-existent relevance becomes a joke: Archispeak speaks only to other architects trying to feign insight and those who have chugged their Kool-Aid. If words are needed to justify a design that contradicts the experience, something is wrong.


6) Trusting in Regulations. Whether it’s laws that require licensed architects to do a drawing to hang a closet door, or paint your house or require LEED Certification for it, relevance cannot be legislated. Making people pay for an unnecessary level of service only cheapens it—and makes the alternative to architects seem more valuable.


7) Trusting in the Photograph. Designing to stage set a project’s boffo image (invariably, a night shot) might get you published, but people do not live in, work at, or sit down to a meal in a photo. Conflating the 2D and real life is what begat the Trump candidacy: Life is not an infinite series of selfies—and neither are buildings.


8) Trusting in Architecture. The act of “design” has no better guaranteed outcome than the act of simply building what has been built before. Is a bad “innovative” or “cutting edge” design better than a boring one? Architects equate “boring” with “bad.” The rest of the world equates “usefulness” with “good” in buildings, “designed” or not.


9) Trusting in Money. Believing bad buildings are caused by inadequate budgets is like saying the $8 artisanal tomato is more nutritious than the supermarket version. Money cannot buy happiness or even good design. The crutch of blaming the budget begs the question of ultimate worth: if you’re not creative at $200 a square foot, you won’t be any more creative at $600 (but you can indulge in “correct” affectations).


10) Trusting in Style. Finding cover in a belief system only works for the believers. “Modernism” is neither sacred nor evil. No religion gives its believers a ticket to heaven, because belief-is-not-truth. Equating “traditional” with hackery is no different than equating Islam with terrorism. It’s too easy to write off difference as wrong, or even pernicious; intellectual laziness usually morphs into prejudice, in architecture or in our culture.


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