Is Architecture as Fractured as Our Politics?

It’s a New Year: 2017 arrives after an exhausting political firestorm. Our sense of economic uncertainty turned the last eight years into a crock pot that boiled over resulting in a divisive election, symbolized by a singular image: The Map.


We have all seen it: those fringes of urban blue, representing the candidate who won the popular vote by 3,000,000 and received the highest vote total in U.S. history; small edges and islands of blue swimming in a sea of sparsely populated red, representing the winner—as chosen, ironically, by the tiny Electoral College.


Symbolism is a tricky thing, but I will go there. In The Map, one person can see a Blue Elite holding back a Red Tide of populist fervor, while another person sees the cutting edge future being held back by the dead weight of a fading past. As an architect, the symbolism for me has morphed into metaphor, where a symbol of political polarization seems an apt analogy for my profession. It’s now a cliché to decry architecture’s cutting edge of academia and starchitects (the Blue Fringe) as tone deaf to popular sentiments and humane values. It’s also a convenient dismissal by the mainstream academic and media institutions of the typical building architecture office (the Red Sea) as hacks pandering to trite bourgeois vernaculars.


For more than a generation the profession has grappled with this version of a Red/Blue map. Boomer architects remember a long gone tolerance for aesthetic diversity—when there were more colors in the mapping of architectural aesthetics. We remember when competing perspectives made for interesting interactions: “Solar,” “Brutalism” and, of course, the now officially loathed “Postmodern,” could offer competing ways of thinking about and designing buildings (versus the present generation’s modernist “my way or the highway” filter for the majority of lauded, published and taught work).


But at the dawn of a new year, am I wrong to think there are green shoots of aesthetic diversity splitting through the predictable monolith? Maybe the resentments of “Style Wars” have become luxuries in this turbulent time. Maybe the last decade’s battle fatigue has made such concerns irrelevant. Getting and sustaining work is still tough in most building markets, especially when the technological revolution offers more alternatives to traditional architectural services. It’s exhausting to maintain extreme animosities, and perhaps architecture’s collective boredom with thirty years of  balkanization may be making our map take on a purple-ish hue.


New attitudes can be seen in MASS Design Group, out of Boston, who offer the kind of style-neutral social focus that cuts through the archispeak gobbledygook in their mission statement: “Architecture is not neutral; it either helps or hurts. Architecture is a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building’s walls and into the lives of communities and people.”


MASS Design Group's Butaro Hospital (2011), Rwanda.
MASS Design Group’s Butaro Hospital (2011), Rwanda.


Many of us have been walking this talk for decades, but this feels like a fresh reset, born of 30 years of imposed aesthetic lockstep, capped off with a near decade-long depressed building environment. The Austin, Texas firm of Lake/Flato Architects won the AIA’s Firm of the Year Award in 2004, but its corporate philosophy for its employees seems fresh out of the Millennial Mantra—and never mentions “style”:


“We are, at our core, about people—people who are design artists doing life together—in the office, in their community, and beyond the firm. This perspective drives a vibrant energy and lively open studio environment that guides the firm’s culture, drawing on each person’s unique passion and talent, to develop enriching designs.”


Lake Flato's Mill Springs Ranch (2013), Vanderpool, Texas
Lake Flato’s Mill Springs Ranch (2013), Vanderpool, Texas


When Alejandro Aravena won the 2016 Pritzker Prize, it was another fresh air experience in the fog of predictable starchitect veneration. Although it’s a “Lifetime Achievement” award, when the former Postmodern icons Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi won the AIA Gold Medal last year, it seemed that a veil had been pulled aside to celebrate a mindset that had been fashionably reviled. Having a couple of Postmodern exhibits and books a few years ago produced at MoMA  and the Victoria and Albert Museum felt a little like Lord Valdemort could finally be named.


Newer outlets, Curbed, Dezeen, ArchDaily, Archinect and many others, have broken the pre-eminence of the two big dawgs, Architectural Record and Architect. More voices will inevitably lead to more perspectives, which in architecture inevitably translates into aesthetic alternatives to the correct canon.


We’re still awash in endless images of senseless shapes—while the vast majority of banal work that gets built is directly akin to the red sea of The Map. But the convulsive revulsion many of us felt at the “parametric” blather of Patrik Schumacher could be voiced in new media with an impact not possible in a time when a handful of mags closed out wider conversations.


“For most of us in the trenches, there is still a clearly defined separation between the Blue Academic Elite and Red Building Architects. The vast majority of architectural consumers, the people who use buildings, prefer a sensibility that comforts more than questions.”


Having said this, for most of us in the trenches, there is still a clearly defined separation between the Blue Academic Elite and Red Building Architects. The vast majority of architectural consumers, the people who use buildings, prefer a sensibility that comforts more than questions. The architectural equivalent of populism, the Red reality, may not be heresy, but there is still a sense for most architects that, for good or for ill, there is an Architectural Electoral College that picks winners and losers. For some, the exclusivity is the keeping of the flame of modernism, but for a growing number of younger professionals and media, the “Style Question” has lost its intensity in a time of professional, political and ecological anxiety.


But the messaging of competition winners and the dominant pedagogy of fine arts-based architectural education is as clear as the election results. There may be aesthetic diversity in the marketplace, and more voices being heard, but the public face of architecture is flavored by an overwhelming Blue spice in the profession’s vat of Red stew.


If we had pluralism in politics, it would mean there would be Purple places in the Red/Blue map, but The Map’s stark contrast between two primary color-coded ideologies accurately reflect the starkest cultural clash that America has experienced since the Vietnam War. Within architecture, pluralism has also been elusive to the point where a splinter group of Classicist/Traditionalist architecture schools and awards programs, are set in pungent opposition to the still dominant paradigm of Modernist academic orthodoxy.


Just having this level of support for any alternative academic reality is refreshing, but if its basis is simplistically oppositional, as deeply dismissive to other means and methods of building design as Modernism had become, these new schools and awards programs are just another dead-end Canon: deeply meaningful to its believers, but untouchable to the unconvinced (and utterly irrelevant to the general public).


Duo Dickinson's Lutheran Church of Madison (2008), Madison, Connecticut.
Duo Dickinson’s Lutheran Church of Madison (2008), Madison, Connecticut.


As one whose work is neither Modernist nor Classicist, I appreciate both and enjoy what I see in media and awards, but many others are tired and frustrated by exclusion, prejudice and the lack of diversity in what is taught and recognized. Architecture is, still, predominantly presented and judged on pure stylistic grounds: the definitional essence of superficiality. But maybe, just maybe, there are some purple shoots of opened-minded interplay afoot.


These purple shoots of a less style-obsessed architectural media and educational pedagogy may yield a more inclusive palette of design criteria and aesthetic options enriching the buildings we create. Different perspectives beyond “Modern” or “Traditional”—designs that are responsive to context, express materiality, are structurally honest, or are aesthetically allusive without being “traditional”—have always been everywhere, except in the mags, awards or schools.


Politics reflect cultures, and cultures reflect values. In confusing times, humans want leadership. Architecture has had a rough eight years. Less work and more technological usurpation of jobs and the traditional job role of architects have left almost every architect I know waiting for the next professional model to emerge. Most architects I know feel they have very little value to the realms of academia, media or, increasingly as a part of American culture. With architects like MASS, Aravena, and Lake/Flato basing their practices on humane principles versus “Style” that perception could change.


But not yet. The reality of my profession is still Blue & Red, not purple. Just like America. Given the extremity of the Trump persona and the historic margin of  Hillary’s plurality, will our country find consensus, or at least tolerance amid the recriminations and historic animosities? Will architecture? It’s a New Year: a time of resolutions, perhaps a broader bandwidth of tolerance is possible.


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