A couple of years ago Frank Gehry famously said, “98% of what gets built today is pure shit.” Some blamed his anger on age, jet lag, or the pungency of his own aesthetic, but I think that Gehry’s comment, like architecture itself, reflects our broader culture.
As a profession, architecture is schizophrenic. The high fine art of starchitecture is the celebrated rare air of the best and the brightest. This is the 2% residue (at best) that Gehry was talking about. But architecture is, in fact, the most useful fine arts expression. And that 98% of “pure shit” is based in large part on its being beneficial in one way or another.
Few paintings, songs, or sculptures are useful beyond their beauty. No building is successful if it’s not useful. That split is now being reflected in the kind of commentary buildings receive. Rarified, elitist, academic archispeak now has a cultural counterpoint: profane, in-your-face, raw expression. And the howl of the 98% is neither subtle nor multilayered.
The internet, younger writers, the rise of the citizen critic, the bottom-up view of our culture on websites and blogs—all of this is changing how people talk about architecture. Will it change how we think about architecture? I believe it already has.
Profanity is becoming common language; its absence now signals a lack of righteous anger. “Curse words” are now permissible. A year ago the coarseness of cursing went prime time, when our Curser in Chief noted that parts of the world are “shitholes,” a comment relentlessly repeated by networks that once adhered to a strict “seven-word rule.” Last week on live TV, the president called the mounting allegations against him “bullshit.”
I was once taken aside by my radio producer when I used the word “putz” on the air. But now, just a few years later, that qualifies as quaint. Twitter is replete with every curse word imaginable—including handles, such as “Fuck Architecture.” YouTube videos elicit the same F-bomb sentiment. Even the Urban Dictionary offers a profane category of design: “fuck[-]you architecture.”
This casual swearing is present everywhere. The blog Coffee With an Architect has a “Shit Architects Say” section, along with similar sections for what architecture professors and students say. These loose and seemingly spontaneous eruptions aren’t the only way the fresh anger of the 98% is being inveighed upon the 2%. A year and a half ago, a video appeared on YouTube entitled “Why Modern Architecture SUCKS.” The 15-minute screed by cultural critic Paul Joseph Watson—which has more than 1 million views—condemns Modernism as “vulgar,” “hopeless,” “ugly,” and “totalitarian.”
In a recent review of the Vessel at Hudson Yards, McMansion Hell creator Kate Wagner titled her Baffler essay “Fuck The Beehive.” It’s a breathless rant of pure loathing for the structure’s “154 flights of stairs, 2,500 steps, and 80 landings.” She launches into all the soon-to-be-cliché metaphors for the Vessel: “beehive,” “shawarma,” “pine cone,” etc. But Wagner doubles down on the expletives, concluding, “its sheer shittiness as architecture and urbanism, itself a small part of the bigger tyranny of capitalism, invites us to dream of something, anything, better than this.”
The question then is: Has our culture changed to the point that “bad words” are OK in more and more contexts, or has architecture, a profession in full upheaval, experiencing a primal reaction of angry acting out? Even the AIA says there are 2,500 jobs in the field for 6,000 graduates. And the full development of AI threatens to further limit employment.
Despite many indications to the contrary, architects are people, too. We’re fully flowing in the cultural miasma. As with other occupations, there is more anger and more fear, as fewer places feel secure—or even semipermanent. Whether it’s journalism, law, medicine, or architecture, technology’s voracious growth is making most educations woefully incomplete. The world is changing faster than pedagogies can keep up.
When I played football, I used the word “fuck” in all of its permutations: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, gerund. Football is the direct application of the highest level of human force possible against another human. That same full-force resolve may be coming to the futures of those who want to practice architecture, as competitors will likely be both human and robotic, the firm across the hall and the algorithm on your hard drive.
It’s easy to trivialize the common-use verbiage of any criticism as simplistic or close-minded prejudice. But colloquial terminology, most directly expressed in profanity, is often the vehicle for the angry, the left out, the disenfranchised. The rants of younger critics reflect the erosion of the 2%, a potentially healthy development, in a world where 100% of us end up with all of the buildings we create.
The world is changing, so our language changes, too. This newly profane language of criticism speaks of frustration, anger, jealousy, the broken dreams of those who have dedicated their lives to a world of dwindling opportunity. As the great Kurt Vonnegut would say, and so it goes: More anger begets more profanity.
Architecture was never sacred, but now it’s trending profane.