What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Buildings

One of the last programs I attended as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial was a panel titled “Making/Writing/Teaching Contested Histories” at the Chicago Cultural Center. The panel, organized by the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC), aimed to “foreground issues of class, race, and gender, interrogating how they partake in the production of the built environment.”


The panelists, all academics in fields related to the built environment, were asked to bring in an object central to their practice or their teaching method. The objects on display were a painting, a pier, a refugee camp, and a living room.


Three or four decades ago, this array would’ve scandalized an audience of architects and architectural scholars, who might’ve been expecting, I don’t know, a photo of the Pantheon, or a plan of it, or even a piece of wood or a brick. Maybe even the choice of a piece of furniture would’ve induced some surprised gasps or confused looks.


But it’s 2018 (or, it was 2017, when this panel took place) and architecture has exploded beyond its disciplinary boundaries, at least discursively. The conversation that ensued at the FAAC panel explored how each of these objects opens up the possibility to practice or teach in a way that doesn’t rely on the architectural canon. The canon—that annoying set of buildings picked out by a bunch of white/European men behind closed doors under the cover of night by the light of a candle—consists of a bunch of buildings mostly of religious or civic nature if they were built before the 20th century; if they were built after, their programs span a wider range but are still most likely built by the same kind of people who decided they belonged in the history books.


The desire to want to get rid of this dusty catalog of Buildings You Should Know Because Some Dead Guy Said So, is well-founded. Students, practitioners, really anyone who thinks about or engages with architecture, would be much better off if their references were less Paul Rudolph, more Lina Bo Bardi.


But what made each of the objects presented at the FAAC panel non-canonical was not their location outside of the architectural canon, but rather outside of the discipline of architecture altogether.


The panel’s remarks yielded some insights into the dangers of over-reliance on the canon to teach and practice architecture, which, as we know, can be an enterprise that redoubles many of the negative cultural symptoms of our capitalist societal structure (individualism, self-exploitation, competition; not to mention sexism, racism, ableism). But ultimately, the panelists’ intimations of how to change the state of affairs in the discipline of architecture aimed less at expanding or changing the canon and more at getting rid of it altogether in order to replace it with, well, something else, something new, something not architectural at all.


Architecture, it seems, buildings, are tired. Old, boring, not interesting, we’ve talked about them so much our eyes and ears are going to fall off, there’s nothing to see here anymore, let’s talk about a painting or a living room or philosophy or literally anything else. Let’s read Society of the Spectacle one more time. Architects are taught early on that they’re the great Renaissance Men (yes, men), that they can do anything, that their profession encompasses the world itself and that they should feel they are the masters of their domain and everyone else’s. I recently heard an anecdote about a young architect telling his potential clients—a liberal arts university—that they should hard-pivot to a STEM-focused curriculum. I’d venture a guess that this architect probably read an article about the growth of the STEM (or is it STEAM now?) disciplines in higher education and deemed himself an expert. Maybe he was bored with the canon as a student, yawned one too many times at plans of the Farnsworth House, and decided for himself to throw it out. Which, I think, is what the FAAC panelists were suggesting we do.


I have a counter-suggestion. At the risk of sounding terribly conservative, or unfashionable, or—god forbid!—old-fashioned, I think throwing out the canon is nearly impossible. What we need to do is change what’s in it. We’re always going to need to teach, always going to need case studies to pick apart, precedents to study, examples to analyze and pore over, and throwing out the idea of a set of objects with which to do this would rid architectural education of its disciplinary specificity.


The academy’s impulse to transcend the discipline, to find something larger, better, more true, beyond it, has made its way out of captive-audience, hermetic-academic conversations, and into popular publications. There, talking about “the city” or all things “urban,” has practically replaced any discussion of architecture, or, to be more specific, buildings. One-liners about capital-C Cities (“more than half of the world lives in cities,” “by 2030 37 million people will live in Tokyo”) are now fodder for small talk.


A gloss of the work of architecture critics at prominent American publications— Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times, Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times—illustrates this growing bias not only toward the city, but away from architecture. Kimmelman’s latest piece is about objects designed to improve the lives of those with sensory, cognitive, and physical disabilities. It’s a topic deserving of attention, surely, but what about the ways in which building elements can fill this need? Is architecture impotent in this regard? Maybe architects aren’t doing enough to address the needs of visitors with disabilities, but wouldn’t a piece, in the paper of record, directly addressing that shed some light on the problem?


This is just one example. The San Francisco Chronicle doesn’t have a dedicated architecture critic, but rather an “urban design critic,” John King, who covers “architecture, planning and related issues.” Maybe architecture just isn’t worth talking about by itself anymore, even though just a few miles away from San Francisco a big British architecture firm is making a building that looks like an iPhone’s home button, even though the city’s rampant housing crisis is being addressed with buildings paneled in plastic and unlikely to stand for more than ten years. Maybe, if they could read about how cheap construction and materials yield lower costs per square foot for developers and therefore higher profits from rent, San Francisco residents—or residents of any city for that matter—would start caring about architecture.


At the end of the FAAC panel, someone asked whether we were getting ahead of ourselves, whether we shouldn’t linger a little longer on the architectural discipline itself, whether or not there’s not already enough material there to mine for lessons. The panelists answered, almost in unison, that they were trying to open up the discipline by introducing new material.


This answer reveals a tendency toward escapism, an impulse to just go around the problem instead of through it. There are plenty of non-canonical architects and buildings worth a deep-dive. And, there are plenty of non-canonical ways to look at canonical buildings. What if we considered La Tourette through the sourcing of its materials? What if we only looked at details (maybe of that infamous leaky roof) of the Farnsworth House? These are hypotheticals, but they get at the question of how to expand how we teach and think about architecture: through wider breadth? Or further depth? One gets us architects telling universities how to write curricula, and the other, well, it might get us one or two people showing up at a planning meeting, asking what material the facade of their building is going to be.


If we—and by we I mean those of us who write, think, talk, teach, and make architecture—want people to care about our field, we have to give them a reason to, a reason better than “architecture is related to this other thing you already care about.” It might be that architecture has lost some of its surface attraction, become overshadowed by new technologies or the sheer immensity of cities. But it’s through buildings that people inhabit cities. Our audiences are already there, in the middle of it, in their three-flat apartment or their mid-century office building or their California bungalow; maybe they’re wondering why no one is talking in detail about any of these things. If we want them to care about our field, let’s meet them where they are. It might be that the task of making architecture more accessible is not about opening it up to other disciplines, but rather to itself, and to those who inhabit it.


Featured image: La Tourette; photo by Timothy Brown, via Creative Commons.  


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