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kinds of architecture and the public

Broad and general words, in this case ‘architecture,’ can provoke many opinions and incite emotional retorts by practitioners and observers alike. A recent and well referenced article editorially summarizes one viewpoint on the current American architectural discourse. “Architecture Continues To Implode: More Insiders Admit The Profession Is Failing” begins with a bold headline, and admittedly the profession is in disarray. And yet by glossing over distinct domains within the practice of architecture the article is limited to dramatizing the dialogue.

Uncovering knowledge from this dialogue is possible with honest comprehension of the viewpoints and clearer methods of analysis. Dramatizing the dialogue is an essentially American invention, increasingly global spread by the internet. And despite a few international references, to be fair to the rest of the world, the “implosion” discussed is focused on architecture as practiced in America today. Two categories of projects are discussed in the recent dialogue without clear articulation: High-profile high-cost projects and Low-profile low-cost projects. In addition there are three distinct scales of projects: Urban Design, Architecture and Interior Design. These six domains, collectively referred to as architecture, is where the dialogue has emotionally roamed.

The significance of different scale in Urban Design and Architecture is frequently overlooked in critical dialogue of the 20th century design. Even more so between Interior Design and Urban Design: one design philosophy/strategy does not fit all. Clarification was provided by a devoted Miesian modernist who claimed “the Modernists solved the problem of building modern tall buildings, but were disastrous in designing modern cities.” This is a sentiment that even Jane Jacobs would espouse. Whether it was high-profile or low-profile, the modernists consistently had problems with the design of cities in the 20th century.

Indeed, a part of the “Implosion of Architecture” dialogue is the undifferentiated critique of Interior Design and Urban Design on the same basis, although the challenges exist at vastly different scales. A design strategy, communicating the beauty of pure materials, worked for Interior Design at the Barcelona Pavillon; but did not, accommodate the richness of culture in Urban Design, when applied to millions of people living in Brasilia. Any critique of “architectural design” must acknowledge challenges of building at vastly different scales of operation.

And differences between High-Profile projects and Low-Profile projects are equally significant and multi-faceted. Clarity emerges looking through history: it is always the Owner, Funder or Client’s intentions for a project that determine whether it will be High-Profile or Low-Profile. And of course there are infinite shades of grey, infinite Profiles required for buildings between High and Low Profiles: from the Parthenon itself to the village homes on the Greek Islands; from corporate structures like the formerly named Sears Tower, to Levittown, New York. Owners, Funders and/or Clients are not disinterested entities. They always contribute to the design,especially when they think it does not matter. The outcome of architecture is dependent upon the Owner, Funder, Client’s vision and influence on the project.

Using classifications of Scale and Profile, give us six domains to understand the current dialogue in architecture. We begin to consider how clients have changed from the American Government (WPA) in the 20th century, to investment firms contracted to build public buildings today. This is true for Urban Design and Architecture, especially in the area of “Affordable Housing.” In the corporate realm America has shifted from corporate Ownership of a customized building supporting their operation, before the 1980s junk-bond craze, to today’s situation where the developer sells the naming rights of a generic building for the duration of a lease. At a smaller scale of Interior Design, it becomes obvious that todays Owners leading the “Evidence Based Design” efforts are flush with money available for the Interior Design of Health-Care facilities.

Undoubtedly architectural constructions are built by ego-maniacal architects, and frequently, for clients with outsized egos. For as long as humans have thought about architecture, we have collectively pursued a kind of human folly, experimentation and finding limits. The original architectural, over-the-top, folly story is The Tower of Babel. These are the markers of civilization being propelled through time, for better or worse, in all its diversity. History rhymes: Owners, Funders and Clients resisting experimentation in design represents a reactionary political stance. Architects and artists, no matter how famous, are often pawns in a game of political persuasion:used to further the message of the Owners, Funders and Clients. More importantly though, arguing against egos in the building industry is like saying Wall Street should not be greedy. Such behaviors evolved into careers because they enable a variety of human activities to engage, transact and live in our world. Grand egos, kept in check, are what lead to the awe inspiring architectural constructions of the past 4000 years. Beauty and art is found in how well our society coordinates these different human motivations.

Interestingly the Architecture Continues To Implode article begins with the statement: “Architecture is suffering a crisis of confidence.” Yet this is followed by a reference to an architect telling journalists to “go fuck yourselves.” No shortage of an absurdly large and confident ego there. While the article raises real architectural issues, we witness and the article dodges, the unspoken crisis in American society today. The rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer, despite the fact that we know this makes a worse society for everyone including the rich. Meanwhile we have a government that routinely lies to the public, and is bombing muslim countries almost like a video game. The practice of architecture at all scales, and significantly in the category of High-Profile projects at any scale, is impacted by this American societal crisis.

Let’s imagine architecture as a reflection of society’s aspirations.

The change in society in the last 40 years has shifted the practice of Urban Design, Architecture and Interior Design in ways that architects, and organizations of architects, had little control over. The motivations of many building Owners, Funders and Clients have shifted away from cares about the public realm. Which is why sentiments like the following do not increase our knowledge or understanding:

"But don’t clients and architects have a moral obligation to consider the effect on the public? Architecture is not like a painting in a private house or a sculpture in a museum; the public is forced to live with it. And of course for social housing and civic architecture the public is the client.”

This is a rhetorical trap and tricky to argue against. Of course architects care about the public realm, that’s why there are professional licenses which support public safety. However, it is the implication of statements like:

"how the best contemporary design could improve lives”

that are problematic. Architects have been responsible for building shelters that don’t fall down, and in the last 100 years, have accepted responsibilities to build buildings that automate many, many features that make our lives better. And sometimes Owners, Clients and Funders call upon architects to inspire. And yet architects should not accept responsibility for people’s satisfaction with the public domain, which too easily bleeds into the quality of their personal lives.

Public infrastructure, in the current state of American politics and governance, is being privatized, degraded or both. It would be preposterous for architects to assume or accept responsibilities for the public realm of the State. All scales of architectural constructions from Urban Design, Architecture and Interior Design are built by teams with the Owner, Funder, and Client leading the visions. Yes, it compromises our experience of the public domain to have homeless people begging for money, and yet architecture is the wrong venue for solving that problem. It is not an architect’s expertise to run a government.

Of course architects with large egos may assume responsibilities for running things outside our expertise... and smart politicians can use that tendency to pursue their own short-term goals. Too many architects have ventured beyond our expertise: City Planners circa 1900 assumed responsibilities for public health problems implementing ideas about Zoning cities based on exclusive functional compartments. In hindsight we see that the American Public Health Service and the US Environmental Protection Agency developed better solutions for epidemics and toxic pollution. Similarly since the 1950s architects have assumed, or inherited, responsibility for Public Housing. Politicians who made critical decisions about segregation and scale of facilities, likely retained their pensions. And yet in common discourse, housing poverty is commonly understood as bad architecture, not bad governance.

Design doesn’t improve lives in a vacuum. People and organizations work together to improve lives. Clean water improves lives, an Unconditional Base Income could possibly improves lives, education might improves lives, preventative health care sometimes improves lives, and yes, Urban Design, Architecture and Interior Design contribute to better living. Yet this list could go on for ever, as one client says “Good wine, good food and good shoes, make your life better.” Architects should not accept liability for social responsibilities that we have no power, finances, or expertise to enact. If the State is degrading Social Services and common infrastructure, it is not architects but the State which needs to be held responsible.

Awe inspiring architecture is beautiful art. And it emerges from a context where people work together to achieve a goal that is larger than themselves. It is the hard reality of our times that our government is in debt and systemically dysfunctional.The ideals of an architecture responsible to the public realm has been transformed.

The truth is that architecture is not made by or for ‘a wide spectrum of the population.’ It is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities.”

When the American government chooses to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, or Elitist Clients choose to spend billions on high schools as in 1923 at Hibbing, Minnesota, then we can discuss architects working more frequently for the public good. Today by contrast, as the above statement testifies, most architecture, most of the time, is working for the interests of Owners, Funders and Clients who are not concerned about the public realm. The pendulum has swung away from concern for the public realm, someday it will swing back. Then more Owners, Funders and Clients will be motivated enough to challenge architects to make living in America better.

blogging ideas along the way

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