In the matter of three weeks, the field of (capital -A)rchitecture has been brought to the forefront of media outlets in two different world-renowned, American periodicals. Both Forbes and The New York Times have sparked a debate deep inside the profession that has heads ringing and pedagogical debates spurring. Academia from all over the world are chiming in on the quality and state of architecture, including some well-regarded 'starchitects' who claim that normal, everyday architects like you and I create 'pure shit'. And therein, lies perhaps the largest problem of them all; the groups involved in this discourse are so far removed from the underlying issues that their coined opinions are nothing more than lackadaisical words strewn together to piss off the next turtleneck-adorned vanguard. Architecture is failing*. It's failing from the hackneyed use of pastiche style that has plagued our streetscapes over the past thirty years for the betterment of a singular's opprobrium. Instead of turning to another intellectually-based foray (barring evidence-based design, which is a much different beast in itself), the designers of today have followed apathetic movements such as 'tack-on' sustainability and a conglomeration of 'style's that couldn't pass for much more than a confused attempt at assembling building parts. 'Starchitects' of today could care less about the constituents they serve, instead seeking to boast overzealous and over-budget forms in the faces of the other 99% of the population. Architecture is dying because we're letting it, we've lost touch with the intellectual, humanistic and responsive side of what we do in favor of self promotion and ideological follies unbeknownst clients we serve. It's time to stop dabbling in this directionless muck the post-post-modernists have left us with - it's time to regain an identity (stylistic approach) in architecture. It's time to find a true direction once again.
How will the architecture books refer to architecture produced from the late 1970s through the early 21st century? In the midst of the times, it's hard to envision what the 'History of Architecture' books will look like in 2200. A hodgepodge of mix'n'match styles that beget replacement in 15 years, a style-less endeavor which has no ambitions to do much more than flip a dollar and move on. Each of the three op-eds that have been published in the last month could almost certainly agree to that point, but where they begin to differ is their responses to the elitism that is almost welcomed in the field. Or perhaps the contemplation of what 'good' architecture really is. Aaron Betsky argues that those of us that do not make up the 1% of the population shouldn't have any say in what is built or designed (Betsky himself, I'd bet is part of the 99%) - instead we should leave it to the all-mighty architect. Of course, this was in response to the Bingler+Pedersen article in the Times the previous week which stated architects should listen more to the public. This was all capped off by our friend Justin Shubow who generously summarized the two positions only to add in that Gehry is right and architecture is dead.
Dead! It is no more, run ye to the Gods, we've lost our ability to create!
A simple message to all three of these well-educated and equally well-spoken architectural 'camps' is this: do something about it. Architecture's ability to respond to the ill-begotten response of the public and profession in the past was to write then make. So far, there has been some writing and absolutely nothing done besides passive-aggressive intellectual bullying. We've lost touch of the treatises once penned by the deified architects of the past, today writing stops with the thought. Where is the action?
According to Gehry, 98% of architecture created today is 'pure shit'. He claims "There's no sense of design, no respect for humanity or anything else". Unbeknownst to most architects and laypeople alike, the leaky masterpiece that is Bilbao Guggenheim has the utmost respect for its context and its people. It's not like it oppresses its neighbor buildings or incites intimidation to those passing by with its sheer scale. Incorrect, there's a mis-communication between Frank's work and his ideologies - his buildings almost always are disrespectful of humanity including context and general public acceptance. Most of his buildings are crudely out of place and technically deficient leaving museums with beautiful galleries unable to be used because of the leaks in the roof or classrooms abandoned because of falling structure. You best believe that Gehry has much to say in theoretical land, but when it comes to a building actually standing up, count him out. Bravo, Mr. Gehry, your words and your work are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. What makes all of this laughable at the end of the day is the 180-degree swing his humanitarianism work takes in New Orleans, something Mr. Betsky was a huge proponent of while sitting dry in the Netherlands hosting a hip competition for brutally invasive French Quarter masterplans. While Gehry is one of the few activists in writing and architectural actions, his words do not meet his work and leave much to be desired for a contemporary direction in a society seeking feedback.
As previously stated, Aaron Betsky was a huge proponent of Brad Pitt's 'Make it Right' campaign which fostered replacement homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Betsky's approach to the inadequate evidence-based designs in New Orleans are a result of his own belief that architecture is to be seen as an experiment on society. No matter what their hardships, they (the general population) are subject to our follies and mishaps as a way to progress architecture. While Bingler's 88-year old mother is an ill-advised layperson, she should suffer through our art such as the 'ugly' house experienced in her neighborhood so we can learn. I'm sure Aaron understands when his roof leaks it is only due to his guinea pig status. Betsky's approach to architecture basically exerts Gehry's claim that only 2% of what's designed is worth any merit, the other 98% don't deserve architecture or a say about it for that matter. The 2% which can afford it have no right to complain, either. If the functions of their investments don't mirror their original goals they must recall they are simply lab rats in this vast wasteland of architectural mishaps. If that's the case then architecture really is becoming a "gated community" which even the designers who create can't afford to move in - not like they're missing much with all the leaky roofs and collapsing walls.
This problem of the avant garde architect however is nothing new. All the way back to the days of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, architecture and architects have been reserved for the richest and most privileged of folk. The public's perception of architects as egocentric, arrogant and out-of-touch professionals probably isn't too removed from reality but only because that's been the only way. Architects were literally deified during the Pyramid era, and highly regarded when they re-emerged as the Catholic church's right hand visionary. While Bingler's mother does bring an interesting topic to the forefront, she hasn't been trained as an architect nor does she quite understand its principles; how could she ever feel the right to comment and critique such a structure? See what just happened there with the last sentence? You sat and agreed, nodding your large head, didn't you? Don't feel ashamed, because that statement is for the most part true, but it doesn't remove the reality that his mother is a person who should be regarded and whose opinions are just as important as any trained designer's. We don't have to do everything a client or the public asks as Bingler + Pedersen are beginning to assert, but we also shouldn't ridicule. Frank Gehry does whatever he wants, some other firms are unable to make their own decisions. However, at the end of the day Architecture is all about finding a fair balance between using criticism and using personal judgement - something today's 'Renaissance' man is certainly lacking.
But we're failing as a profession, so we won't ever know our true outcome since the end is near, or so Mr. Shubow would have you think. Architecture isn't dying, nor is it 'failing'*. Philosophically-speaking, there may be issues but those problems manifest opportunities to retain our worth and fix what has been wronged. Nothing is 'failing', as a matter of fact, over 14,000 AEC jobs were added in October 2014 alone with a billings index sitting at 50.9 points in November. In all reality, architecture is thriving for the time being (especially in the context of the past five years). Justin Shubow's claim that architecture is imploding seems a bit dramatic to the fact that there are misguided practitioners today. To an outsider, it may certainly seem bleak, but to all of us who are seeing gainful employment and fruitful projects, there is a reason to remain optimistic barring ideological struggles in the field. Architecture is a bit directionless for the time being, but it's the next generation's job to turn it around.
In prior generations, architects utilized theoretical discourse as a way to drive progress under a singular ambition, even if practice wasn't strong, writing helped affirm values while digging designers out of ruts. This inherently created styles and 'schools' [Bauhaus] of thought which broke off and became their own entities should their ideologies suffer a change of heart. Through this, a clear sense of cohesiveness was established which drove built projects to pursue similar interests - even if there were disagreements among one school of thought to the other, their responses were each following a relative common path. Architecture was still making buildings and technical assemblages of different components, however it sought to ensure meaning in its existence. As Betsky mentions in his op-ed, architecture like this once 'resonated' with people and created spaces that are 'worth experiencing', what can we say of those kinds of displays today? While the stylistic approach may be likened to the failing two party political system in the United States, it still drove coherence to an overarching goal of advancement. Gehry's architecture may not necessarily work, however it does drive progress - to Bingler+Pedersen's point, at what cost? How can we still celebrate progressive and audacious architecture while maintaining our responsibility to the public? Shubow exerts the point that all of the population must live with what architects create, how can we maintain a service to both the client and the general constituents of the immediate areas our work impacts? There are plenty more discoveries to be made, but unlike what Betsky suggests, the public cannot remain our guinea pigs if we want to continue to practice our efforts. To that end, the pursuit continues to find an individual - or group of individuals - who can lead the way to a brighter future for architecture. Both through practice and perception, how can we assure we don't fail, we don't become too closed off and that everything we built ends up being nothing more than a mere stain on the bottom of Frank Gehry's shoe?
When it's all said and done, the solution to increase our acceptance among the general public while increasing our ability to practice in a seemingly conservative society (art and architecturally-speaking) has yet to be seen. Writing and synthesizing said words with tangible design will bear progression; the current essays do little more than exhibit grown men afraid to speak truths to one another's faces. It demonstrates the general profession's lack of interest in progressing discourse and intellect in favor of increasing profit and decreasing ingenuity all while insulting one another over who has the shinier degree from the more expensive school. While we should listen to the general public, we should also recall our trained sense of making and our responsibility to serve all people. We must demonstrate that we are good listeners, that we are responsive and that are aren't (always) as egotistic as most think; we are the problem solvers and critical thinkers of our time. Will we use it to abolish negativity or create more via insulting each other's mothers?
*Fundamentally, architecture is growing. The ideal that it is 'imploding' on itself comes from a non-practitioner who isn't even trained as an architect. See AIA's Architect magazine for full evidence of the apparent growth.
VIA | Justin Shubow
VIA | Aaron Betsky
VIA | Bingler + Pedersen