In architecture, everyone’s a critic. One of us, Steven, was recently driving down Elliott Avenue in Charlottesville, Va., his hometown, with his 88-year-old mother. They passed a house designed and built by architecture students at the University of Virginia. To Steven, an architect, this model for affordable housing — a tough pair of stacked boxes, sheathed in corrugated metal — was a bold design statement. But to his mother’s eye, the house was a blight on the landscape, an insult to its historic neighbors.
“It looks like somebody piled a couple of boxcars on top of each other, then covered them up with cheap metal and whatever else they could find at the junkyard!” she said.
It’s easy to dismiss Mrs. Bingler as an unsophisticated layperson. But that’s the problem: For too long, our profession has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work, even as we talk about making that work more relevant with worthy ideas like sustainability, smart growth and “resilience planning.”
We’ve confronted this problem before, with the backlash against what was seen as soulless modernism in the 1960s and ’70s. But our response, broadly speaking, was more of the same, dressed differently: postmodernism, deconstructivism and a dozen other -isms that made for vibrant debate among the professionals but pushed everyone else further away. And we’re more insulated today, with an archipelago of graduate schools, magazines and blogs that reinforce our own worldview, supported by a small number of wealthy public and private clients.
The question is, at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?
In 2007 Steven’s firm, Concordia, was one of 13 invited to New Orleans by the Make It Right Foundation to create prototypes for sustainable, affordable homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Early in the process, Make It Right’s founder, Brad Pitt, invited a few returning residents to critique the designs, most of which tried to take a basic form, the single-family home, and squeeze it into the latest style, with little consideration of local needs or the local vernacular architecture. The residents weren’t impressed, and asked perfectly logical questions: What’s with the flat roofs — you know it rains a lot here, right?
Architecture, of the capital “A” variety, is exceptionally capable of creating signature pieces, glorious one-offs. We’re brilliant at devising sublime (or bombastic) structures for a global elite who share our values. We seem increasingly incapable, however, of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population, the very people we are, at least theoretically, meant to serve.
Thus, a paradox: While architects design a tiny percentage of all buildings, our powers of self-congratulation have never been greater. Although the term “starchitect” has become something of an insult, its currency within celebrity culture speaks to our profession’s broad but superficial reach. High-profile work has been swallowed into the great media maw, albeit as a cultural sideshow — occasionally diverting but not relevant to the everyday lives of most people.
This might be acceptable if our only role were to serve those able to afford our services. And the world would be a drearier place without Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House. The problem isn’t the infinitesimal speck of buildings created by celebrity architects (some arresting, some almost comic in their dysfunction), but rather the distorting influence these projects have had on the values and ambitions of the profession’s middle ranks.
We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen. So when crisis has called upon our profession to step up — in New York, for example, post-9/11, and in New Orleans after Katrina — we have failed to give the public good reason to trust us. In China and in other parts of Asia, Western architects continue to perform their one-off magic, while at the same time repeating many of the urban design catastrophes of the previous century, at significantly larger scales.
It wasn’t always like this. For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on myriad styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world.
These creative resources transcend style. They not only have wide aesthetic appeal, but they’re also profoundly human, tied to our own DNA. They’re the reason both Philip Johnson and the proverbial little old lady from Dubuque could stand beneath the Rose Window at Chartres and share a sense of awe.
To get back there, we must rethink how we respond to the needs of diverse constituencies by designing for them and their interests, not ours. We must hone our skills through authentic collaboration, not slick salesmanship, re-evaluate our obsession with mechanization and materiality, and explore more universal forms and natural design principles.
Not all architects are equally proficient at producing seminal work. But we do have access to the same set of tools and inspirations. And let’s be honest: Reconnecting architecture with its users — rediscovering the radical middle, where we meet, listen and truly collaborate with the public, speak a common language and still advance the art of architecture — is long overdue. It’s also one of the great design challenges of our time.