Architecture Should Be Functional, Not Merely Daring 5

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Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015
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Architecture, especially modernist architecture, has been in the crosshairs recently.

A New York Times editorial written by architect Steven Bingler and former Metropolis magazine executive editor Martin Pederson faulted modernist architecture for its disinterest in creating “artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population.”

The result, the authors said, has been a built environment created by “hacks, with sprawl and dreck rolling out all around us.”

In response to the NYT article, Architecture magazine columnist Aaron Betsky mounted his soapbox.

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

This is utter nonsense. Those with means can always buy whatever they want, but architecture has much to offer the world as cities grow larger and more dense.

Betsky continued lambasting Bingler and Pedersen for criticising some architects who participated in the Make It Right project in New Orleans, building and designing homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Some architects, they noted, “were ignorant enough of local conditions to propose buildings with flat roofs.”

In response, Betsky wrote, “Oh, horrors.”

“The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline,” he wrote later in his column.

Here we see the arrogance of the more highbrow echelons of the profession, and a clue as to why the vast majority of buildings don’t have an architect. If the architect is a hack and not an expert, then we, the public, can happily forget the architect and just have the builder do all the design work. An architect who designs, and then disregards, a leaky roof, or any other dysfunctional design element, is really just interested in making art. This approach does not add the value that our built environment needs, and it does not deliver the project that the client deserves. It simply feeds the architect’s ego.

Furthermore, criticism of a particular style is really not very interesting. Bingler and Pedersen ding modern architecture for its disdain for the less avant garde style, but demerits should go out regardless of style if a building suffers from a lack of functionality. We know architects, especially those that emphasize artistry, can challenge the public or building user with the aesthetic approach of their design, with style. But how does that design serve the user’s needs?

While the profession needs the discussion, I don’t think blanket condemnations are warranted. Betsky’s viewpoint deserved the criticism, but it doesn’t really matter. His elite cohort will continue to manufacture righteous indignation at the banality of architecture that the general public actually likes. They’ll continue with the high-priced commissions and their “thought leader” status. They have little effect outside their bubble.

Most architects, in contrast, live daily by the dictates of the marketplace, and need to make their projects functional as well as stylish. Most offer a true sense of style and sometimes innovation that adds value to their projects.

If Betsky believes the profession must continue to experiment and innovate, why not apply those talents to the repeatable projects that affect many more people on a daily basis? Rather than one-offs, tackle issues that good design can solve in buildings and cities.

Criticism of the current built environment—projects largely not designed by architects—just highlights what we end up with when we don’t have architects on projects. By most estimates, the total is under 10 per cent. Some say it’s closer to one to two per cent. Whatever the actual total, it’s a tiny number of all the projects built each year.

In contrast to Betsky’s viewpoint is Rural Studio, a project at the Auburn University School of Architecture in Auburn, Alabama. Established in 1993 by architecture professors Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, the project emphasizes the ethical qualities of architecture, as well as a “hands on” approach to projects.

Mockbee stressed helping people who needed architecture but did not have the means, as well as adopting a sustainable approach with local and recycled materials and locally sensitive design.

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The 20K House, now in its 17th iteration, consists of students designing and building small homes for local people. The design, materials, construction, and contractor profit must total $20,000 US or less, with $12,000 for materials, and $8,000 for contractor labour and profit. The three-week building process is rigorous and demands skilled labor. The 20K House program emphasizes the inherent value of owning a home compared to a mobile home, often the only affordable housing option for poor people in the area.

Improving the overall quality of the built environment, which has been mostly untouched by architects, is a major opportunity. The opportunities will continue to evolve, too. More remodeling projects are undertaken than new house builds, and well-built and well-designed structures of all types have more potential for refurbishing and remodeling, as opposed to demolition. Architects who can create beautiful buildings of any style that are well built and well designed are enhancing sustainability.

What’s truly important—crucial, even—is the realization that our world is a growing and dynamic mess. People need shelter and better designed places. They need relatively efficient systems for transportation and sanitation. But buildings as art, and avant garde design? Not so much. We need architects to do their best for the rest of us.

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5
  1. Grant M Spork

    Frank Gehry's SUT Haemorrhoid being a case in point. He says it was envisioned as "Folding fabric or skin". Yep, I can see that. because of the melted post modern facade, the building came at a phenomenal cost. Why couldn't the commission gone to a young Australian aspirant? Do they think Frank Gehry needs a leg up? If an Australian designed a building with those costs they would be roundly criticized. In that measure they would not propose in a competition to design a facade which would cost 4 times that of most other premium installations. So SUT don't have the courage to use one of their own graduates of Architecture, which tells us a lot about what they think of their graduates, and it is quit appropriate that this building be henceforth known as the, SUT "Haemorrhoid." Where are your lectures Dan? In the Haemorrhoid mate, forth bulb!"

  2. Paul Kazak

    Well said, Steve.

    Innovative and attractive building design is one thing, and certainly, architects should occasionally push boundaries.

    But that does not negate the need for good old functionality which meets the daily needs of the most important people in the whole process – the building's end users.

  3. Steve Ryder

    Absolutely Steve. There is no reason why we can't have both and there are a plethora of talented architects out there who can deliver both. We need to stop pandering to the likes of Gehry and the desire for buildings which are 'iconic' and/or designed by 'starchitects'.

    'Iconic' being my absolute pet-hate of a word. You can't design an iconic building. Only people and history can determine whether a building is iconic.

  4. John Massengale

    Good essay, particularly the points about the clients and the public.

    I don't think Bingler and Pedersen are criticizing Modernism or Modernist architecture. They are criticizing contemporary architectural education and architectural culture as it is usually presented today. Look at Bingler's work for Make It Right and for other clients: it is Modernist architecture. And anyone who has read Pedersen over the years knows he advocates Modernism.

  5. W. Blake Talbott

    This article addresses some significant issues within architecture; designed and built by whom. The only criticism I have is the photo of a metal building within a umbrella design roof. It reminds me of a frequently seen shelter provided over a leaking mobile home, very austere and industrial, not a home. The umbrella design conceptually shades and saves energy but provides a habitat for all types of destructive or unhealthy critters.

    This example is a cost effective, minimalist industrial design that is inhumane.