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.
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.