Can architecture transcend its obsession with expressive design?
Thursday's Kojo Nnamdi Show discussed the role of architects in shaping our built environment. Much of the conversation focused on whether architects should only consider the aesthetic design of a building, or larger issues including environmental sustainability or even structural practicality.
One caller, a small builder in Annapolis, said that he avoids using architects because they too often create impractical designs that have to be redone after the architect finishes. Architect and UMD Professor Emeritus Roger K. Lewis suggested that he just hasn't found the right architect:
There are lots of very good architects ... but unfortunately, as in all professions, there are some architects who don't necessarily do what needs to be done. Many architects aspire to do very memorable, monumental, high-image work no matter what the scale and they can easily be tempted to over-design. I've done a lot of work for developers and learned very quickly that I had to be real.The media and the architecture profession shape much of this temptation to focus on design even to the exclusion of making a building that works. Lewis said,
Architects have always been interested in design, but some have been more interested in design as a personal expressive outlet. And the media has fueled that. The last twenty to thirty years, the public, through the media, has focused almost exclusively on the starchitects, the buildings that are attention-getting, that are avant-garde, that are not in any way conventional. That's where the attention is. And even in the profession, even the architectural magazines tend to focus on this kind of work, which means they're not focusing on a whole lot of other stuff that we architects are working so hard to design.John Peterson, Founder and President of Public Architecture, explained how for a great many years the architecture profession was split between "design progressives," who focused on design, and "social progressives" who were concerned with social justice, including sustainability, but believed that their issues "neutered" the importance of design. Peterson sees this as a phase which is coming to an end:
Design can be the vehicle to achieve social objectives, such as sustainability, such as making a building whose carbon emissions are much less than they would otherwise be. ... This is also true of town planning, our thinking about how we should design settlements, design the landscape of America and not just the individual building is also being greatly affected by the notion that we need to achieve social, economic and environmental objectives.
It's become clear that that was an adolescent attitude for our profession. Architects are actually quite good at juggling complex and diverse issues. The idea that we can't look at things like social justice or positive social change, and at the same time look at beauty is simply wrong. ...As architects begin to strongly embrace green design and other socially important angles of their work, will the popular and media obsession with "starchitects" fade, or will the stars just play up different aspects of their work? Architecture critics are still telling the "design police" to get out of the way of architects' "freedom." And when designing a bicycle station for the beautiful Union Station, the architect was concerned only with separating "his" work from that one as much as possible, and giving the city "an outright boot in the butt." If looking at the impact of a work to the community as a whole still means turning up their noses at a community's aesthetic and policy priorities, the profession clearly still has a ways to go.
[Architects are] going to continue to become less significant a voice and we're going to see a loss on the quality of our built environment if the architectural community doesn't adopt and accept the fact that they have a responsibility to look at the impact of their work beyond their client, beyond the user, and look at the community as a whole.
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