A rendering of Saadiyat Island.
Credit: Courtesy of Zayed National Museum
What we are confronting is the evil of banality. That is the point I have been trying to make in the wake of Peggy Deamer’s resurrection of the “starchitecture” debate. From the many reactions to my post last week, it is clear that this remains a hot topic.
Let me state again that I think the biggest, most overwhelming problem in architecture is how bad the vast majority of buildings—designed by licensed architects and constructed not just in this country, but also around the world—truly are. By bad, I mean that they are wasteful of our natural resources, both in their construction and their operation; that they imprison us in spaces that reinforce social separation and hierarchies and isolate us from the world; that they perpetuate existing power structures in everything from gender definitions to the uses of capital; that they make power, whether financial or political, real and difficult to tear down; and, finally, that they are ugly, numbing to the eye, mind, and soul.
I realize the last judgment is subjective and, some might say, trivial, but to buttress my case, I offer up the miasma not only of our suburban landscapes but also of central business districts from here (Cincinnati) to Baku, Azerbaijan, and back. Ugly buildings are sapping the life out of our human-made environments.
The reason these buildings are so bad is not that well-known architects have designed them. In fact, very few of their designs come out of those few high-profile offices. If there is a problem, it is that these good designers (and most of them are pretty darn good) generally design cultural and political monuments and not the everyday stuff of housing and office buildings, let alone important environments like hospitals. When they receive a commission for one these everyday structures, it is usually for a luxury situation: either condos for the rich or an icon for a company or its CEO.
Making good architecture takes time and money, all the way from the attention that designers must spend on the structure to the making of places that are both more durable and more open. We, as a society in general, and those commissioning do not want to spend that money. That is the root of all this evil, not egotism.
Should architects—all architects—do pro bono or reduced fee work for well-meaning organizations in order to contribute their talents in a manner that might ameliorate this situation? They should, and many do, though, as the history of failed public housing designed by good architects show, the financial, political, and social structures are such that it is very difficult to make a difference unless you go radically “off the grid” in the manner of Rural Studio or Urban-Think Tank.
Finally, do those architects who gain a great deal of attention have a larger responsibility because they are role models? Yes, maybe, although this reinforces exactly the idea of “starchitects.” But again, the real issue is this: All architects need to think twice before they take commissions from repressive regimes or from clients who are in some way evil, whether in their businesses or in their construction practices.
At least good architects design better buildings; from a pragmatic viewpoint, I would rather see Frank Gehry, FAIA, or Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, working in a socially or environmentally questionable situation than firms that make things worse through the evil banality of their constructions. Ironically, the fact that name-brand architects are designing one or two buildings in Abu Dhabi has done more to bring attention to labor practices there than the hundreds of bland buildings created by the alphabet soup of global architecture firms that use the same practices. Look at a model of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi and you see a grid of faceless structures designed by firms I don’t know, and a few buildings that respond to their site and offer the promise of a more open neighborhood.
I am not saying this to excuse Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA; Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA; or Gehry. I would even venture that they and SOM, KPF, AECOM, Aedas, HOK, HDR, and all the others should speak up and maybe refuse commissions as well. If, instead, they do go in, they should try to do good in deed and practice.
Finally, I will say it again. The concentration on “stars” and the egocentric nature of architectural education is a problem. Compared with the thorny issue of whether you should work in the Emirates, the 'stans, or China—or design the George W. Bush Library, or prisons, or casinos that suck meager resources from the poor, or light and air-hogging Manhattan high-rises with “poor doors”—and whether there is a moral case that you should not build at all, the issue is so trivial to be laughable.
As a postscript: neither Deamer nor I are really the ones who should be having this discussion. I am not even licensed, and Deamer is a distinguished academic administrator, teacher, and critic (whose work I admire a great deal), but someone who does not operate in the arena of building larger structures. Neither of us has to make the choices I outlined above. The AIA and its sister organizations around the world might be a good place to start a thorough examination and discussion of architecture, morality, ethics, and meaningful beauty.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.