Beyond Buildings


Smell the Coffee

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A recent article in The Economist pointed out that purveyors of CDs are moving towards packaging their disks into deluxe packages in order to bolster sales. Similarly, magazine that for decades have been downsizing in size and quality of paper are now going the other way. They are getting bigger and printing on heavier paper. The idea seems to be to make what is physical more luxurious and attractive, allowing the virtual world to become the realm of low- or no-cost content. It is all about the packaging, and nothing proves that more than the silky feel of the iPad, its luxurious and high-priced plane a purveyor of floating flimflam. 

This is a message architecture knows, or should know, well. Architecture, that is, as opposed to building. Building has become more and more standardized and buildings more and more bland and anonymous.  The storefront with its fancy frames has turned into the tilt-up boxes of Walmart, cookie-cutter McMansions sprout all across the world, and the environments you inhabit as you work, live, or recreate are more and more the same everywhere. But architecture has always been about providing something more, something as intangible as space, whether to get you to that moment of religious transcendence behind the baroque altar or to show your true powers from behind a colonnade.

The exceptions these days are the moments where either one of us or our society decides to devote significant resources to the creation of an extra-fancy wrapper or a spectacular interior. On the outside, these kind of deluxe coats are most common on luxury stores, as we can no longer afford them (for political reasons alone) on our institutions or homes. On the inside, spectacular spaces house spectacles, mainly of the sporting kind, or they are the cocoons of fancy restaurants or, again, stores. The one place where a more contemplative public gets to enjoy the joys of architecture in a more intense and lasting manner are museums, where we recently have managed to spend well over a thousand dollar a square foot on major monuments such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago.

Beyond such moments of luxury, it might be good to look more carefully at what The Economist sees: the expenditure of resources on a highly designed portal into something that exists beyond the physical. What might the architectural equivalents thereof be? The most obvious answer are libraries and coffee houses, where you access the virtual world and a universe of knowledge in a (semi-) public space. The two are increasingly close cousins where people gather to read, study, talk, or just see and be seen. They give room to and transform the experience of being in public into something pleasant, enticing, and at times, wonderful. You can see the same things happening in some hospitals in Europe, which are turning their waiting areas and public spaces into attractive places for a community of family, friends, and even patients. Museums that provide good community services are becoming such gathering spaces, and so are restaurants and “lounges,” the replacements for bars and their uncomfortable stools. They are, in fact, becoming the places for gathering, “The Room” with many purposes Louis Kahn foresaw decades ago when he noted the dissolution of our shared institutions and a need for something where we could be human together.


To think of the gross green and clunky graphics of Starbucks as heirs to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies or the Dhaka Parliament might seem absurd, but they are both trying to do the same thing: concentrate our human efforts on making a human space that is other and much, much better than what is out there in the ether.  Of course, they sell coffee, but architects still need to learn from this. The discipline has always served masters, and succeeded when it has wrested something beyond such service. 

So it is time to create architecture out of these places of comfort and service, to turn convenience into the beginning of a shared place, and to make a beautiful argument for physical form. It is up to architects to wake up, smell the coffee, and make a better package.


Comments (5 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:33 AM Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    huh? specifically empirically measure?? what does that mean? isn't it the responsibility of the architect to clearly communicate his value proposition to a client that is over and above his competition? the AIA is not the vehicle for marketing for the architect.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:21 PM Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    I invite you to view my natural home of the future @ CURTISLBIGGARARCHITECT.COM and view a house that could not be conceived by someone not trained as an architect. The home is a registered copyright titled as Opus Solarus (work of light) that is solid masonry or log- accessible-affordable-storm proof-fireproof-self heating,lighting & ventilating, all acheived without roof garbage or unnecessary mechanical devices .It is intended to be licensed by a NAHB certified green professional (anyone who takes their course). it will sell for about $200m plus land & site improvements and qualify at the gold level of the NAHB Green Building Standard which is certified and superior to Leeds.

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  • Posted by: Frank | Time: 2:28 PM Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    To continue Anonymous's comments, that's exactly what is being considered for buildings. A car gets 30MPG, whay can't we look at buildings as getting "x" amount of btu's per day or year? We have the tools to calculate carbn, energy use, etc. We as Architects can use this model to create value to our services. We just need to master the tools and make sure we have good liability coverage : )

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  • Posted by: bosstefka | Time: 2:26 PM Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    Who are you guys trying to kid.....sounds like you're still wet behind the ears.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:48 PM Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    Architects need to specifically empirically measure the value we bring to a project. We need someone (the AIA maybe) to conduct a study that actually measures the value of an architect and then present this in a study that we can refer clients to. Other wise we have no hope of ever justifying our fees if our participation on a job is only because the state requires it. We need clients to want us to participate because of the explicit and implicit value of an architect. The AIA currently proposes intuitive generalizations about the value of an architect that are interesting but easy to disregard. The AIA suggests vague claims that an architect will increase the value of a project, reduce construction costs and accelerate the construction schedule. In order to survive and justify our fees especially in residential arena, architects need to claim with real supportive data some variant of, “if you hire an architect the constructions costs will be 10% less, and in ten years the resale will be worth 10% more than if you didn’t hire an architect.”

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.