Object Lesson


Beltway Bull

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It takes a lot to make me angry. But a recent article in The Washington Post did more than that; it made my ears smoke. On May 27, the paper's culture critic, Philip Kennicott, reported that Congress is considering the appointment of a non-architect to the vacant post of Architect of the Capitol. This is a bad thing for the profession, from my perspective. Kennicott, who recently inherited the Post architecture beat from Benjamin Forgey, sees the matter somewhat differently.

Kennicott thinks that the Architect of the Capitol's responsibilities should split into administrative functions and more purely architectural ones. He makes a good point: Why should the Architect of the Capitol have to run the congressional cafeteria, as the position currently requires? I can't think of a single architecture school that includes food service in its curriculum. What does strike me as problematic about Kennicott's article is his claim that the Architect of the Capitol—and architects in general—have no business functioning as administrators, in any capacity. Here's how Kennicott summarizes his argument:

Architects—who are part of a relatively new profession—want to be seen as professionals, like doctors, lawyers, and judges. … But they also expect their members to be visionaries and bean counters, planners and realizers, all at the same time. Which may, except in rare cases, be an unrealistic expectation. Ask anyone who has hired an architect and he or she will tell you that's what all too many architects are selling: unrealistic expectations. It's the Achilles' heel of the profession, and you pick up the bills.

First of all—and I admit this may seem like nitpicking—architecture isn't a new profession. Not by anyone's standard. Imhotep, the first architect on record, designed the Step Pyramid for Pharaoh Djoser of Egypt's 3rd Dynasty, who reigned 2,630–2,611 B.C. Coincidentally, Imhotep is also considered history's first doctor. Lawyers didn't emerge for another 2,200 years, in Athens.

Architecture critics should know the basic history of the profession. Not only did The Washington Post neglect to hire a full-time architecture critic to replace Forgey, they handed the beat to a writer with a background in opera and classical music. I typically wouldn't waste precious ink responding to a solitary newspaper article. But not only is Kennicott getting his facts wrong, he's doing the profession a massive disservice with biased reportage, couched as criticism, in a paper that's read religiously by policy-makers in Washington, D.C.

What's worse, Kennicott hauls out the oldest, rustiest, most gap-toothed saw in the tool box to make his argument. Is it really accurate or useful cultural criticism to claim that architects, as creative types, are disorganized—so caught up in their “Architectural Digest fantasies,” as Kennicott puts it, that they're somehow incapable of administrative responsibility? Imhotep managed to administer the construction of a pyramid, and present-day architects are sufficiently organized to design and build structures more than 2,000 feet tall and administer 2,000-acre university campuses. Moreover, architects, like doctors and lawyers, are perfectly capable of seeking help where help's needed—with engineering, construction, and, yes, administration. Kennicott's argument is hackneyed, nothing more than an insulting cliché.

Kennicott should stick to opera. Criticism like his is an offense to every architect in the United States, and in the pages of The Washington Post, it's a danger to the profession as well.


Comments (19 Total)

  • Posted by: patrickarch | Time: 11:44 AM Friday, September 14, 2007

    I agree the Architect Of The Capitol should be an architect. I wish I had the time to sit in my ivory tower sketching lines on paper. Running my firm requires I spend 60% or my time being an administrator, marketing whiz, accountant and, unfortunately, lawyer. The remainer is problem solving, sometimes unrelated to the building solution, for client, contractors and the public agencies we need to deal with. The critic needs to get out of his office and spend some time with the profession he is so critical of.

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  • Posted by: icehockey | Time: 5:08 PM Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Came back to read it again, a good piece

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  • Posted by: icehockey | Time: 1:35 PM Friday, August 03, 2007

    Nice work

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  • Posted by: jlg416 | Time: 1:29 PM Friday, August 03, 2007

    Thanks for bringing this up.

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  • Posted by: johnb630211 | Time: 10:51 AM Monday, July 16, 2007

    I have been at the drafting board since 1959, that's very close to 48 years. Therefore, I am well travelled in the Profession. Memory serves me Quite well and books on anchient construction (Architecture)mentions Architects of the temples and other magnificient constructs and yet the word "Engineer" didn't appear until someone invented one d(Steam Engine) Same for the average Bureaucrat, Julius Caesar could not trust his own friends so what does the Congress think they are doing. This reporter should research his subject better before he tries to wax Grandly about subjects he obviously doesn't understand.

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  • Posted by: Anikhg | Time: 8:22 PM Friday, July 13, 2007

    Write to the Post - if that's what the powers that be read, why is everybody complaining in the wrong forum. Maybe we are just not a practical lot :-) That's why we also have the AIA!!!

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  • Posted by: SASinger | Time: 3:01 PM Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    I am amazed at how often the title 'Architect' is used without any architectural meaning. In my area there is the Workforce Architects (temporary help) and the Health Architects (new age healing). When I see the word 'Architect' in the press it is usually referring to a politican who is the architect of a new bill or a business person who is the architect of a new process or product. If there is a new building noted in the paper and it is not a superstar building by Frank Gerhey or Ceasar Pelle then the typical statement includes the developers name, the owner name and any drawings are simply labeled as 'artists rendering'. In fact if the Architect is mentioned it usuually means that something goes wrong. In that light it doesn't suprise me that the Architect of the Capital would be an administrator.

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  • Posted by: greenarch | Time: 1:38 PM Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    The issue is not what an art critic thinks of the profession, but what is the profession going to do about the issue of the Capitol Architect. Who gives a rip what a critic says - critics are just wanabes. Being an architect who's been in serveral related businesses including the traditional architectural practice, I know we have the tools needed to manage as well as design. I hope the profession will stand up and demand that an Architect holds the position of Capitol Architect. If a licensed Architect is not appointed, then I hope the profession will take action to sue or prosecute anyone who holds that title without the proper credentials and licenses.

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  • Posted by: greenmeadow | Time: 12:36 PM Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    Well about time you got mad. About time the profession wakes up to the fact that our profession is going away. WHY? Because we don't have a professional organization that is "about us". Every time I have tried to get involved I end up being the "mean spirited dude" because I object to AIA mission statements that read as if Mother Teresa wrote them. You have personally taken down the profession a couple notches yourself with your belief that philanthropy and environmentalism should be the main focus of our professional organization. It is indeed a high minded and thoroughly defendable position but Saviors end up on the cross while architectural photographers are credited but not the architects and file clerks in city planning offices become the designers of our environment. By being nice, unselfish guys we have given away the profession and consequently the civilization at large suffers.

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  • Posted by: AEharris | Time: 12:21 PM Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    Here's a better idea. Let's push a "law" through that excludes the legal profession from any role in making laws or judging justice, ie: congress of the US and all 50 states, judges, and any public post. The legal profession is so thoroughly corrupt and self serving that their "business interests" have come to dominate the laws and jurisprudence to the impending demise of the legal system and justice in the courts of the US. This is the real crises in America. It is becoming clear to everyone and we must take corrective action! The absurdity of appointing a non architect to the post of Architect of the Capitol is a symtom of the legal professions' embrace of non truth can be made true.

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  • Posted by: barlow.co@att.net | Time: 10:06 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    Excuse me? Every Practice Act in all 50 states requires that the title or use of "Architect" is licensed. This includes job descriptions. There should not even be any discussion of "issues" around this. Any other use of this title is completely illegal and unprofesssional.

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  • Posted by: rachellevitt | Time: 8:33 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    The architect who can write well is rare indeed, and we all suffer for it. Because of our deficiencies, we let others communicate for us, so that much of our work (design or otherwise) gets lost in translation. Most journalists are generalists who find their niches either through interest or circumstance. This is how we end up with critics in the media who know little about the design process or what the heck it is that architects do. This problem is near and dear to me-- I am a partially licensed architect, an editor and a writer. I also teach writing to architecture students, a rather arduous, but necessary, task. Communicating to the masses was never important in the rarefied world of the patrician architect, but now it's a critical part of every profession's success.

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  • Posted by: rktect | Time: 7:17 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    Where have you all been? The AIA has been all over this for months! Letters to the editor of the Washington Post, petitions to Congress, letters to Senator Feinstein, as well as testifying before the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings, just to name a few of the efforts of the AIA on this subject. Go to http://www.aia.org/aoc to see what is going on and what you can do, assuming that you are member of the AIA. If not, joining is one of the first things you should do to support our profession and show a unified front to the public.<br>BTW, being licensed and registered are for all intents synonymous, so to refer to someone as being a licensed R.A. is redundant. And learn to spell!

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  • Posted by: RADarchitects | Time: 5:51 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    As in Washington, politics as usual. How many positions in Washington are filled with unqualified and political favors for those who are in dead positions to start with, and are looking to put their mark on world to something they have little knowledge of in the first place?

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  • Posted by: asdarch@rcn.com | Time: 5:03 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    I think the AIA should get behind this issue and demand that a licensed R.A. should be appointed.

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  • Posted by: brqad1214 | Time: 5:01 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    Ned, First, I want to thank you for bringing this situation to my attention. The issue of contemplating hiring someone other than an Architect for the position of Architect of the Capitol, is foolhardy, and the AIA needs to get strongly and directly involved in nipping this in the bud. This also encapsulates another cliche about Architects, which is "anyone can be an architect" by sketching a few lines on a piece of paper. We not only are trained in the art and science of creating shelter in many different forms, but in the "business" of Architecture. Secondly, I hope the Washington Post has taken notice. To assign someone without the proper credentials to do such a column/article shows poor judgement. Hopefully, The Washington Post immediately relieves Mr. Kennicott of his responsibilities and finds somenoe with better understanding and training.

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  • Posted by: dpeacher | Time: 4:56 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    Architecture is clearly at the top of the "good news" professions. Most folks don't need a doctor unless they are sick. Not many need a lawyer unless they are already in trouble or just about to be. Someone who needs an architect, on the other hand, has been successful and wants to build something - hence: "good news".

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  • Posted by: bobd@kgdarch | Time: 4:48 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    Being criticised by someone who is a "critic" (although of 400 year old songs and plays) is not as important as perhaps reshaping the office of Capitol Architect. In my state it is against the law to be titled Architect without lisence and registration. Therefore without a liscenced architect there should be no Office of Architect. The best way for architects to shape that office is too loudly and often, professionaly through the media,scorn and praise the projects that are born under the reign of The Capitol Architect.

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  • Posted by: djones615 | Time: 4:28 PM Monday, July 09, 2007

    There is more than one paper in the US whose architecture critic is not qualified. One paper's critic's previous published work is a book on caviar! Recently, a colleague was asked to analyze (quickly, as usual) the extremely complicated use, traffic and parking data for a large site. When it was complete, the client praised the result, saying "you missed your calling", meaning, I guess, that architects aren't expected to understand the practical, technical and business aspects of our projects! Our clients and the public need to understand that our broad based education makes us knowledgable in many areas (including building and zoning codes, which we usually understand better than attorneys do), all of which are necessary for us to perform responsibly - and with creativity. Often, it's the clients, critics and public who have the unreasonable expectations.

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About the Blogger

Ned Cramer

thumbnail image Ned Cramer is editor-in-chief of ARCHITECT, and editorial director of ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING, ECO-STRUCTURE, and METALMAG, published by Hanley Wood, a Washington, D.C.-based business media company. Prior to joining Hanley Wood, Cramer served as the first full-time curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), where he organized public programs and exhibitions such as "A Century of Progress: Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair" and "New Federal Architecture: The Face of a Nation." At CAF, projects under Cramer's direction received support from foundations and corporations such as Altria, Boeing, the Driehaus Foundation, the Graham Foundation, and the McCormick-Tribune Foundation. He speaks regularly on architecture, design, and related issues. The Avery Architectural Index lists nearly 100 articles with Cramer's byline, many written in his former capacity as executive editor of Architecture magazine. The recipient of an Arts Administration Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cramer has held positions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Menil Collection in Houston. Cramer is an alumnus of the Rice University School of Architecture. He was born and raised in St. Louis.