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.
Editor in Chief