I remember the moment my conscience awoke, at least architecturally speaking. Sam Mockbee of the Rural Studio was visiting New York, and he mentioned that he wanted to take some friends from Alabama out to dinner and didn’t know where to take them. I had plans to meet people later at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s just-opened Brasserie Restaurant in the Seagram Building, so I offered to call and try to get him a table there, too. It worked, though I had to beg a little, explaining to the hostess that my request for an 11th-hour reservation at the city’s hottest restaurant was on behalf of a world-famous architect.
Later that night, I got to the Brasserie and looked around the crowded space for Mockbee. And looked. And looked. Finally I found his party in the far corner of an otherwise empty back room. Mockbee was a big man, with a lumberjack beard and a casual wardrobe. Clearly the hostess, used to bespoke-suited hedge-fund managers and black-clad SoHo fashionistas, had taken a hard look at the architect and his comfortable shoes, and exiled him to the fine-dining equivalent of Siberia.
Bear in mind that this was February 2000, just before the dot-com bubble burst. The cultural touchstone of the moment was HBO’s Sex and the City. The show’s Samantha Jones would have gotten the Brasserie’s hostess fired for giving her such a bad table—that, or invited her home for a nightcap. Mockbee, for his part, was too gentlemanly to complain.
The relatively minor incident stuck in my mind. I was annoyed at the hostess, for sure. But by snubbing Mockbee, she actually did me a favor—awakening me to the superficiality of the value system that permeated society, and my own life, at the time.
The realization didn’t come easily; my shallowness ran deep, all the way back to my Reagan-era, Preppy Handbook childhood. Architecture school had yanked me out of my Midwestern comfort zone, in a high-concept boot-camp sort of way, but it didn’t change my underlying values. I merely shifted the emphasis of my snobbery, from white-bread to multicultural, old-school to avant-garde.
You see, image was king when I went to architecture school in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The unspoken academic goal was to foster each student’s creative genius, in the Übermenschlich tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Roark. Our role models—the living, nonfictional ones—came from a generation of highly image-conscious Postmodernists with a penchant for French post-structuralist philosophy. As for design instruction proper, that centered on abstract Bauhaus principles, with little mention of the movement’s early 20th-century social(ist) underpinnings.
Working at magazines and museums didn’t shake me out of my complacency, either—the emphasis was still skin-deep. Truthfully, Mockbee and the Rural Studio wouldn’t have captured my attention had the projects not been so damn beautiful. In my backward mind, the fact that those wonderfully wonky houses were built for the poor was simply an extension of Mockbee’s creative genius—a demonstration of how far he was willing to go to make his architectural vision a reality.
Mockbee was a great architect, by any standard. But his genius lay not simply in his skill as a designer, but in his use of that skill for a greater good, to draw attention to the plight of a devastatingly disadvantaged community. By building beautifully for the needy, using an aesthetic vocabulary that architects of the day could understand, Mockbee made it possible for a profession addicted to form to reawaken to its potential for reform. Had his work been ordinary looking, I sadly doubt anyone would have taken notice. I, for one, failed to get the message until that night at the Brasserie.
Mockbee died in December 2001, and now, nearly a decade later, he can look down with pride on a major shift in the professional ethos. Architect Yolande Daniels of Studio Sumo summed it up this summer, in a comment she made at a meeting of Architect’s editorial advisory committee. Daniels observed that her students at Columbia fall into two basic camps: those interested in digital form-making, and those interested in architecture’s environmental and humanitarian possibilities.
Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne goes even further in his opening essay for this issue’s features section (“Altruism, Architecture & Disaster”): “[H]umanitarian design, in its various guises, has eclipsed neo-modernism, bio-mimicry, and even parametricism … to become the single most visible architectural concern of the moment, at least among designers younger than 40.” I believe that he’s right.
In the pages following Hawthorne’s essay, you’ll read about architects of all ages who are helping out when humanity needs it most—that is, when disaster strikes. Scientists say climate change is increasing the frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and other acts of God. And some say we just notice natural disasters more thanks to the omnipresence of the media. Either way, I’m proud that architects are taking action and trying to do the right thing. Because genius is a terrible thing to waste.