Stop! Before you go any further, read Aaron Betsky’s Beyond Buildings post “In Architecture We Trust, All Others Bring Data” (reprinted in the February issue as "Heart vs. Head.") In it, he addresses the age-old question, “Is architecture art or science?”—and he comes down pretty squarely in favor of art. Betsky’s position is understandable, especially given that he directs a major art museum. I happen to disagree—respectfully, of course—so I got Betsky’s blessing to offer a counterpoint.
In brief, I see architecture as both an art and a science, which is all well and good. The sticking point is that I think the profession would be wise to avoid coming across as too artsy, especially right now.
Take Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid as two obvious examples of architects working in an artistic vein; Gehry famously approaches his buildings as sculpture, while Hadid paints as a way of exploring spatial concepts. Both use sophisticated design and construction technologies to realize unprecedented architectural forms. Their reliance on technology doesn’t make them scientists any more than it reduces their credibility as artists. On the contrary, in the hands of a Gehry or a Hadid, technology is largely a means to an end.
The tremendous popular acclaim that these and other big-name architects received in the 1990s and early 2000s was somewhat of a blessing for the entire profession. When the economy was at full throttle, architecture became an essential accessory to success. Hiring an architect was the equivalent of buying a designer handbag (gotta have one), albeit at a far, far greater physical and financial scale.
For every Sex and the City devotee willing to spend $1,900 on a Fendi baguette, it seemed there was a hedge-fund manager eager to fork over $5 million for a Richard Meier condo or a group of philanthropists happy to underwrite a $125 million theater by Jean Nouvel. The banker probably made it through the crash in one piece, thanks to that $700 billion government bailout. But cultural institutions across the country are scrambling to pay the bills on expansion projects that seemed like terrific ideas until the Great Recession hit.
Good design felt like a fair entitlement when times were good; in bad times, it can come across as a frivolous expense. Of course, design should be considered a basic human right, not a luxury good. Alas, perception is reality, and right now the perception among many otherwise-sensible people is that design went out the window with subprime mortages.
Increasingly, architects tell me, clients want assurances that their architectural investment is sound. I imagine it would be super-tempting to turn up one’s nose in response. After all, architects are trained experts, artists even; their word should be gold. But instead of taking umbrage, why not take the opportunity to convert those doubting Thomases into true believers?
Design awards and magazine profiles won’t necessarily impress a hard-core businessperson. Data’s more like it. Measurable, scientifically gathered data—the kind of evidence-based design strategies that many healthcare practices have adopted—should satisfy even the stingiest of bean counters.
Betsky concedes that there’s fair reason for architects to offer data to their clients, at least under certain circumstances: “Where it seems to contribute or validate common-sense observations, such as that natural daylight or certain colors make people in hospitals feel better, it certainly has value.” And he’s right to doubt the benefits of data gathering when clients use it only to justify value engineering.
Ultimately, Betsky believes that all the scientific proof in the world can’t trump the inherent value of beauty, the ineffable, unquantifiable “more,” as he puts it, that distinguishes architecture from mere building. “Some things just can’t be proven or measured,” Betsky explains, “though we know they are important.” That’s where our opinions really start to differ. Belief in God requires a leap of faith. Appreciation of architecture can, and should, be taught.
Believing in yourself as an artist isn’t enough—and expecting people to somehow inherently appreciate the “more” that you’re offering them is patently unrealistic. Even the Parthenon, that ne plus ultra of ancient architecture, might look like a pile of dirty white rocks to someone who knows nothing about the history of Periclean Athens, the conventions of Doric temple design, the geometry of the golden section, or the optical effects of entasis.
Architects study and train for years in order to do what they do. They work to become experts. They earn those licenses. That doesn’t release them from the obligation to justify their recommendations—be they technical or creative. Most people expect an explanation from their auto mechanic before he replaces the transmission, and most people would pause and ask their doctor a few questions before agreeing to a liver transplant. Same goes for architects and their buildings.
As a child, I was an architectural history buff, but Edwin Lutyens was my outer limit. It took five years of architecture school for me to fully embrace modernist architecture. Even so, I didn’t really warm to that paragon, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, until I took a job at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, moved into one of Mies’ Lake Shore Drive buildings, and witnessed every day for four years the evidence of his brilliant riffs on Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the classicist tradition. Now I think Mies was a genius. All it took was evidence.