Some questions about and beyond buildings that have arisen out of recent news and views:
1. Istanbul, Turkey, will see the demolishment of three hideous skyscrapers that mar the views—from some angles—that we associate with what was once the site of an empire and now is the fiefdom of a corrupt Islamist party with imperial ambitions. The buildings deserve to be torn down, but so do many others in that city. Istanbul suffers from uncontrolled sprawl and is seeing the construction of many such atrocities only slightly further away from the Golden Horn. And, of course, Taksim Square is turning from a shared public space into a shopping mall, despite all the protests. Should we be glad the high-rises are gone or wonder why there is no more logical planning in Istanbul—or in our own cities, where high-rises go up with concern only for profits, not what makes for a good city in which we all share what is left of open space?
2. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The New York Times, presents a fancy hospital in tony Princeton, N.J., as an example of better design through user participation. He notes that the building’s exterior is “dull,” meaning the people on the outside are not users—but then again the $523 million complex sits on a “leafy campus.” Inside, the building is a marvel of incredibly expensive moves, from not backing up plumbing walls (a concept whose cost Kimmelman does not seem to understand) so that rooms will not be mirrored in a way that might be confusing to nurses (really? I have a hard time believing that one) to antibacterial flooring that sounds very logical but costs $700,000. So should we welcome this experiment and hope for a trickle-down effect on larger, less wealthy hospitals? Or should we decry this as one of those moves that is driving healthcare costs into the stratosphere? Can’t we make hospitals better for patients and staff, as well as more efficient and maybe not such eyesores?
3. For years now, women make up about half of the students enrolled in architecture programs. Yet their participation in the profession continues to lag, as Rosa Sheng, AIA, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson pointed out to ARCHITECT in May and again recently in The Wall Street Journal. The same is true in many other professions, but it seems particularly pronounced in architecture. Is it pure male chauvinism on part of everybody from firms hiring young graduates, to those commissioning designs, to construction workers making women feel unwelcome? That is obviously a large part of the problem. Could the male bias embodied by architecture, which favors the production of the largest possible erections by heroic figures be another part of the issue? And, if it is, how do we get out of that condition?
4. Finally, on what to some might seem like a more trivial note: I was struck by the Skyscraper Museum’s resurrection of the 1984 Times Square competition, which sought alternatives to the fortresses of big businesses that Philip Johnson and John Burgee, FAIA, were then planning for the area. The entries epitomized that moment when we thought we could collage together what we knew and loved from history with what we hoped from the latest or even utopian technology. Ironically, that resembles what Times Square looks like today: a pastiche of emptied-out historical references cowering underneath the latest advertising technology. Was it the idea wrong, or is it the fate of all good notions in architecture (and art, and music) to be turned into the blandest of copies produced to sell? And, by the way, why has there never been any good Pop Art architecture—not in the era of Warhol, not today in the shadow of Jeff Koons?
Bonus question: Where are these questions being asked? Schools used to be the venues for debates about such issues, but either accreditation pressures or just ennui seems to have stilled them. We're now seeing some debate online. But, should these questions not be central to the discipline and the profession of architecture?
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.