The New York Times is as close as we come to having a newspaper of record, and is certainly the leading thought-influencer for this country’s cultural, if not its political, elite. That makes its recent descent into know-nothing, cliché-ridden reviews of architecture and its products all the more troubling. With an “architecture critic” who has basically given up on reviewing the designed environment in favor of bizarre forays into fields such as so-called “evidence-based design,” the Times has now for the second time in several months given its editorial page over to a piece on architecture that is so pointless and riddled with clichés as to beggar comprehension.
This one, entitled "How to Rebuild Architecture," was penned by Steven Bingler, AIA, and Martin C. Pedersen. It starts with that hoary trope of “anti-elitist” architecture criticism: the lovable, aged mother who sees a misbegotten piece of modern architecture and says: ”It looks like somebody piled a couple of boxcars on top of each other, then covered them up with cheap metal and whatever else they could find at the junkyard!”
Fine, perhaps the structure is, but so what? Perhaps another mom (like mine, who loved rough-hewn, modern architecture) might like the structure. The authors use this opening salvo by a lay-person to claim that such non-experts have it right, and architects should be listening to them. They add a soupçon of moral outrage by noting that some architects participating in the rebuilding of New Orleans were ignorant enough of local conditions to propose buildings with flat roofs. Oh, horrors. Ed. note: Bingler’s firm also produced one of the Make It Right houses, albeit without a flat roof.
So we have three of the standard criticisms of buildings designed by architects: first, they are ugly according to what the piece’s authors perceive as some sort of widely-held community standard (or at least according to some 88-year old ladies); second, they are built without consultation; third they don’t work.
All those critiques might be true. Good architecture can be startling, or least might not look like what we are used to. It sometimes stretches the technology of building to the point that it creates problems. And, it is usually designed on commission from a client—not by and for the actual users (unless it is a house for a rich person)—which is why there is so little collaboration, not because architects are so ego-driven that they wouldn’t engage in it.
The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.
Experimentation can sometimes look weird at first, but it is a necessary part of figuring out how to make our human-built world better. It is not the result of copying well-published buildings, as Bingler and Pedersen claim; what buildings were copied by the architects working on the New Orleans project the mother didn’t like? I would suggest that the authors visit MoMA’s exhibition on tactical urbanism to see what is actually going on in the world of collaborative architecture instead of staring at the few published buildings they seem to know.
This gets to the third point of Bingler’s and Pedersen’s argument. They claim that architects once designed for the people because they designed for our genetic make-up (I am not making this up):
“It wasn’t always like this. For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople—a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software—created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on myriad styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world. These creative resources transcend style. They not only have wide aesthetic appeal, but they’re also profoundly human, tied to our own DNA.”
All I can say is: Wow. I do not know what fantasyland these authors live in that they imagine that for “millenniums” (“millennia?”) architects collaborated on making buildings that “resonated deeply.” In fact, the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today. Almost none of the vernacular that makes up the meat of our built world was not designed by architects. I do not know what about a neo-classical or neo-something they have in mind (the authors give no examples to support their case, but, to judge from his website, Bingler is a New Urbanist type of guy), but I did not know you could design in a way that is “tied to our own DNA.” About the only architect trying to make that claim is Patrik Schumacher, and I doubt his parametricism would fit Bingler’s and Pedersen’s definition of something “profoundly human.”
The truth is that architecture is not made by or for “a wide spectrum of the population.” It is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities. If some architecture looks strange and is engaged in experimentation, it is because the only way architects have to make something that has a chance to escape from that affirmation of the social, economic, and political status quo is to make spaces that open up, forms that question or stretch our expectations, and buildings that build in delights, from amenities to visual pleasures, that the clients do not necessarily need—though they may desire them in the end. Beauty of a deep and satisfying kind is what good architects often have to sneak into commissions.
Architecture, in other words, is either the dull affirmation of what we have, or it is an attempt to make our world better. It succeeds not by DNA-based forms or mystical appeals to the tastes of the public, but through hard work in the real world.
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.