Let me get two things straight: I believe that whatever we build has to be sustainable. I do not believe that architecture should be the province of the elite, either of taste or of money.
There has been a great deal of willful misreading and selective quoting of the arguments I have tried to set forward recently in response to editorials and articles produced by New Urbanists, neo-traditionalists, and those who think that environmental concerns should dominate not just how buildings work, but how they appear.
I believe that we have to create buildings that use minimal natural resources. I do not believe, however, that the path to sustainable architecture necessarily runs through the mitigation use of scarce resources in either construction or occupation by using gadgets or expensive variations on standard building technology to, for instance, store heat in walls.
I think that we rather, first, have to ask the question in all cases: Do we really need more buildings? The challenge to architects is to find ways in which they can use their skills and knowledge not just to produce buildings on demand, but to find ways in which they can contribute to a better (in a social sense, above all else) environment by finding ways to reuse existing buildings and materials, or perhaps to find solutions for companies, institutions, governments, or individuals that do not involve the construction of new space. Sometimes you don’t need a new building, just a better conception of who or what you are and how you function. This is the fundamental dilemma architects must face: How not to simply build, but to make our environmental and social situation better—and still get paid.
If a new building is absolutely necessary, it should be good. It should work well and answer all codes, but that is only the beginning point. It should use minimal amounts of energy both in construction and in use. It should offer spaces that do not imprison and pigeonhole us. It should enhance its site. It should be beautiful.
What it means to be beautiful or to work well are, of course, subjective questions. I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better—again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense—reality.
However, I do not think we usually know what that “better” is. I do not think we know what “the people” or “the silent majority” or any other definition of all us together “want.” That is exactly what we have to discover through the process of architecture.
While we do this, we have to realize that it is not “the people” who commission architecture. I do not meant to applaud or condone this situation, just to point out that false populism misses the point: those who have the means get to decide what, where, and how buildings are made. To call for a populist architecture is to call for a social and economic revolution. If that is too much to wish for, then we have to figure out how we can find ways to use the architect’s means, knowledge, and opportunities to do what the she or he, who has the power to design the building, thinks, based on her or his experience, skills, research, and asking of questions, is right. Architects have to figure out the situation they are in, and then have to do the right thing.
I believe that architecture can make our human-created world better. It can make it better in a social and an environmental sense. It can create spaces that are open, accessible, and sustainable. It can create the stages on which we can act out the roles we feel are ours to play with those we recognize as our fellow actors.
Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human. It should be good.
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.