Peter Exley - Architecture Is Fun
Ruth Yaro Peter Exley - Architecture Is Fun

My first two jobs as a young architect were amazing experiences. The first, in the London office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was a baptism by fire in rigor, excellence, and mostly good habits. I was surrounded by fascinating, capable, and competitive colleagues, who (owing to the hours we kept) also represented my entire social circle. The second, at Venturi Scott Brown Associates (VSBA), was an additional notable initiation where I became a citizen of a spectacularly fun studio where models were made, Pantone sheets adhered, and Prismacolor pencils sharpened under the watchful gaze of Steven Izenour. Today, we might characterize it as a place of admirable work-life balance. We had rubber-band fights. We had mentorship. We had a boss who knew our kids’ names.

For me, and for many, this balance is one of the great legacies of that workplace. When I speak about AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice, I have these memories to draw upon. I believe the Guides are one of the finest roadmaps we have for ensuring that architectural practices vault beyond convenient minimum standards and strive to be exemplars for all professions, not just architecture. As architects addressing injustice in our communities, we must first hold ourselves accountable. The VSBA office aspired to be the paragon I see in the Guides, and represented values that still inspire me every day.

Denise Scott Brown and Bob Venturi were great polemicists—their words are often privileged over their buildings in the lecture hall—but their ideas were anchored by their ethics. I consider Denise’s essay “Planning the Powder Room,” which first appeared in AIA Journal in April 1967, an ingenious manifesto for accessibility and equity. She speaks directly to the fact that being conversant in a spatial typology is no substitute for experience. In case it needs to be said, the vast majority of architects in 1967 were men who had never used half the bathrooms they had designed. They presumed that if it was good enough for the gander, then it was good enough for the goose. I’d like to think we have moved beyond this position, even if the ratio of women to men in architecture remains woefully imbalanced.

I like to think that words mean something—that Denise’s words, in particular, still mean something. Her argument in the “Powder Room” extends far beyond the places we live, work, play, and learn, of course, and into scales of magnitude that touch every aspect of our built environment—affordable housing, public transportation, and school districts, not to mention access to jobs, healthcare, and nutritious food. Her point can magnificently resonate in the process of scaling up. Accessibility and equity might be our strategies and superpower when we design, yet empathy must be our only underlying motive.

This article was published as "Learning to Learn" in the July-August 2021 issue of Architect magazine.