Peggy Deamer is a professor of architecture at Yale University, the principal of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Peggy Deamer, Architect, and cofounder of the Architecture Lobby, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of architects, their individual rights as workers, and their collective value to society. Her work—which draws on architecture critics Adrian Stokes and John Ruskin, psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, architect and writer Manfredo Tafuri, and sociologist Richard Sennett—centers on defining the architect’s intellectual and creative ownership in a 21st-century cultural climate. “Change,” says Deamer, “begins with a sense of agency.”
For me, possessing information is the opposite of fetishizing an object. Architects have so much information—we’re trained to think humanistically, to heed building codes, to investigate materials, to draw on psychology, and to solve organizational problems. But we suppress this information when we talk to clients or the media because we think that all they care about is the final product: the building itself.
Architects wrongly assume that their creative-design expertise will be recognized by the world, and that expertise alone will make those who are at the top stay at the top. On the other hand, architects rightly assume that their contribution to the public realm is a real one. We are doing much more than decoration or making beautiful environments. We offer benefits and opportunities to improve people’s lives—and it’s a good aspiration that most of us hold.
We have to start with John Ruskin, and his respect for the connection between the architect’s design and the builder’s efforts, which was about a holistic process that nurtured everyone. For him, that was the mark of a moral society. Generations later, Adrian Stokes understood this, and pointed to a psychological imperative: The design process should be judged both by the products we make as well as what those products offer the creator. How you look, how you carve, how you draw, how you talk—those psychological aspects are part of a bigger picture of cultural production. And the connection between what we do as architects and how we design is much closer than anyone is talking about in popular discourse.
In writing about Venetian buildings, Stokes looked for evidence that the carver or the designer struggled with the materials— shaping the stone itself, how the stone casts shadows, how the stone invites pigeons to roost. What he uncovered was not the architect’s unbending will to shape forms— which is part of the popular myth of the lone genius. Instead, he uncovered evidence of the struggle between the maker and what’s been made. And for me, the “maker” is a really important part of the architect’s value. —As told to William Richards