Buckminster Fuller in the loft, which featured a built-in, curved bookcase.
Ben Gelman/The Southern Illinoisan Buckminster Fuller, who, legend has it, "could fill days with his rambling lectures."

Lord save us from bloviating architects. It seems to be one of the banes of the profession that designers, given a chance to present their work in lectures or publications, take the opportunity to not just explain what they have done, but also to make overly grand claims for their work. They state that what they have done is the perfect approach to a site and a problem, and claim that their buildings have importance beyond their particular ambits. I should know: I run an architecture school founded by Frank Lloyd Wright, who famously said that his work represented “truth against the world.”

At the Mextropoli Conference I attended recently in Mexico City, I was confronted—in addition to some amazing talks that filled me with optimism about what architecture can do to make the world better—with the spectacle of a couple of very good architects giving very bad lectures. There is no doubt that Rafael Aranda, Hon. FAIA, and the other two architects of RCR Arquitectes are good designers—they won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2017, after all. And there is also no question about the quality of architect Valerio Olgiati’s work: He has been perfecting his minimal, but solid and even archaic, forms for decades now, honing them to the point where they can evoke archetypes while focusing the viewer’s attention on light, structure, and simple materials.

In these two cases, however, both Aranda and Olgiati went on endlessly about the importance of their work, making claims that this humble observer found hard to find support for in the buildings they showed.

Javier Lorenzo Domínguez Rafael Aranda (at left) with his partners in 2017 Pritzker Prize-winning RCR Arquitectes, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta.

Aranda’s talk was particularly vexing. He orated more than two hours (the official limit for the rest of us speakers was 45 minutes), and it took him a good half hour of cycling through black-and-white photographs of the nature and vernacular buildings of his home region around the Spanish town of Olot before he even revealed the firm’s first project—and even then he showed the landscape, not the building itself. On top of this, after all the talk of the firm’s love of place, the work he put up consisted of essays in stripped-down spaces made of concrete, glass, and Cor-Ten steel. It was difficult to ascertain how or why these buildings were of a place at all.

This was particularly troubling to me because I had such high expectations. I have never seen RCR’s work in person, but have happily poured over photographs and drawings of the buildings the firm has designed. Several friends, including members of the Pritzker Prize jury, have assured me that their work is in fact spectacular both in itself and in how it responds to the siting. I was so excited to find out more about what RCR had done and were doing now; after this lecture, however, I have lost most of my desire to trek to the far reaches of Catalonia to see the projects.

Video: Valerio Olgiati on "One Idea"

On the other hand, I have already seen several of Olgiati’s buildings in person, and they are masterful. I know few other architects who are able to abstract place and building traditions into such forceful, and yet humane, environments. But his presentation, which culminated in a video he apparently shot himself of a house he designed for himself in Portugal, complete with music from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, seemed more concerned with showcasing his ability to use one particular element—an abstracted gabled house façade—in plan, section, elevation, and even as a column cap.

Courtesy Hisao Suzuki RCR's La Lira Theater Public Open Space in Ripoll, Spain.

All the lofty words made me—and the students I had brought with me—doubt those very aspects of the architecture that were the most extreme in the architects’ claims on material and space. RCR’s over-scaled La Lira outdoor room and their long passageway to the Bell-Lloc Winery, both of which are in the Spanish province of Girona, looked as big and hollow as Aranda’s descriptions. Olgiatti’s curved hallway, dark and constructed wholly out of concrete, which leads from the living room in his Portugal house all the way around a hidden apse to the bedrooms—which happen to be located immediately adjacent to the living room, by the way—seemed as convoluted as his reasoning that it was necessary to disorient you on your way to your place of rest.

Hisao Suzuki RCR's Bell-Lloc Winery in Palamós, Spain.

Video: The Construction of Valerio Olgiati's Villa Além in Portugal.

The whole event reminded me of the old days of the heroic, always male, architect—a man who tried so hard to convince us of his genius that he’d go to such great length to make mystical statements. Robert Mangurian used to talk for several hours when he was the resident guru at SCI-Arc, but that was nothing compared to Buckminster Fuller, who apparently could fill days with his rambling lectures.

I don’t mind when architects make claims for their buildings that go beyond the actual designs, so long as they present them as experiments. I also don’t mind the grand theories of the likes of Patrik Schumacher or Mark Foster Gage, so long as they develop their ideas coherently in both the building and the lecture. The scourges of the profession are the unfounded assertions like those from Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, who keeps presenting the same building organization over and over while making up a different reason why it looks that way—this time—or David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, who says that the whole world is against him and that somehow only his work is both timeless and rational.

Recently, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, lectured at our School of Architecture at Taliesin. He also made reference to the influence of local natural forms and vernacular architecture on his architecture, but he illustrated the connection with precise diagrams and photographs that showed the transformation, for instance, of a “dogtrot house” into its modern equivalent. He also admitted that “we’re really good at post-rationalizing” when he showed a comparison between a store he designed and the structure of a mushroom.

Certainly, we have sat through too many lectures in the tradition of James Stirling, Zaha Hadid, and Kazuyo Sejima, who often would run through their projects with little or no commentary or explanation. But, please, is it not possible to present architecture in a way helps us understand what we are seeing, that makes us want to see the work in person, and that opens our minds to the larger significance of the work? Architecture means something, and good buildings deserve to be seen and discussed seriously, modestly, and specifically. Only if architects can do this will they be able to convince all of us that their work deserves the podium they demand.