Besides being the title of a Brian Jonestown Massacre album, “Thank God for Mental Illness” also represents one dimension to the ethos of contemporary architecture, a discipline often prone to psychological extremes in the pursuit of great, paradigm-breaking buildings. But, is this really necessary? Do we need to be self-destructive and extreme to pursue our dreams?
Now that it is common knowledge that many architects are crazy or dysfunctional “geniuses” I think it’s time to reconsider this paradigm and to possibly overturn it. This image has become so romanticized that it has crossed the line of cliché. When something becomes a paradigm, is canonized, or institutionalized, it needs to be challenged.
More after the break.
Recently, a prominent figure in the profession stated that the pursuit of architecture is not intended to be compatible with or supportive of good mental health. Something to the effect that your psychologist might advise you to avoid unstable and dangerous circumstances, but good architecture depends on this. This might just be a provocative way of saying architecture is no place for those who wish to avoid creative challenges. But the context of this message is telling. It speaks to the broader architectural imagination as one that thrives in the midst of uncertainty, instability, and pain. Oh, the poor suffering architect, dying for his art.
How did architecture get this way and where does this come from? In part, it comes from the history of architecture, which tends to deify seemingly eccentric, driven, single-minded “heroes” who sacrifice everything for their “vision.” As students, we are bombarded with such narrowly-defined hero narratives.
Deified architects, both living and dead, are rarely discussed outside the context of their spatial or creative production. It is as if they were not really human beings. They are merely characters for the communication of larger architectural ideals that have become institutionalized in the academy and in practice as “modernists” or “postmodernists” or other “-ists”. The overall effect is the production of a culture based on the logic and madness of extreme psychologies—extremes that are at once revered yet feared—especially if you have ever worked for this type of mad architect-genius.
The moral of these institutionalized narratives is that everything must be subservient to the pursuit of great architecture, everything must be willingly sacrificed. All things must burn, including one’s self, to fuel the flames of creative genius necessary to produce…buildings. That’s right. All this sacrifice and insanity to make buildings.
The hidden element to all this sacrifice is an extreme self-centeredness or even narcissism. Architecture is one of those disciplines that has plenty of room for narcissists. There is also a lot of insecurity built into this. When you take a bunch of fragile, sensitive, creative people and gang them together to make a profession there is bound to be some dysfunction on a broader level—similar to Wall Street, except they make more money on that street then we do on ours.
Most people who pursue architecture are not eccentric geniuses. They are baseline normal people who are compelled to enter a field that celebrates eccentrics and the supposed dysfunctional emotional worlds that both haunt and propel them toward “greatness.” This has become the narrative of great architecture.
Let’s do something to change this. We can keep the creativity and the intensity without all the immature, self-indulgent dysfunction. Architecture would be much stronger as a profession and as a culture of success if we could just get rid of some of our over-identification with psychological extremes.
As for sacrifice, it should be clear that what we are talking about is the sacrifice of life on the outside: family, friends, health, and financial gain. Other professions accommodate the complexity and richness of life. Architecture often has it backward. It assumes that architecture is life and that other dimensions to living intrude or detract from the necessary “focus” or “intensity” required.
Architects experience high rates of divorce, alcoholism, drug use, and early mortality due to stress-related diseases like cancer and heart disease. Many architects also suffer from depression due to the unceasing pressure, long hours, low compensation, and unstable job security. Clearly, there has to be a better way to produce paradigm-breaking architecture.
The profession can do more to promote a culture that balances work with life rather than simply assuming work is life. The responsibility for developing a culture that values existence on the outside, or acknowledging that there is indeed an outside to value, rests with each individual. After all, if there is nothing outside of architecture then what can we then bring to it?
The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates.