Can We Please Stop Bashing Architects?

  • 19 Nov 2013
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice
Megalomania? Hadid’s Galaxy Soho Building has been criticized for destroying Beijing’s cultural heritage and displacing its residents. Image © Hufton + Crow

If the discussions recently held at the Battle of Ideas are any indication, it seems that we in the architecture community are living a certain crisis of confidence.

Not one new utopian vision has been presented in the past 30 years, lamented Theodore Dounas; all these pop-ups popping up are just evidence, said Pedro Bismarck and Alastair Donald, of architecture’s fearful reluctance to tackle  complex problems or act as a legitimate agent for change at all; and then there’s the problem, voiced by Rory Olcayto, of architects being bullied by their clients into executing questionable agendas.

These interpretations – of architects as meek, cautious, deferential, afraid of responsibility – are far from the stereotype of the architect as megalomaniac artiste. Yet two recent articles chastise architects for just that: “Why I Left the Architecture Profession” by Christine Outram and “The Fountainhead All Over Again” by Lance Hosey both criticize architects’ out of control egos, absence of common sense, and lack of respect for the people who their designs are supposed to serve.

So are architects too shy to assert their expertise? Or are they Roark-inspired ego-maniacs who “don’t listen to people”? 

Well, both. And that’s exactly where the trouble lies.

Penny Lewis unpacks her idea that architects are now too afraid of their own power. Image © Tamara Hussein

The view of Outram and Hosey is directed against a particular sub-section of architects: on the one hand, the group we may once have referred to as “starchitects”, or, more accurately, big-name designers who are often brought in to provide an ‘icon’, or even to simply prove beyond a doubt that the entity commissioning the building “cares about good design”. On the other hand are large and usually relatively anonymous practices who are adept at satisfying the wishes of their commercial clients – the practices who make a mantra of high proportions of rent-able space and low costs of construction.

However, not all architects fit into these two groups – or at the very least many do their utmost to avoid falling into the trap – and it is these unfortunate individuals that are suffering this crisis of confidence. They are the humanists who refuse to present their work as a pure game of finance, and do not wish to reduce it to some arbitrary notion of culture for its own sake.

They are the ones that have been sucked into a vicious chicken-and-egg cycle, where a losing struggle to maintain relevance leads to a crisis of confidence, which leads to meek design solutions, which leads to a further reduction in relevance. Which crisis came first: confidence or relevance? How did this cycle begin?

Penny Lewis, speaking in the Masterplanning the Future debate at the Battle of Ideas, gave a very convincing origin for this phenomenon: Michel Foucault. In his relentless pursuit during the 1960s and 70s to uncover the origins and mechanisms of power, the French philosopher’s ideas have come to permeate our entire culture, changing forever how we think about the people who wield power. And while these theories of power may come as no surprise to the politician or the prison guard, architects were entirely unprepared to deal with them.

Could figures like Bertrand Goldberg be the solution to our current crisis of confidence?. Image © Flickr User: TRAFFIK [US
Suddenly aware of the power they wield and yet totally untrained to deal with it – and with some of modernism‘s greatest mistakes fresh in their minds – architects retreated from bold, confident solutions. The antidote to their power was community participation, and the more of it the better.

This attitude still runs deep in the profession’s veins, and while it remains an effective solution to the power problem, increasingly the public is seeing through the veil; architects are doing little more than shaping the proposals that communities themselves are forming, and applying a layer of technical knowledge to make these proposals possible – hence architecture’s fight to remain relevant.

What’s more, these battles for confidence and relevance are not fought purely in the selfish interests of the profession. Without the creative background of architects, these community-driven proposals are limited in their vision, presenting glossed versions of an already present reality rather than ideas for a better future – rather like Henry Ford’s famous quip, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This is the origin of the culture that so disappointed many speakers at the Battle of Ideas. Architects have backed themselves into a corner from where their ability to propose new ideas is minimal, their fear of anything which doesn’t automatically have widespread public support is at a maximum, and to top it all off, thanks to a separate arm of the profession which does not share their humanist concerns, the public perception of them as an architect remains that of the esoteric egotist, no matter how hard they have tried to shake it off.

Van Eyck’s Amsterdam Orphanage has long been praised for its humanism. Image © CCA Mellon Lectures

How do these architects change their fate, then? The first part of the process is to separate themselves from the unpleasant portions of their own profession. The comments under both Outram and Hosey’s articles show clearly that most architects care deeply about the people they serve. How is it then that they can be confused with other types of architects who evidently do not? The concept of a single profession moving in a single direction is false and damaging.

Once distinct from the poisonous limbs of the profession, humanist architects must accept their power. Many of them will likely balk at this suggestion (it is often believed that accepting power is the first step towards abusing it); however, it is a crucial step. After all, admitting you have a problem is the first step to dealing with it, and a crisis of confidence will not be solved with meekness.

Finally, the most important part of the process is to learn. Architects must learn about power and how it manifests itself in their design. They must learn how to wield power responsibly. This will be difficult; Foucault built an entire career around an attempt to understand power, so it’s safe to say architects will not be able to pick all this up overnight.

Fortunately, however, there is a precedent for architects to use as a guide in this endeavor: for a brief period around the 1960s, a certain type of architect thrived who had all the confidence of the modernists, but a much greater respect for the people they served, and a much greater understanding of humanist principles. Figures like Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzberger, Aldo Rossi, Carlo Scarpa and Bertrand Goldberg should be the prototypes on which the next generation of architects model themselves, as they break free from this crisis and embrace a new (and hopefully improved) era of conscientious yet confident architecture.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Can We Please Stop Bashing Architects?" 19 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=449073>
  • Stephen Hargreaves

    I’m a Chartered Architect working in rural Devon, UK, and for many years rose through the ranks of large London practices. Now I serve local communities as a kind of General Practice architect, someone to help local people and local communities steer their way through the uncertainties of the planning system.

    Yes, there are architects that need a good dose of ego removal but there are so many more, like me, just serving their local community and making a difference that will last for hundreds of years.

    No need to bash them. They’re just quietly and unassumingly, getting on with it.

    Stephen Hargreaves BA DipArch RIBA

  • Thomas Batzenschlager

    Can we please stop doing bar-counter-archtect’s psychology and start talking about architecture ?

  • Rahul

    “architects’ out of control egos, absence of common sense, and lack of respect for the people who….”. All we think is whether we succumb to clients pressure of his requirements or to be creative…Or how much we get notices and get respected !…As architects we are very creative and want to innovate and create icons every time… is there any meaning to do just that ? Innovation may seem creative but most of the time it lacks the test of time. A test that not just has to do with the building itself, but every little thing related to it. We fail in bothering about more than a couple of things apart form the building itself. The question is not wanting to be, or not wanting to be Roarks, the question is who the hell are we to decide ? and on what basis do we decide…….Just creating catastrophes, one after another…….

  • Mark Minkjan

    The title is a bit misleading. Of course, bashing isn’t good because it equals oversimplified criticism. But good criticism is crucial.

    The problem is that we are missing a solid and broad critical discourse – architecture shouldn’t be scrutinized just from an architectural discourse, its social and public relevance are most important. Most architectural media don’t contribute to this. They publish unedited texts and renderings provided by architects, and most of the consumers of this information are architects. That’s a detrimental vicious circle. Architectural media should break out of this and focus on the economic, cultural and political implications of architecture.

    Because of the bad vicious circle, architects are mostly working, reflecting and criticising from an architectural discourse. That’s a serious problem, because it causes architecture to be often disconnected from reality.

    If the discourse would be a bit more critical and show social interest, the ‘humanist architects’ will feel more confident to do meaningful things. Nowadays, they don’t feel supported by what the architectural media is communicating.

    Although the title should be different, I can only agree with the points made by the author – adding that architectural media is a big part of the problem.

  • George Valdes

    I’m not here to bash architects, but I will say that, in general, they have yet to adapt to the demands and changes brought by a new world — or at the very least, they have done a horrible job of internalizing those changes. Namely, we’ve lost our relevance in the world. What we need is to bring awareness to the historical trajectory of the profession, understand the conditions in which the profession has practiced culturally, and realize that we need a complete reworking of our professional institutions. Its not all the fault of the profession. Most of the challenges, in terms of negotiations and power, faced today stem from juridical decisions made some time ago in a by gone era. One good way to measure this would be to actually look at the contracts your aforementioned architects signed during projects. In some cases, they were probably done on a handshake in others probably very little paperwork (if in the US)! Patronage and faith in the process produced projects by the likes of Eero Saarinen, who spent two years(!) investigating the lives of scientists before arriving at the design of the Watson Research Center in NY. Who gives you two years now a days to think critically and deeply about a client’s needs? But times have changed, and today, legal contracts, for the most part, have yet to make widespread adoption of new negotiations that might embed some sense of trust within projects again (i.e. like Intergrated Project Delivery). I don’t mean to say everything you argued could be solved by new contracts but I do believe its those seemingly disparate or insignificant developments that index a much larger cultural movement. The collapse of Modernism also signals the change in cultural attitudes towards the messaging of utopic ideology. The world is atomized. Large scale solutions, have to addressed the reality of a world in which planned obsolesce has structured new expectations and rhythms of consumption that architecture can no longer catch up to. This lack of “power” is actually a void generated by others, by the system as a whole, and the “crisis of confidence” is actually a realization that in order to regain relevance, one either has to move into really niche markets, with productized solutions aligned to the desires of the mass, or into emerging economies. To end this semi-rant, I’ll just say that architects need to start thinking and implementing a redesign of the business of architecture in general.

  • UmiD KarimoV

    Architecture doesn’t like pessimism!!!

  • Barry

    Great article. It explains something I’ve been wrestling with for a couple years, that postmodernist philosophy has been tough on us architects. Part of my proposal for resolving the crisis embracing intuition as the manifestation of good information. We’ve invested a lot of time gathering the information, trying it out in studio, and listening. When we’re confident that we have good information, we can approach design with a kind of unconscious consciousness: Donald Schon’s reflection in action.

  • George Brown

    Your article is extremely impressive.

  • Shaumyika Sharma

    I don’t know. How many meek architects are there, really? Those who have started their own practices have to tough it out and be incredibly strong, optimistic, tenacious. And those who can tolerate working for narcissistic and cruel employers, have to be pretty tough too.

    Yes, there are decent employers, but those tend to be the ones involved in the ‘pure game of finance’ criticised here. There is a correlation. Financial instability (experienced directly by both employer and employee at small, creative firms, or emerging practices) often results in a reliance on ego and a need to find ways to wield power in other ways.

    Designing something that actually gets built is in itself taking on a huge responsibility. So I am trying to understand who this meek architect is. To me, the meek architect is the one who gets to their 30s and realises they’re in the wrong profession. And really, they are only meek architects because they’re meant to do something else. They may be strong something-elses.

    I understand what the article is saying, but I find it hard to relate to the notion of ‘meekness’ given what an awesome responsibility any architect has to take on with built work. But I’m all for the humanist response. And I am glad this article reminded me about Scarpa, Rossi etc.

    But here’s another problem. Isn’t it true that older, more experienced architects are very slow to acknowledge any of the younger generations’ achievements, increasingly reluctant to be mentors, and uninterested in making room for them?

  • jason

    Architects Bashing eachother~

  • Elaine

    I strongly agree with Mark’s point that architectural media does architects and architecture absolutely no favours. There is not enough critical analysis of designs from all angles, not just the ‘just completed’ or ‘granted planning’ phase. I would also like to suggest that it is not just architectural media but media in general which has made ‘starchitects’ and has fueled trends and image as having a greater significance than they should. It is understandably difficult then to handle the power architects have and shy away from that in order to not ruffle any feathers out of fear of being interpreted the wrong way. It is a tougher test with media to hold your own or retain clarity of your ideas.

  • Lance Hosey

    Rory, great article. Very thoughtful response. Congrats.

    • Rory Stott

      Thanks Lance.

  • Joachim Stamper

    How much power does an architect really have when someone else is paying the bills? Complete autonomy on a project is an exception, not the rule. If the client doesn’t approve of the design, it doesn’t get built.

  • Lance Hosey

    Great article, Rory. Very thoughtful.

    • Donatello D’Anconia

      We shouldn’t be bashing architects, even if they are starchitects or Howard Roarkes Mr. Hosey. I agree that architecture media has not helped this cause, allowing numerous posts on architects, and not enough critical discourse on architecture.

  • G.Ehresmann

    In general a good article that hits on the core of the problem: the inability to deal with ‘power’.

    We need to articulate properly a relatively new, exaggerated condition–what Wouter Vanstiphout calls ‘derivative architecture’. We know loads of these ugly retail-happy spaceships are slapped together and rendered with happy shopper ‘scale figures’…but the final building–if there is one at all–is a mediocre version of what really was a mediocre design made to look seductive by digital trickery. The developer or banker’s perspective is certainly not a humanist perspective–less and less so. In the era of extreme global finance and competition, designs serve a financial purpose–use them to attract venture capitalists, fool city officials into granting you land or tax incentives, build buzz that creates rental demand, etc.

    In fact we’ve been too easy on architects. The confluence of vested interests (media, neoliberal governance,…) more and more results in a mode of cheerleading (it’s good for business!). Ever read architectural criticism from around the turn of the 20th century? Serious, robust stuff–very little of this psuedo-phenomenological fluff or faux-philosophical exploration you see today. The power and money behind architecture is more and more detached from people, but why aren’t architects calling this out? The ones that ARE go off to engage in a million ‘alternative practices’, refusing to politically confront the existing situation, as if they have internalized the conservative ‘competition’ model and believe the way to change society is to simply ‘convince us’ of a more desirable alternative (i.e. ‘product in the marketplace’). They almost totally avoid confronting power/politics–they don’t confront the ‘marketplace’).

    The crisis of architecture is arguably as big a problem as any other. Give 100 architects a commission and 90/100 will design an ugly building, and be fine with it. They don’t believe in beauty–that’s old fashioned. They won’t call it ugly, they’ll talk about the diagram behind it, the metaphor, some program trick, etc. Another 9 might come up with something beautiful, but not intentionally…somehow their taste level is high enough to stumble into beauty. When you insist on rejecting all of architectural history–including the embedded principles of humanism–you eventually look like a fool when your ‘brand new theories’ become just as ‘stale’. The basic nihilism of contemporary architecture, and its general refusal to admit that it actually does reach back into history for inspiration, is just embarrassing.

    Education. Most today were educated along modernist lines and believe design will save the world (rather than a transdisciplinary approach of politics, design, education, etc.). They also might be ‘is-what-it-is-ers’–’spirit-of-the-age-ers’– who embrace the now as the ‘right’. They’ll never admit to having this postmodernist attitude, but they LOVE the dirty, ugly real (or the impossibly clean, cartoonish hyperreal). Easier–and safer–to engage in the present rather than take a risk by looking forward.

  • Rowan Morrice

    quality article Rory, was good chatting to you the other week at BOI.

  • Kirk L

    I appreciate the mention of Foucault because dissecting the notion of power seems intrinsic to understanding the current dearth of high quality well-considered architectural masterpieces (at least on a large scale). It’s not simply a matter of legislation or education that will bring architecture back into favour. In the days of the master builders Architecture commanded respect because there were patrons from a well-educated and elitist aristocracy and clergy that wielded the power and the funds to construct impressive, beautiful and well thought out buildings. And though just as ego-driven as today’s crass developers or politicians, they were educated enough to seek out and trust the well-trained and talented architects who’s knowledge was based on a developed school of thought. Today those in power are often uneducated (at least in art and taste) and they pander to mass appeal which is more based on garish folly and shock value than craft or subtle meaning. And it is those crass power brokers that are driving the success of mediocrity in design. Don’t blame the architects, they’re just pawns in the game and the best of them are rarely sought out by those who can afford to make a statement. Instead the opportunities go to the Gehrys, the Libeskinds, the Alsops, the Koolhauses, etc.