Whenever I see sensational exposes on the supposedly sublime spatial intensity of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1994), they strike me as nothing more than colonial fantasies that have little to do with the reality of living in the midst of one of the world’s cruelest slums. You see the Walled City pop up constantly like it’s still a valid or even interesting subject. This informal settlement has been diagramed, photographed, and written about for decades from an aesthetic point of view, rendering its victimized and oppressed inhabitants all but invisible. Not to say that this wasn’t home to a lot of people and that no “fond memories” were formed there, but still, like all slums, it was a tough place to live, fraught with contradictions in the haze of hope for a better life.
You see it all the time. You walk into a firm and there, in the often open hangar-like space, you see a sea of people at their computers with headphones on, attempting to maintain their own sense of space in the face of pervasive distractions and the constant white noise of the studio environment. While it can be inspiring to see and hear everything that is going on in a creative office, and while it is healthy to engage co-workers, there are times when people need to “tune out”. But the space of headphones can not equate the true space of being alone and quiet.
A lot of things happened in 2013. Zaha was in the news about every other week. She was copied in China and then accused of designing a giant vagina in Qatar. Rem’s son is producing a documentary about his dad. We lost Prentice Women’s Hospital. We almost lost the American Folk Art Museum. There were a lot of stellar exhibitions and one that took things On the Road. It was the year of high-rise after high-rise, with Rem changing the game yet again by lifting the podium off the ground and sticking to his formal guns, refusing to indulge in curvy shapes.
Things at Architecture for Humanity were shaken up with the departure of co-founders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr. Resiliency became the new sustainability. China suddenly became defined less for its adventurous architecture and urbanism and more for its darker, smoggier flipside. My hometown, Los Angeles got a few more bike lanes, some big plans for its concrete river, plus a new Bloomberg-esque mayor with attendant sustainability tsar. There were people complaining about architecture and telling us why they left the profession. Kanye got attacked for daring to tell us why he likes architecture, and then architecture loved talking about Kanye for weeks on end until we just wanted architecture to shut up about Kanye. Poor Kanye. There are so many things we could say were key in 2013. It’s been a great year. And there were also a lot of fantastic buildings.
But in terms of issues, what really stands out from 2013 (right up there with “resilience”) is equality – and nothing represented this better than Denise Scott Brown v. Pritzker Prize. In arguing that she has a rightful and equal place alongside husband Robert Venturi, she (along with Harvard GSD’s Women in Design organization) woke a sleeping giant—but not for the first time.
Architectural street gang and provocateurs, On the Road, named (I would like to think anyway) for Jack Kerouac’s novel of same name, and let’s just say that is the origin (since I happen to like that book), and the decentralized dérives of this Los Angeles crew remind me of Jack’s edit-as-you-go-or-do-not-edit-as-it-may-be writing style, if he even had a “style” (which is questionable), are at it again, or were just last month for their program, “West of LaBrea / 20131117 / 10-4pm” in which these rebellious, anti-establishment “architects” (some may not be licensed and therefore cannot actually go by the official title according to legal precedents in this here United States of America but you all know what I mean wink wink) once again find themselves out in the streets bombing the architectural establishment, which by the way is critical for the history of Los Angeles architecture, and by doing so have once again reminded us that architecture can be about play and a healthy dose of transgression, though no laws were broken during the making of #OtR3, as it is being called, that I can tell….
“Is the building really in charge of a woman architect?” I asked the foreman… The man read me a powerful sermon of just three short sentences, punctuated with the earnestness of a reform orator. “An architect’s an architect,” he said, “and you can count them all on the fingers of one hand. Now, this building is in charge of a real architect and her name happens to be Julia Morgan, but it might as well be John Morgan.”
Journalist in 1906 upon learning of Julia Morgan winning a new commission. (Courtesy Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Robert E. Kennedy Library)
The recent announcement that Julia Morgan has posthumously received the 2014 AIA Gold Medal, the AIA’s top honor, while positive and inspirational, raises some important questions concerning the recognition and advancement of women in the profession. She is the first woman, living or dead, to receive the honor in the award’s 106-year history. From 1907 to 2012, all recipients have been men.
Christine Outram’s rant “Why I Left the Architecture Profession” is an honest and seemingly spontaneous attempt at staking out a position against an “outdated” profession. It’s explosive in its assertion that “you,” meaning all you architects, are out of touch. “You” don’t listen to your clients. “You” are obsessed with form-making. “You” are a soulless machine, designing by code templates and cut and paste, with no regard for humanity. Her essay hits like a splatter bomb, throwing shrapnel in all directions. It’s a drone strike that has killed innocents. It’s clumsy and reckless.
It begs to be deconstructed. It demands a counterattack. And, judging from the lengthy comment thread, this is what it has reaped. Be that as it may, the issues are obvious. Telling architects they are “outdated” or that they don’t listen seems like a calculated attempt to get the attention of architects and to get them to somehow prove themselves, to make them mad in ways equal to her own anger.
Well, it’s got my attention. Here’s my rebuttal.
On October 23rd, the Walt Disney concert hall, the project that almost never was, will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Throughout these ten years it has had all manner of transformative power attributed to it. But has it really transformed LA? What would the city have been like if it had never been built? Would it be fundamentally different?
The answer? No.The city wouldn’t even be that different in the immediate vicinity of Grand Avenue.
I don’t mean to poo poo the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon project, but the more I hear about it the more I wonder if this isn’t an indication of just how far behind the United States is in terms of energy policy and the design of smart environments. Are we really that far behind that we need a program like this to prove this stuff really works? Are people still disbelieving? Do they really need demonstration homes to show how photovoltaics produce electricity or how sustainable principles can be applied to architecture? I suppose it makes sense in a country that still obsesses about the Case Study Houses and has debates about climate change.
The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is primarily to educate the public on high-performance building practices. Since 2002 when the DOE held the first one, it’s been putting “green” building in front of people who otherwise would not get to experience it—or, in reality, a self-selecting population of people who are probably already into such things.
In the 1970s roughly 20 percent of all US college courses were taught by adjuncts. In recent years, especially since the global financial meltdown, the number of adjunct professors has exploded to the point where they might be considered a floating population of migrant laborers. According to a report from the National Education Association (NEA), currently more than half of all US college courses are taught by adjuncts, or what Sarah Kendzior calls “Academia’s Indentured Servants.”
The 2013 American Association of University Professors annual report paints an even bleaker picture, finding that 76 percent of the academic workforce is made up of adjunct, part-time faculty, teaching graduate students, and non-tenure track, full-time professors.
We have entered an era in higher education where many alarming forces are converging.
A few days ago I took part in an AIA-organized Twitter discussion (#aiachat) focused on the subject of IDP, or what we here in the US call the Intern Development Program, administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).
I periodically get sucked into these Twitter discussions when I’m busy procrastinating and not writing what I’m supposed to be writing. Call it a weakness for provocative questions thrown out on Twitter by faceless moderators:
Q1: What advice do you have for interns getting started with IDP?
Q2: Many states allow concurrent completion of IDP and ARE4. What are the benefits of participating in both at the same time?
Q3: What resources have you used to help navigate IDP?
And so forth.
The discussion brought back painful memories of my own tortuous IDP experience. By the time we got to Q7 or Q8 I came to a conclusion: IDP needs to be radically overhauled and re-conceptualized.
When New York City architect Curtis B. Wayne first started talking about “The Fourth Architecture,” it was clear he was not doing so to make friends. You do not write manifestos to make friends. You write them because of some perceived urgency, because the time is right.
As a long-standing practitioner, radio host, and graduate of Cooper Union and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he already has a lot of friends. What he’s interested in is saving architecture from the current orthodoxy of form-making over substance, or “sculpture you can live in.” “We are too wise for this,” writes Wayne.
In fact, I can go further. Judging from the little red book that has finally emerged from Wayne’s brain, appropriately titled, The Shape of Things that Work: The Fourth Architecture, I’m almost certain he set out to piss people off. But not without a purpose.
The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”
Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman. Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:
Architectural writing should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.
This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
As Mr. Betsky asserts, “Robots, connected computers, miniaturization, and etherization are taking the work out of both the social and the physical sphere.” But isn’t this just a fantasy because this has not yet happened on a large enough scale to produce a true paradigm shift? Or, if the shift has happened, then where is everybody rushing off to on the Monday morning commute? And what are all those buildings jammed in-between the roads for? Most of them seem to be for work as opposed to play.
We may all float in and out of working networks as we move around, untethered to carpeted cubicles, telecommuting, flex-timing, logging in at all hours, but we are still and will primarily be working in places designed by architects—often without access to sunlight, fresh air, or nature of any sort.
I remember February 27, 2013 because that was the day Aaron Betsky asked a good question on his Beyond Buildings blog at Architect Magazine. Not that he doesn’t ask good questions on other days…because he does…but this particular day presented architecture with the provocative title, “Architecture Beyond Work: Will Architecture and Work Disappear?”
A few weeks ago there was a flurry of debate about one of Zaha Hadid’s designs being copied, or at least copied in terms of its outer form. Very soon after this I discovered an interesting article in the most recent issue of MIT’s Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.The article, “Hybrid Reassemblage: An Exploration of Craft, Digital Fabrication and Artifact Uniqueness” by Amit Zoran and Leah Buechley, raises some interesting points about the nature of originality, the subjective experience of making original things, and the potential for digital technology to impute this subjectivity to new and repeatable objects. In essence, the authors are discussing the position of craft, the hand-made, the personal, subjective act of making something that is singular and based on a personal process, the negotiation of decisions and risks with tools, materials, and design intentions.
In 1992, the artist, Christo, with his now late-wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, had a vision to suspend miles of silvery translucent fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. Would you expect anything less?
Christo usually works at such massive geographic scales—land interventions that can be discerned by satellites passing overhead. Here his ambition stretches for 42 miles (67.6 km) of scenic river with no less than a total of 5.9 miles (9.5 km) of fabric suspended over the eight different sections of the river.
A few weeks ago, appearing on the heels of a Salon article by Scott Timberg, entitled, “The Architecture Meltdown”, GOOD Magazine published “Why ‘The Death of Architecture’ May Not Be Such a Bad Thing”. Penned by public interest advocate and writer, John Cary, the article offered a provocative corrective for architecture in the Great Recession. In fact, it seemed written for the purpose of provocation rather than offering real solutions.
The article, which I will break down by borrowing the language of Buddhism, conveyed Four Noble Truths:  Architecture is suffering,  There is a way to end the suffering,  The way to end the suffering is to follow a new path, and  The path is the “emergent” field of public interest design. This is how architecture can rise above the “meltdown” and save itself and the world.
Sounds simple enough, right? Let’s do it!
G: What drew you out here?
M: A bunch of things. One: the desire to be warm in the winter. Two: the desire to live in the strangest city in the western world. Three: to be around an odd artistic and professional environment founded on creativity regardless of the dreck that comes out of here, it’s still creative. Whereas if you go to a party in New York, you meet people who do jobs I don’t understand. They’re in arbitrage, or corporate accounting, or they are hedge fund managers. They don’t make anything. They just sort of figure out how to generate money off of other people’s efforts. You come here and you meet very successful people who make things. There is this sort of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude that exists here that you don’t find in other places. I also think that one of the defining characteristics of LA is the overwhelming rate of failure.
You know, hedge fund guys…they don’t fail. Wall Street guys? They are born, they grow up in Connecticut or grow up in Bedford and they come from privilege and they’re entitled, and they go to Penn and then Harvard Business School and then they go to work on Wall Street and then it’s all success from day one.