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Left the Architecture Profession” is an honest and seemingly spontaneous attempt at staking out a position against an “outdated” profession.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 Telling architects they are “outdated” or that they don’t listen seems like a calculated attempt to get the attention of architects and to get them to somehow prove themselves, to make them mad in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.
Sadly, Outram’s globalized view of the profession comes off as an outsider’s perspective, rooted in a vague, generalized understanding about what architects do and how they work, all the while stripping them of the human capacity for empathy and the fundamental ability to listen. Even more depressing is that her solution is that we all become more like Starbucks. Her point is taken and it is clear she was just using this as an example, but the example cited does not validate or prove her original claims.
She relies, instead, on emotion to prove her point. The supposed gulf she identifies between architects and everyone else seemingly triggers a shock response, like the clap of a Zen master’s hands, breaking the silence. Now we understand what the problem with architecture is! Architects don’t listen and they need to be more like ethnographers. They need to put more round tables in spaces so lonely people don’t feel so lonely!
Of course, we know all too well that many architects are guilty of what she says, and we shouldn’t ignore this. But the marketplace and culture will decide who stands or falls, who builds or passes into obscurity. We know there are as many approaches to architecture as there are practicing architects. Moreover, culture is divided and contentious when it comes to spatial and material values. So are clients and their architects. Architecture is not monolithic and should not seek monolithic solutions like the one Ms. Outram suggests. An ethnographic approach is not a universal cure and architecture should not be misconstrued as diseased.
I read “Why I Left” as a reflection of the negative populist view of architecture. As if the recession wasn’t enough to deal with, architects must also constantly defend themselves against negative stereotypes hyped by popular culture. It’s popular to bash architects. I won’t even bother defending the good ones, the master architects who do indeed listen and hear, who get it, who aren’t “outdated.” You know who you are. Keep doing what you do. The work speaks for itself and your clients love you.
In addition, it can be read as an expression of the ideological and intellectual rift that exists between the public and the profession, one that architects are not necessarily psychologically equipped to bridge. Nor is it their responsibility. Somehow, the cultural framework needed to support understandings of architecture has eroded to such a degree that architecture ends up being defined in oppositional ways. Architecture versus people. Architecture against architecture. Architecture against reason, against beauty, feeling, humanity. When it became a discipline in its own right it somehow lost its claim to humanism, banished from the humanities it was once conceived as a part of. Architects can’t necessarily fix such problems.
But these all sound like excuses. Poor architects. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anybody, either. Nonsense. You do it or you don’t. You do it well or you don’t. That’s it.
As for leaving the profession? If you leave architecture it goes with you and remains, always, a part of who you are. It’s much harder to stay. Your architecture, if you actually get to do it, is the expression of who you are. But it can become impossible to bear when forces beyond your will prevent this from materializing. In the realities of the marketplace, practicing in ways that express your core beliefs and values can be a constant struggle. It’s not for everybody and not everybody finds the right clients to usher their plans into buildings.
“Why I Left” ends with this: “So if I’m wrong, prove it. For now I remain humbly disappointed.” This modest essay ends with this: You don’t need to prove anything. You already prove it to yourselves and your clients every day.
Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring "The Indicator", he is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.
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