Can We Please Stop Bashing Architects?

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.

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.

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "Can We Please Stop Bashing Architects?" 19 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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