Earlier this month the New York Times published an editorial written by Steven Bingler and Martin Pederson in which the two discuss how and why architects need to reevaluate the profession. The article centers on how today’s architecture can adequately meet the needs of its intended users without acknowledging their input and asks “at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?”
As with any commentary on the very nature of contemporary architecture, criticism abounds and has prompted a scathing response by Architect Magazine writer Aaron Betsky, who claims that the New York Times ought to be above such "know-nothing, cliché-ridden reviews of architecture" and ridicules certain excerpts of Bingler and Pederson's text, saying "I am not making this up." Betsky takes the opportunity to argue instead that “Architecture... is either the dull affirmation of what we have, or it is an attempt to make our world better."
Read on after the break for more on the New York Times article and the opposing views
The article by Bingler and Pederson begins with an anecdote supposedly exemplifying a layperson’s negative reaction to a piece of contemporary architecture, pointing out that non-experts may have valuable contributions and that architects ought to listen. Citing examples such as the houses designed for the Make it Right Foundation's efforts in New Orleans, they go on to discuss how architects sometimes design according to their own worldviews and preferences rather than the needs of their clients. The authors attribute these characteristic attitudes to the admiration of those few celebrity architects who succeed in designing flamboyant buildings for a cultural elite, thereby influencing a significantly larger portion of working professionals to design buildings that may prize artistic aspirations over genuine utility.
For Bingler and Pederson, architecture's only hope lies in looking back at previous built works that are successful through their “reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world.” Following this, the authors argue that the creative resources employed in vernacular works go beyond aesthetic appeal and exhibit qualities that are “profoundly human” and “tied to our own DNA.” In conclusion, the authors offer a reinterpretation of the profession, saying “We must hone our skills through authentic collaboration, not slick salesmanship, re-evaluate our obsession with mechanization and materiality, and explore more universal forms and natural design principles.”
In his response entitled “The New York Times Versus Architecture,” Aaron Betsky attempts to point out flaws in Bingler and Pederson’s argument. He criticizes the "hoary trope of “anti-elitist” architecture criticism" used in the Times article, summarizing the criticisms of modern buildings as: they can be perceived as ugly by “some sort of widely-held community standard,” that they may be built without consultation, and that they simply “don’t work.” Though he admits that in some cases these criticisms may be justified, he argues that experimentation is a necessary part of the profession and that innovation cannot take place without sometimes causing controversy.
In response to the criticisms of inadequate collaboration, Betsky notes that major architectural works are usually designed on commission from a client and not by and for the actual users, inevitably resulting in some disconnect. However, despite the fact that innovation “stretches the technology of building to the point that it creates problems,” and results in occasionally unorthodox aesthetics, Betsky renounces the notion that architects should be looking backwards and repeating tried and true methods rather than taking risks to innovate and achieve “beauty of a deep and satisfying kind.” He concludes that architecture "succeeds not by DNA-based forms or mystical appeals to the tastes of the public, but through hard work in the real world."
Could architects benefit from a reevaluation of the profession along the lines of Bingler and Pederson’s critique, or should the goal of the profession fundamentally be to create beauty and innovation rather than rehashing the old as Betsky suggests? Leave your comments below.
Image of the New York Times Building via Shutterstock.