Recently, staff at ArchDaily spotted an interesting trend: thanks to the opportunities afforded by the internet, the results of many architectural competitions and other proposals have been opened up to public opinion like never before. Whether via competitions that post all of their entries online for public viewing such as the Guggenheim Helsinki or Battersea Bridge competitions, designer Karim Rashid's informal poll of his Facebook followers to pick their favorite facade for his design, or a competition that is actually decided by public vote such as Den Bosch's city center theater, it has never been easier for members of the public to make their opinions known about the future of their cities. Even this morning, the US World War I Centennial Commission published the finalists in the competition for the redesign of the National World War I Memorial, actively soliciting public feedback on the proposals.
With that in mind, we asked our readers to share their thoughts on this empowerment of the public. Does allowing ordinary people to vote on such matters represent a radical new architectural democracy, or does it undermine the expertise of the architect? The responses we got were interesting and very varied - find out what people had to say after the break.
We certainly had no shortage of people protecting the idea of architectural expertise - many who saw the idea of public opinion in a very negative light:
"People aren't educated enough to know what they want."
"No! to the public. Most have no sense of design or aesthetics. They are told what to like, reflected in what they buy and live in. Only a few have taste which has nothing to do with $$$."
- Seth Jacobs via Facebook
"'The public' is substituting expert work. You go to a medical doctor for a diagnosis rather than ask 'the public' what's wrong with you. It's the same with architecture. It's a great demagogic move for populist promotors, but ultimately bad for the cities, for society, for all. Architecture and Urbanism are sciences: they are not a joke."
However, there were also plenty of commenters offering the opposite view. For these people, the view that regular people don't have taste or "don't know what they want" is a condescending form of elitism:
"People are given a 'vote' to determine who governs us. Why would voting for architecture be any different? You condescend to say people are not interested or educated enough to vote effectively in elections. Why wouldn't people invest themselves in their choice when it comes to architecture? As architects and designers we should be developing effective ways to interface with communities, authorities & individuals."
"Why not? Architecture is not only for architects. In a competition one of the judges/jury should be those who will inhabit the project that's being designed. Saying people don't know what they want is like saying that people shouldn't be free because they don't know how to behave in society."
- Huang I-Lan via Facebook
However, there were also plenty of people who took the middle ground, saying that while public input is welcome, it's important to do it in the right way:
"Public votes on design schemes in competitions can be a good thing, depending on the project. Give us a few schematic submittals from the competing firms, and we'll pick one. I don't think the public should get input into specific aspects of a chosen scheme, just choice of a few options. It's at least a good-will gesture, especially for publicly funded projects."
"To think that the general public should become a decision making body for architecture would be absurd. To think that a discourse with the end users of a project would offer no valuable insight, would be equally absurd.
No, I wouldn't consult my Facebook friends list for a medical diagnosis, but I may hypothetically ask those friends if they thought I would look better if I had a nose job.
Architecture involves people at every level. Seeking public opinion is healthy for all involved, but at the end of the day, that public opinion should be an additional factor used to make the best, informed decision."
"For the most part public voting is not a good idea. While on the majority of projects I believe the architect has a responsibility to 'the public', the idea that anyone - let alone the public at large - would be asked to decide on a design, or a designer, based solely on a sampling of plans and renderings is asking for trouble. Invite comment, hold workshops, moderate public forums... yes. But let experienced professionals evaluate that input, and make the final decision."
However, alongside these general takes on the role of the public, many commenters also offered interesting insights into the more specific effects of public voting on the architectural process. For example, Luke offered an example of an experience in which showing competition entries to the public ended in the selection of one of the least pragmatic designs:
"I was recently involved in a competition that had a 'public vote' The winner of the 'People's Choice' had a design which exceeded the scope of the competition, ran an estimated $18 million over the $3 million dollar budget set in the competition program. It was structurally dubious at best BUT, it had really pretty renderings with a bunch of trees growing everywhere.
So while the design was completely unworkable and ignored any and all of the program constraints, it won because, as even I agreed, it was the most exciting design. By trying to actually follow the competition guidelines and stay within a reasonable required budget, our design looked lackluster by comparison. We had to make actual design decisions.
I think public voting can be a good thing but hopefully it will be constrained to a group of the public that are well informed about design constraints and program requirements. Anyone can make magnificent design with no budget or limitations."
Similarly, Peter2258 offers an example of a project where public opinion distracted from the task at hand, delaying the development of the design:
"Civic/public projects too often demand full transparency, typically motivated by public desire among other factors. Much pressure is placed to release what ostensibly are preliminary ideas—not fully imagined and typically serving as a reference point or direction to a final design. Hungry public often outweigh the time-method of ‘process.’
Think back to the first design elements for the World Trade Center Site. When the firm, Beyer Blinder Belle’s rendering of a ‘massing survey’ was released, uproar ensued. The public wasn’t knowledgeable or educated to what a ‘massing study’ was and where it fits into the larger picture. Energies were spent and time was diverted toward putting out the fires of public outcry rather than directed to the process itself.
Knowledge and awareness, in any civil society, is not only welcomed but warranted. But without the ability to interpret information within context, isolated information can be more damaging to the process and yes, even sometimes the outcome.
There is no right answer to this systemic issue of ‘full-public-disclosure.’ Each case has to be carefully reviewed. The real damage is when the ‘elephant’ in the room is ignored and communication to and among the public is random or ill conceived."
And Katherine A. offers the possibility that the fact we are even debating such a topic speaks to the regular failures of architects to live up to our own claims of expertise:
"As someone trained in architecture, I certainly am biased in my belief that the public should not completely able to ‘choose’ what gets built and what doesn’t. My education was both extensive, intensive, and has helped me develop a very specific set of expertise – that is, the careful consideration and understanding of design, construction, and the built environment.
I would welcome public input in charette-type events, and even in giving feedback during/after the design process. The decisions we make in design do not affect only one or a few people (as the decisions of doctors do – a professional comparison that many seem to be making) – they affect whole populations over decades and centuries!
Clearly we have not yet managed to convince the public that design *is* truly an expertise, and that being a designer means looking at the world through an entirely different lens.
Surely the fact that this even is a debate should tell us that we have failed the public many times before... If this debate does not prompt us to be better and more mindful listeners/designers, it will never go away."
But the final word in this discussion goes to Drone Iyangar, who (if I'm interpreting the joke correctly) asks whether it might be true that the public votes often enough with their wallets as it is:
"In most parts of the U.S., if the public were to vote on architecture, we'd have lots of McMansions. Oh wait!"
- Drone Iyangar via Facebook