Whatever the form—personal, theoretical, scholarly—architects frequently veer into the philosophical terrain when defending otherwise subjective design decisions. Personally, this may be justifiable. But professionally, this reliance on quasi-philosophical spin is one of the fundamental ways architecture differs from other practical pillars of society, such as law, finance or medicine. Those disciplines are based on structures of knowledge (precedent or code, economics, and science, respectively) that mediate between professional decisions and subjective judgement.
This article was originally published as "What Marchers Today Can Learn from the May 1968Protests in Paris" on CommonEdge in May 2018. In the 50 years since the historic and worldwide protests of 1968, much has changed. But today's political climate seems equally volatile, with seismic changes threatening social and political establishments across the globe. Lessons from the past are, to borrow the phrase of the moment, more relevant than ever.
American friends recently sent an email: “What’s going on with the French political system? Why all the strikes? What about the endless protest marches? We’d like to visit you in Paris, but we’re a little wary.”
Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) the doom of the architecture profession and design services (as some warn) or a way to improve the overall design quality of the built environment, expanding and extending design services in ways yet to be explored? I sat down with my University of Hartford colleague Imdat As. Dr. As is an architect with an expertise in digital design who is an assistant professor of architecture and the co-founder of Arcbazar.com, a crowd-sourced design site. His current research on AI and its impact on architectural design and practice is funded by the US Department of Defense. Recently we sat down and talked about how this emerging technology might change design and practice as we now know it—and if so, would that be such a bad thing?
In late January I attended a moving memorial service at Yale’s Battell Chapel for Vincent Scully, the man who led me to architecture as a career, and who continues to inspire me as a writer and historian. While there I took the opportunity to tour Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, Yale’s first new residential colleges in half a century. I came away marveling at the quality of the architecture, and thanking my alma mater for its vision and commitment to enhancing the city and the campus.
https://www.archdaily.com/902651/forget-the-critics-traditional-architecture-can-still-make-a-contemporary-placeMark Alan Hewitt
Last week I wrote about the anti-urban legacy of architect and developer John Portman. I think it’s worth going into a bit more detail about these projects, since we seem to have learned so little from their failures.
Let’s start with Detroit. The Renaissance Center was one of his largest and most celebrated projects. But this sprawling complex of seven-interconnected skyscrapers poses some difficult questions for urban planners today: can downtown Detroit ever fully recover from this mammoth and ill considered development? And, more importantly, why haven’t other cities learned from its clear and stark lessons?
Six years ago Susan Szenasy and I had the honor of interviewing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer for Metropolismagazine. While he was a federal appeals judge in Boston, Breyer played a key role in shepherding the design and construction of the John Joseph Moakley United State Courthouse, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. In 2011 Justice Breyer joined the jury of the Pritzker Prize. Given his long involvement with architecture, I thought it would be fun to catch up with him. So, on the final day of court before breaking for the summer recess, I talked to Justice Breyer about his experience as a design client, how to create good government buildings, and why public architecture matters.
Like food and clothing, buildings are essential. Every building, even the most rudimentary, needs a design to be constructed. Architecture is as central to building as farming is to food, and in this era of rapidly advancing technological change farming may offer us valuable lessons.
At last census count there were 233,000 architects in the United States; the 113,000 who are currently licensed represent a 3% increase from last year. In addition there’s a record number of designers who qualify for licensure: more than 5,000 this year, almost the same number as graduates with professional degrees. There is now 1-architect-for-every-2,900 people in the US. A bumper crop, right?
You wouldn’t think it looking at Mexico City today—a densely populated metropolis, where empty space is hard to come by—but decades earlier, following a devastating earthquake on September 19, 1985, more than 400 buildings collapsed, leaving a collection of open wounds spread over the cityscape.
Exactly thirty-two years later, the anniversary of that disaster was ominously commemorated with an emergency evacuation drill. Then, in one of those odd occurrences in which reality proves to be stranger than fiction, a sudden jolt scarcely two hours after the drill led to what would be yet another of the deadliest earthquakes in the city’s history. Buildings once again collapsed, leaving a rising-by-the-hour death toll that eventually reached 361, as well as swarms of bewildered citizens wandering the streets, frantically attempting to reach their loved ones through the weakened cell phone reception. “We’d just evacuated for the drill,” people said, like a collective mantra. “How could this happen again?”
The opening of the Venice Biennale has about it a general sense of raucousness and aesthetic cacophony. The entire scene is lush, almost overwhelmingly rich. There are thousands of places for eyes to land. There are outfits: the salty, wet Venice air manages to get at least a few architects to ditch the all-black outfit for its all-white summer counterpart, often cut through with brightly colored, geometric jewelry. There are events: at any given moment, at any point throughout the weekend, there’s a dozen or so architects gathered on a panel to talk about a topic relevant to a pavilion theme, or the edition theme, or to architecture generally. There are parties, picnics along canals, Aperol spritzes that glow bright orange, and designed-to-death tote bags that run out so quickly just carrying them is a sign that you were there, part of the early crowd, in the mix.
It’s all swirling and chaotic and bright and somehow you have to manage to pay attention to serious ideas about architecture while attempting to figure out how it’s possible that you’re still sweating even though it’s 4PM.
In architecture, the act of formally critiquing design is ubiquitous. The crit, as its called, is almost a rite of passage. And while the format of this practice is universal, its objective, goals and ultimate purpose are unfixed, beyond a broad and often vague imperative to make a given design better. This is a problem, because it leaves a foundation of the profession to take the form of whatever discussion happens to arise between a designer and a critic. If the expectation of empirical evidence for design decisions were introduced as the basis of a design crit, the cumulative effects of this change could improve the credibility of the entire discipline.
I’m sitting in a busy suburban coffee-and-donut shop with the quiet, grandfatherly Indian architect, Jitendra Vaidya. When I started my life as an architecture intern in the late 90s, Jitendra was one of the most experienced technical designers I knew. Equally comfortable weighing the relative merits of various flashing details as he is discussing abstract design concepts, Jitendra is an old-school, universal architect. After more than half a century in a profession famous for grinding deadlines, Jitendra still maintains a joyful twinkle in his eye when he talks about architecture. So it’s no surprise that Jitendra is visibly animated today as he tells me about his teacher, the man who was just recognized as one of the world’s greatest living architects, B.V. Doshi.
For the Pritzker Prize—the profession’s highest honor—to be awarded to a 90-year-old academic urbanist who spent his long career primarily teaching architecture students and serving poor communities in India is a stunning development. To be fair, the caricature of Pritzker winners as arrogant, scarf- wrapped, Euro-American, Starchitects, is overblown and outdated. Recent winners such as Alejandro Aravena, Wang Shu, and Shigeru Ban, are connected in their mutual dedication to serving poor and displaced communities through innovative, culturally authentic designs. But even accepting this nuance, Doshi is fundamentally different from recent winners.
Gravity is undeniable. We stand, lift packages, wince when we see our weight on the scale. For architects, gravity has special meaning: it is the essential force to be dealt with. Weather, energy, materials all matter too—but those all have local realities specific to their location.
Gravity is the forever constant. But there is another universal element in design: history, the role of what has passed from idea to reality in all things, everywhere. Whether there are “reasons” for a building being formed or finished in a certain way, the undeniable lens of history is always part of how designers think about what’s to be built.
It may shock some people to hear this, but architecture is not urban planning. It is not transportation planning, sociology, political science, or critical geography. However, architecture, new-build apartment architecture specifically, has become a social media scapegoat for today’s urban housing crisis: escalating developer-driven gentrification.
Out of my own curiosity, I searched several academic databases for research that successfully correlates the architectural aesthetic of new build apartments with gentrification. While many writers and denizens of social media really want to blame today’s bland, boxy, cladding-driven style of multifamily urban housing for gentrification, I’m afraid the research isn’t there. In fact, one study featured in a paper on neighborhood early warning systems for gentrification cites historic architecture as one of five predictors of gentrification in the DC area.
Elizabeth W Garber’s new book, Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (She Writes Press), tells the story of growing up in a glass house, designed by her father, Woodie Garber, once called “Cincinnati’s most extreme, experimental, and creative Modernist architect.” The memoir, which will be released in June, focuses on a family caught in a collision between modern architecture, radical social change, and madness in the turbulent 1960s in Cincinnati. Recently I talked to Garber about the book, the strictures of Modernism, and why she couldn’t live in a glass house today.
Memorials play an integral role in marking significant people, moments, or events. In recent years, they have become glorifications of tragedy by attempting to express unimaginable horrors in poetic and beautiful ways. The issue with the many forms that memorials take is that they seek to placate the immediate reaction and hurt of an event, an understandable societal reaction, but one that often feels rote and hallow.
But what if memorials sought to preserve the memory of those affected by offering a solution that addressed how the tragedy occurred? The international response to tragedy has, by default, become to install a statue, build a wall, create a healing water feature, erect an aspirational sculptural object, or simply rename a park. None of these responses are inherently bad—they’re usually well-meaning and on occasion quite moving—but there is another approach available to us: changing the public perception of memorials by looking at them through the lens of solutions, encouraging people to think of them as a testament or proper response to tragedy, not just a plaque that over time goes unnoticed. While this approach might be difficult in some instances, the case of Grenfell Tower fire in London presents a rather obvious solution.
Homes may be the most powerful projection of architectural value. Because shelter is essential for all of us, the home is architecture’s universal function. We’re all experts on what our own home must be, to us.
But architects often have a different view of home. Twenty years ago—during the recession before the last recession—I remember hearing an architect declare that he could earn a living designing houses until “real work came along.” Another architectural meme is the classic first job: designing a house for your parents.
Public spaces are having a moment. People from outside the field of urban planning are beginning to notice the vital contributions that they make to our quality of life: inserting nature and cultural memory into the everyday, reminding us of our collective responsibilities, supporting democratic expression. People are also beginning to notice the subtle ways in which those contributions are being eroded by threats of privatization, corporate appropriation, and apathy.
Most acutely, this moment is brought to us by Apple, which has begun an aggressive retail rebranding effort to re-conceptualize its stores as “town squares,” and wrought a wave of well-founded concern. Technology continues to beckon us away from the need to leave our homes or interact face-to-face with other humans. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, it would follow that opportunities for such interpersonal interaction become a luxury we begin to seek, a call to remember our origin as social beings.