Are they listening?

By Nicholas Roebuck

98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure sh*t. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else” says the world’s most famous architect Frank Gehry.

An article recently publish in the New York times by Steven Bingler and Martin C. Pedersen declared “for too long, our profession [Architecture] has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work, even as we talk about making that work more relevant with worth y ideas like sustainability, smart growth and resilience planning.” So are our architects missing the point?

Bingle reminisces on a recent car trip with his 88 year old mother. Driving down Elliot Avenue in Charlottleville, his hometown, they passed a house designed and built by architecture students at the Univeristy of Virginia. To Steven, an architect, this model for affordable housing — a tough pair of stacked boxes, sheathed in corrugated metal — was a bold design statement, but to his mother’s eye, the house was a blight on the landscape, an insult to its historic neighbours.

It looks like somebody piled a couple of boxcars on top of each other, then covered them up with cheap metal and whatever else they could find at the junkyard!” she said.

The authors observe that self-congratulatory, insulated architects are “increasingly incapable…of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population, the very people we are, at least theoretically, meant to serve.

The question remains - As Bingler and Pedersen put it “…at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?

A case in point as they mention was the 2007 “Make it Right” charity program. The program sought to create prototypes for sustainable, affordable homes in a neighbourhood devastated by Hurricane Katerina. The eventual designs, most of which tried to take a basic form, the single family home, and squeeze it into the latest style with little consideration of local needs and local housing style were critiqued by the residents of the neighbourhood who weren’t impressed. The residents posed the logical questions: “What’s with the flat roofs – you know it rains a lot here right?” The high tech homes were expensive to build ($400,000) on average and the high tech fabrication has made them expensive to fix with mould growing on untested experimental materials and eco wood decks and stair rotting. The neighbourhoods are wastelands- failures in urban planning that isolate residents from social networks and public services.

As Bingler and Pederson point out, “…for years Architects have been educated to speak out as artists but we haven’t taught them how to listen. Architecture’s disconnect is both physical and spiritual. We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand. In the meantime, we’ve ceded the rest of the built environment to hacks, with sprawl and dreck rolling out all around us.

Aaron Betsky, is the former head of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and was director of the 2008 Venice International Architecture Biennale summarised the architect’s position: “We have three of the standard criticisms of buildings designed by architects: first, they are ugly according to what the piece’s authors perceive as some sort of widely-held community standard (or at least according to some 88-year old ladies); second, they are built without consultation; third they don’t work.”

Yet Betsky then admitted, “All those critiques might be true.” However, he claims that they are irrelevant, since as he states “architecture must be about experimentation and the shock of the new”. Why this should be the case he does not say. He goes on to affirm that sometimes designers must stretch technology to the breaking (or leaking) point: “The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline” says Betsky. Ever brave, Betsky is willing to let others suffer for his art.

At no point did Betsky consider the actual human beings, the unwilling guinea pigs who live in the houses. He implicitly says of the poor residents: “Do their roofs leak? Let them buy buckets”.

With this being said, it is unfair to lump the entire industry into the category that Betsky implies. The reality is that there are many architects that are quite commercial and responsive to needs of the consumer, contrary to views of the authors. We would argue that in many cases architects are hamstrung by the constant desire to maximise yield as well as restrictive planning controls often at the peril of the resident. We implore our architects of today to open their ears, stand up for the consumer.

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