Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Uselessness of Architects

"It floats!" Did we ask for that? "No, but it floats!!"
These articles about New Orleans are a much better commentary on the state of American architecture today than anything I could say. We should hang our heads in shame as a profession:
...Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation has built more than 100 houses, all equipped with solar panels and other eco-friendly flourishes, for families who otherwise might not have been able to afford  a home. The group has plans to build at least 41 more, and in many blocks of the Lower Ninth, it is the only active builder.

But what the “starchitects” have achieved is considerably less. In fact, the vast majority of the homes built so far came from designs created by other, lesser-known architects that Pitt hired. In fact, none of those three most celebrated architects  - Mayne, Ban and Gehry - can claim to have built any more than one prototype home out of the scores that have been built.

What happened? With the Mayne and Ban efforts, at least,  the story is of the kind that gives contemporary architecture its aura of Alice-in-Wonderland elitism: the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget - that is, in reality. The two may be visionaries, but they appear to have fallen well short of what the Lower Ninth needed.

Construction costs in the Lower Ninth Ward, maybe even more than a typical location, is an important issue. It is a neighborhood of low- and moderate-income homeowners. Through special financing, the foundation seeks to ensure that homeowners don’t have to pay a mortgage above what their incomes can bear. The construction budget was $150,000. The visions of Ban and Mayne, apparently, couldn't fit within that critical constraint.

The home design by Thom Mayne’s firm, Morphosis, did perform a neat architectural trick: the home can float, if necessary, in the next flood. But that feat depended on some pricey building technology.

The cost of building each of those surpassed the budget, foundation officials indicated, and if an architect wouldn’t revise the design to meet the goal, it did not move into general production.

"We had to keep in mind that these designs are for the people who will live here and not for the architects portfolios,” said Jordan Pollard, design manager for Make It Right. “If an architect is  going to make a move on this budget, it has to be one move, and it has to be small - and architects tend to want to make 10 moves.”

In the case of the prototype by Gehry, the designers came close to budget goals. He designed a duplex for which the budget goal is $300,000. The prototype came in at $350,000 and that’s close enough, foundation officials said, that it could easily move beyond prototype. So far, however, most of their clients have been looking for a single-family home.

As a result, the vast majority of the homes in the Lower Ninth Ward have been designed by architects without international renown, and several seem just as interesting...
What happened when Brad Pitt and his architects came to rebuild New Orleans (Washington Post)
One, called the Float House, was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne of Los Angeles. The main part of the house is built to rise with surging flood waters, on pylons that keep it from coming loose. It’s difficult to see the innovative foundation, but unusual external features are easy to spot, such as a kind of trellis cut into intricate patterns and painted turquoise, set against the raspberry-hued building.

Nearby, an angular house by GRAFT, a multinational architecture firm, features a porch enclosure that looks as though it had been cracked open by a storm, an unfortunate visual resonance. A house by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has a private courtyard space between the living room and bedrooms, but none of the detailing that would make it feel like a part of New Orleans.

Indeed, the houses seem better suited to an exhibition of avant-garde architecture than to a neighborhood struggling to recover. A number of designers I talked to, some of whom had visited the neighborhood, lamented the absence of familiar forms that would have comforted returning residents.

James Dart, a Manhattan-based architect who was born and raised in New Orleans, described the houses as “alien, sometimes even insulting,” adding, “the biggest problem is that they are not grounded in the history of New Orleans architecture...”

Jennifer Pearl, a broker who has several houses for sale in the Lower Ninth, has a practical view. “Brad has the very best intentions,” she said. “However, had he come here with houses that looked like what had been here before, he probably could have had four times, five times as many houses up by now.”

Another issue with the houses (except for Mr. Mayne’s) is their elevation: to protect them from future floods, they have been built on stilts that turn their front porches into catwalks. The goal of porches is to create a sense of community, and that’s hard to do when neighbors and passersby are literally overshadowed...
Brad Pitt's Gifts to New Orleans (New York Times)

This, this is why we lost the entire residential market and are condemned to designing ego-trips for oligarchs, Elysiums for the super-rich and temples to illness. This is why the public has no engagement with our cloistered profession. This is why architects have taken their place alongside avant-garde artists as out-of-touch wierdo elites ("I am Formico, the dean of design. My name must never be spoke."). This is why there are more popular books explaining quantum physics and economics than buildings--the things we spend most of our time in and shape our habitat more than anything else. This is why we get sued for leaky buildings and are a laughing stock.

Here's Frank Lloyd Wright's take on affordable housing:

If only Brad Pitt had hired Christopher Alexander instead! But, then again, a product of the star system would be susceptible to another star system. Here is a good Reddit comment:
We have superficial awards that are given to architects, which are voted on by architects. Then the architects gives a speech to other architects.

As bad as it is to say, we literally just go around jerking each other off. We should have the citizens and the user be the ones giving us the award. Because if you can make an everyday person feel good when they use your building as well as appreciating the design, then you have done your job.

The movie industry is a game of fames. The more awards you get, the more famous you become, the more money you make, the more directors want you in their movie, the more people see your movie, repeat. This "works" in the sense of Hollywood, because that is what that culture revolves around; making money and being famous.

We as architects shouldn't be about fame and fortune. Arguably, for a long time, it never was. The age of "star-chitects" has come upon us. Unfortunately, it makes other architects want to be on that level. Striving for fame. But we did to ourselves. We made them "star-rchitects."

We created fake fame within our small population of architects. We adopted the Oscar like mentality which trickled down into the rest of the field. People began to strive for the fame. When they should be striving for the success of projects. Based on the merit of the people, not your friends.

I'm not saying we are all irrelevant or that we serve no purpose. I'm saying that the field has moved in a way of trying to wow each other, when we should be trying to wow our clients and the people. That's what is the goal.

Again, there are definitely firms that do exactly what I'm saying. But the way we conduct our interdisciplinary ethics halts the rest of the field from seeing these firms. And that is a damn shame. This whole inter-architecture orgy thing is stupid, its fake and it should stop. We are citizens first. Then architects. We can't forget our job is to serve the people through the use of functional and beautiful design.
But the system continues - this article, City of water: architects challenged to reboot Los Angeles (The Guardian) about urban revitalization in Los Angeles says, "Architect Frank Gehry recently revealed that he has been quietly working with the city on plans for a unified aesthetic along the river connecting parkland, bike paths and nature trails."

My first response is, Why Frank Gehry of all people??? What does Frank Gehry know about riverfront design? Has anyone seen his buildings? Is there really not anyone else more qualified and just as talented?

See, this is the problem with the starchitecture system - all the work goes to "brand name" architects regardless of whether they are even qualified or the best choice. And this starves work from smaller, scrappier firms who don't have the name recognition or fancy degrees from Harvard and Yale. Thus, the stars get ever more work, and there are less and less opportunities for the rest of us to make a living, since the stars crowd out everyone else. It's the "superstar effect" in architecture, except in architecture, it's difficult to really define how the "superstars" are better, unlike say, opera or baseball. Architecture should be a somewhat conservative profession. There are only so many ways to do a window and roof that is airtight and doesn't leak. Within that, there are myriads of possibilities. Architects used to know this. So much of the field revolves around what has stood the test of time. Now it just springs fully-formed from the head of the lone "genius" and fixed with liquid waterproofing and spray foam insulation.

My second thought was, do we really need a "unified aesthetic?" The most beautiful riverfronts I've seen, from the Seine to the Arno, to Milwaukee's own Riverwalk are so precisely because they do not have a unified aesthetic.

BONUS: Maybe there's a better architectural solution to California's water problem: India's Forgotten Stepwells (Arch Daily)

Rudimentary stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., born of necessity in a capricious climate zone bone-dry for much of the year followed by torrential monsoon rains for many weeks. It was essential to guarantee a year-round water-supply for drinking, bathing, irrigation and washing, particularly in the arid states of Gujarat (where they’re called vavs) and Rajasthan (where they’re baoli, baori, or bawdi) where the water table could be inconveniently buried ten-stories or more underground. Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art.
I wonder if the Lower Ninth Ward or Gehry's work will be around centuries from now. I'm betting not.


  1. I keep going back to "Firmitas, Utilitas, Venusitas". Here in Brazil, I'm amazed at how few architects are familiar with the triad, even when translated into Portuguese. The local version seems to be "Venusitas, Venusitas, Venusitas", with every other consideration relegate as an afterthought to lowly engineers, who are then fought tooth an nail because they are messing with the architect's Venusitas.

    1. (In fact, I've yet to find one who has even heard of - let alone read - Vitruvius.)

    2. Funny, they had us read Vitruvius in the first year history course. Of course, it wasn't very integrated with anything else we learned.

  2. I'm surprised you didn't link Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month series.


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