Architecture Isn’t Fun Anymore

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on May 11, 2011

We are all subject to nostalgia. My nose has strange flashbacks of the stinging scent of ammonia when I walk in the room that housed my firm’s Ozalid printer until 2002. As an architect for almost 30 years, I still have lots of paper stuffed in the attic and basement of my office building. I sense those piles glaring at me like a spouse spurned simply because of the ravages of time.

But ammonia and paper are merely the touchstones of a professional world that has left the building.

Those totems are the tip of a much bigger iceberg of professional evolution in architecture. Gone are people who practice in the mode of Charles Moore, Ben Thompson, and a younger Robert Venturi—architects who didn’t think of designing buildings as acting on the insights of an inner qi but rather as engaging an open, messy, and often humorous process of interaction among clients, communities, and any number of proudly bourgeois design criteria. The term “Postmodern” is used derisively, an era of a temporary infection of infectiousness, when the designer of a Glass House came to create a Lipstick Building.

During the 1960s through the 1980s, a lot of awful buildings and details burst onto the scene (I gag at every Palladian window and knife-cut molding profile), but there was a sense of inclusiveness of popular culture, humor, and experimentation that seems verboten today.

I am struck by the solemnity of today’s architecture offices, silent venues where an occasional click is heard. This quietude is complemented by the enlivening variety of genders and races, and a complete absence of the alcohol and layers of smoke that were present when I broke into the profession in 1978.

Architecture has indeed cleaned up its act and scrubbed itself to a luster of high intent. In the last 30 years, the majority of “serious” practitioners do not revel in the hustle and bustle of commerce as Thompson did and seem to absent themselves from the bourgeois hubbub to create work that has a universalist intent and outlook. Lost is a connection to popular culture, neighborhoods and, sadly, people. Unlike the inherent spontaneity of the Pre–High Modern era, the work that receives the most attention today—the highly sculptural, distilled, and abstracted work that dominates the lion’s share of journals, museum walls and lecture-hall topics—is pretty serious stuff.

Forty years ago, when Thompson, Moore and Venturi were at their productive peak, the variety of architectural expression was extreme, with High Modern works being done by the remaining great masters: Louis Kahn and I.M. Pei; Paul Rudolph’s and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Brutalism; the “next generation” of James Stirling; the “messy play” work being executed by Charles Moore and his disciples; the beginnings of “sustainable” work being done after the first oil crisis in the mid ’70s by Malcolm Wells; and the nascent drumbeat of Neoclassicism à la Allan Greenberg. Does anyone remember the extreme enthusiasm that Thorncrown Chapel received when it debuted as a pitched-roof building made essentially of expressed dimensional lumber?

Additionally, books such as Creating Defensible Space by Oscar Newman; The Place of Houses by Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, and Gerald Allen; and Body, Memory, and Architecture by Moore and Kent Bloomer were not monographs or academic jargon-filled arcana but dealt with truths about architecture beyond aesthetics. In contrast, what we have now is essentially an Orthodox religion of High Modernism—with the rest of built expression being treated as products of “sellouts.” The common touch is heresy—despoiling of a higher purpose of designing work for the approval of those who design work of a higher purpose.

This is what happens when the radicals age and become the rulers. Dogma and canon become the truth when competing realities are deemed to be (for reasons that are unclear to me anyway) illegitimate. Just as coolly intellectual atheism has swept Europe, much of the messy liveliness of ’60s and ’70s architectural cacophony has been purged from our universities, journals, and professional recognition.

As usual in the arts world (that includes architecture), the status quo is inevitably challenged and used as a foil for more disenfranchised “sects.”  Outlanders from our present orthodoxy are popping up left and right on the Internet. A YouTube video, "So You Want to be an Architect," went viral and mocked the pretentious stereotypes that have crystallized in this High Modern era. A blog called Architecture Addiction bewails the obvious insufficiencies and hilarious irrelevance of much of architectural education. Burning Down the House, an Internet radio program hosted by architect Curtis B. Wayne, has a weekly explosion of discontent over the thin gruel of what passes for architectural diversity.

The responses to my own writing have led me to believe that there is a growing and growingly angry drumbeat of discontent against what is perceived to be enforced consensus within our professional community. It is not just an aesthetic consensus – there have always been “in’s” and “out’s.”  The odd score of years between the mid ’60s and the mid ’80s when there was stylistic eclecticism is the exception, not the rule. But what seems to most irk the profession is the artificial and often disingenuous universal “truths” about the architect’s role in society that is now offered up as being the only legitimate attitude for serious professionals. We are leaders by isolation. We build a truth that often seems untouched by human hands. We preach a self-congratulatory environmental/new urbanist ethic that frequently ignores its bottom-line economic impact on those who work for a living.

Recessions inevitably force architects to look in the mirror. This decade’s version has had an extreme impact (possibly 40 percent unemployment). More realize that the profession has emphasized far too much aesthetic consensus and far too few design inputs beyond the fine-arts imperative of personal expression. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our sense of humor about ourselves. Many drank the Kool-Aid of couture eyewear and embraced an aesthetic vision untroubled by context, craft, or cost, and maybe it’s time we just got over ourselves and lightened up a bit.

Obviously, the majority of unremarkable work continues on, despite the patrician nobility of the work our profession focuses on. Perhaps in this dire new decade of professional despair, we can see our way to lifting up the elements that have been banal, predictable, and pedestrian to an invigorated resurgence of whimsical experimentation—versus deadly serious posing. Maybe the same kind of opportunities for expression that seemed to flicker brightly a generation ago will pop up to contrast with the humorless posturing that defines how we are often perceived.

But then again, I admit to being nostalgic….

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. barry svigals said, on May 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    consider my hat and couture eyeware thrown into the ring of growing discontent and joining your hand in beating back the deadly serious posing while waving the banner of whimsical pursuits! let’s lunch!

  2. janet caulkins said, on May 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Duo, I wish you had given some concrete definitions/ examples/illustrations to illustrate this very general piece. (Those palladian windows make me retch, too along with facades that look like the covers of catalogs for window manufacturers.)

    good luck with new book!

  3. Carl Trimble said, on June 3, 2011 at 3:14 am

    I teach architecture at a university.Thanks for the article. I can now cancel my therapy session.
    Thought I was loosing it. LOL.
    Architectural schools are the embryos for this madness.The whole idea of ocular dominance is becoming the basis of architectural education.Program is secondary to form.The design begins with a thematic or metaphorical gesture.Thus most of the student begin to drink the kool-aide on day one.Contrary to your title,I respectfully disagree.The problem is that architecture is becoming too much about fun and lacking seriousness.Individual whimsical fantasy is the order or the day and the more abstract and incomprehensible the theory the more likely the need for a second round of kool-aide.Naive youth are joining the church without understanding the religion.I predict a backlash when these students realize that ” the emperor is naked”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: