In light of the recent stacking up of complaints (here, here, and here) about high-profile architects, it is probably time, once again, to revisit and reevaluate the notion of architectural works as mere objects. The idea that buildings are to do more than just provide shelter is far from new. However, in recent years, there has been a continuing shift in both the academic and professional corners toward abstraction bordering on the avant-garde. Arguments abound, but my personal take is that there are several reasons the contemporary scene is so dismal. One is that there is perceived value in uniqueness—the designer needs, now practically out of economic necessity, to produce something that no one has ever seen before. Another is that the designer often mistakes novelty for innovation. Still another valid concern is that the architect actually does not know how to design buildings, so she needs to come up with something only she understands, and therefore can explain.

One might ask: so what? It’s only sticks and bricks. Not really. If we’re going to push a green agenda, we need to start coming up with a built environment that future generations will value. That’s really green. Instead, we have to deal with spectacle. Who, really, do these buildings serve, besides the architect? We are momentarily fascinated by the bizarre and the grotesque, generally, yet we always run to the comfort of the commonplace when the sensation wears off. In trying to be unique and to stand out, our buildings reveal an inferiority complex and ultimately our cities suffer from a lack of self-esteem when it feels the need to have a Gehry or Libeskind design. If a city is so hard up that it needs the work of a celebrity architect to put it on the map, is that city really going to become what it wants to be—a place full of contented and creative people that attracts companies, intellectual capital and tourism, to name a few of many. I doubt it.

Architecture that serves the ego is just as bad as non-architecture for the masses. Buildings that serve the designer are saying “look at me, not at them…I deserve attention.” And we generally give it to them. But our admiration, if there ever was one, fades quickly. They do not make an effort to fit in, to harmonize with their surroundings. They wish to create commotion. But even as we naturally look at the 8-car pile-up during the commute  we feel relieved to not be a part of it. So it’s an enormous mistake to confuse spectacle for spectacular. We are continually lectured to about diversity, and reminded of our ignorance regarding such topics, so we learn to tolerate but never truly embrace anything that just naturally seems out of place.

In truth, there’s nothing that original about these works; they are mostly derivative anyway. What is truly unique? Gehry copies Gehry. Hadid copies Hadid. And so forth. Lesser mortals emulate them. Can any of these architects produce something that is truly compatible with its surroundings, instead of trying to be a thing apart?    Instead of pursuing the latest thing, I’d like a city, for once, to have the courage to augment its status by doing something truly original—approve works of architecture that genuinely improve the existing fabric.

Get It Out There

In his just released publication New Media for Designers + Builders, Steve Mouzon addresses the stark reality that the design and architecture profession is not the game it used to be, and probably won’t be for a long time, if ever.

Seasoned architects and design professionals, and new graduates alike, are going to have to rethink how they do business. For the foreseeable future, opportunities for attractive and potentially lucrative design work are not going to walk through the door—they are going to remain hard to come by, and there’s a strong possibility that this is a new and permanent reality. Many have left the profession, but for those who haven’t, and are dedicated to the general improvement of things, Steve has done a great service. Money to throw around on marketing and promotion, we are told, is non-existent–the old ways of doing things are over. Traditional architects and designers will no doubt continue to design with tradition, but in order for them to get their services sold, they’re going to have to embrace the current technology, at least as far as promoting the work is concerned. Considering the overwhelming surfeit of mediocrity in everyone’s built environment, traditionalists wanting to make a significant impact would do well to heed Steve’s counsel.

The best part of what Steve has done is to tell us how to do it. There are many sources extolling the virtues of the new media, but Steve actually takes us step-by-step through the process. Whether it’s setting up a webpage or blog, sharing photos or communicating through the use of video (and much more), Steve tells us what he learned the hard way so that we won’t have to. For many of us, it is a difficult task to do any of these things, but Steve tells us how to do each one in detail, but then ups the ante by explaining why it is necessary and why it will be effective. The work Steve has put into this publication, and the special care taken to leave few if any stones unturned, will save weeks, even months for those who have a story to tell, design work to share, or a connection to be made. I have stubbornly resisted social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, for a long time, but Steve has turned me around. I have wanted to establish a web presence, but have felt overwhelmed. Now it looks easier.

The built environment continues down a perilous path. Steve Mouzon is a special talent whose mission seems to be to help as many as he can design a (much, much) better world for all of us. Earlier efforts have made productive inroads in teaching us how to design great buildings and sustainable environments. This time around, he helps those of us who are working to that end get our work from the conception stage to a permanent place in the ground.

Terrific Quote About Architecture


The following from Mark Helprin stands alone:

“Music is the most beautiful city. All its elements are variations of proportion—the tempo, the frequency, and the strength of the notes, counterpoint, resonance, melodic structure, and whatever other patterns can be read or imposed. Music can convey the ineffable, and other burdens, and like a city, it makes sense and order from seemingly anarchic elements brought together in thematic repetition subject to the rules of proportion.

Poetry is no less dependent upon the breaks and spaces in melodic sound, weighted with a thousand categories of association. And painting depends not only on what is commonly understood as proportion but also on the proportional division of light into what we call color. 

Needless to say, proportion and symmetry are to architecture what water is to rain. Their effects are not an idea or theory, but purely empirical. Certain proportions have certain effects. Some are pleasing and some are not. When the architect has it right, you feel aesthetic pleasure in exactly the same way that you do when you listen to music or stare at a Raphael. The right proportions trigger something in your soul, something in your accumulated experience, something in both the part of you that you know and control and in that which you do not know and do not control, and a feeling takes hold (whether it is a chemical that blocks receptors or not is unimportant) that lifts you beyond life in this world. 

The effective proportions are astoundingly versatile. They can inform and illumine any style of building, whether it has architraves or escalators. That which is so beautifully expressed in classicism is fully translatable into other styles. If it seldom is, it isn’t the fault of variation but of architects who accomplish the variation improperly. Although the proportions that work are there for the taking, most architects simply do not try to find them, perhaps because the fashion is to disdain the kind of instinctive beauty that need not be explained, in favor of ephemeral theories crafted for the sake of individual buildings to which they do not even adhere beyond the time that the architect is there with his mouth open.”  

Found on page 115 Helprin, Mark. Visionary San Francisco. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1990.edited by Paolo Polledri

It’s Not Easy Being Green

sus·tain·able adjective \sə-ˈstā-nə-bəl\

1) able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; 2) involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; 3) able to last or continue for a long time

These three definitions should apply to our built environment. Perhaps the most relevant to the preservation of a healthy planet is #3. Because of the incredibly heavy carbon footprint they make, buildings must last. Therefore, we must make places that can survive as well as worth keeping. The current trends, however, are typified by approaches like this. What we get are buildings that are intended as creations of an individual, but that become the expression of that sole individual. Too often, we actually get a cliche. Principles have been ignored or discarded. The places created are difficult to embrace. Could anyone truly accept that these designs are for the betterment of our entire earth experience? The word “our” is used, because everything built is part of our experience, whether we like it or not. Many “green” buildings are designed to not look like buildings at all. They are seemingly intended to replicated organic patterns found in diverse places on the ground. Is this the way forward? Our guess is that few people want to live or work in a treehouse, especially made out of metal. Fun for a short while–sure, but these places will not mean much to us after the fad has ended; thereforew, they will not endure. What we really want is to live, work and play in places that delight us, that thrill us, that make us want to stay. This is in contrast to the shock and awe of these earthship structures, which may be similar to the sensation we get from an apartment fire or an eight-car pileup. The current trend in green architecture seems to make us feel we should be ashamed at who we are and what we have done. “Walking lightly on the ground,” an often-used phrase, seems to sum up this mindset. We need to ask ourselves: For what purpose do we design and construct a building? It would seem rather silly to construct expensive edifices purely for fun. Buildings have a purpose. The building and development process, in America and elsewhere, is seen as a terribly destructive process (consult Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”). Maybe this occurs in the mind of so many because there is so much of the process that is so terribly thoughtless. But we cannot see all development as atrocious. If our feelings toward human endeavor is remorseful and guilt-ridden,  we will hesitate to make bold and beautiful statements. It’s likely that an unobtrusive, “excuse-me” approach to architecture and construction will yield a rather marginal product, which, in turn, will create unsusatianable environments. It is only when humankind is seen as a species that has the physical, intellectual and spiritual potential to raise itself above its carnal and self-absorbed nature that it will be able to create sublime works that both inspire us and deserve our respect.

The Future

In 1967, my father’s company, Philco, produced a film called 1999. Some of it was deadly accurate in its prediction of what life might be like in a future generation (ours). But some it typified the attitude that was common in generations past and one that persists in the present: Eventually, life will be like the Jetsons, and we’re going to like it that way. There just seems to be a feeling that the future holds something brighter for us. There may be some truth to that, but is there wisdom in leaving everything behind? Why can’t we embrace the innovative breakthroughs  that come along but hold on to many of things that have always sustained us?

Too much of the current architecture is aimed at taking us to some Brave New World. Architecture doesn’t need a new, innovative direction that continually discards proven strategies, simply because they are thought of as being part of the past. The funny thing about the past is that only the events that transpired long ago are part of history. Buildings that have stood the test of time are still here, ever ready to accomodate new and exciting history-making actiivities.

What is needed is an adherence to the multitude of design principles that have always resulted in good places, coupled with an openness to those innovative measures (however futuristic) that truly upgrade our quality of life. The organizing principles of ancient architecture have been reused and reinvented for millenia, with frequently spectacular results. But are they so “old” they should be rejected, as not relevant to “our time”? So many of us are enticed by the novelty of newness…is it because we are so unsettled in our lives? Are we really going to solve all of our problems if we relocate to Mars? Are we bored? “Let’s make a mishmash of design elements and twist frames and distort volumes in order to shake off the monotony,” so many seem to say. It is peculiar that disfigurement and visual incoherence are so often looked to as cures for boredom. Many are so reluctant to repeat a successful strategy that they must do something unique, pushing boundaries (that may not even be there), even if the result is failure. “It’s art,” they say, and art can never be wrong. Stewart Brand wrote “Art flouts convention. Convention became convention because it works.” Do you want to live and work in a failed experiment, simply because its creator’s intention was artfulness? My children once had a Donald Trump doll. When the button on the back was pressed, one of the phrases it uttered was: “Ideas are welcome…just make sure you have the right one.”

Instead of a constant search for new frontiers, what we need is a renewed commitment to principles that enhance our individual and collective well-being, from wherever and whenever they may originate, and take all truths with us as we march forward, regardless of the epoch in which they were discovered.