Another well-written editorial ("What Plays in Peoria"). Keep 'em coming! You repeatedly speak as if you were listening in on the conversations we have here in the office.
I think I may have an answer to your question concerning why television shows about architecture won't let architects speak. You wrote, "Either they don't use language that the rest of the world can understand, or they don't talk about the elements that are of essential importance to the people who occupy their buildings."
My response to this is, of course, architects don't use language the rest of the world can understand. Anyone who has been inside an architecture school can attest to this. By our very training, we're drawn into a completely different vocabulary and way of thinking from the everyday world in order to think creatively. The words we (architects) use in speech and, to a greater degree in print, are what I refer to as "intellectual masturbation." Read any major architectural magazine and the "Average Joe" will understand what I mean by this. You call this "off-putting or esoteric." It's true, and it exists. Many architects derive great pleasure, it seems, from speaking our own private language to impress ourselves and our colleagues. (Who else talks this way?)
This translates more often than not (to me) into homes designed by architects and published for architects (to admire), not for the Average Joe. We live in homes not readily accepted by the masses, and we talk about them and "sell them" to the public as if we know better than anyone what "good design" is. The language we use; the materials we personally find comforting; the forms, style, and manner in which architects live are different from the masses. Therefore, with this in mind, I believe you actually will find that (we) architects do "talk about those elements that are of essential importance to the people who occupy their buildings." The difference being that the people who occupy these buildings happen to be, in a great many instances, the architects themselves.
When the masses come to an architect, rarely, if ever, do we find them requesting that we put them into something they've never seen before. Unlike the architect who thrives on discovery, experimentation, and exploration (this is how we're trained), the masses need to see a "model home," which is why so many Americans live in cookie-cutter subdivisions. They can picture themselves living in the model before they've purchased it, and for better or worse, this works for them.
We architects, on the other hand, believe we have suffered for our art, through the educational process, and therefore we think we are able to see the bigger picture of the many options available to rethink the way we live. Like it our not, our training doesn't coincide with the real world. In school we're given the opportunity to be judge, jury, and executioner. I was taught, for example, to create the program myself, without budget, without zoning and building codes, and without outside influences (wife/husband/partner to add conflicting needs) and then to "design a building." Playing God works well in school but does nothing to prepare us for the real world, when a client comes to me and brings pictures of what he or she likes and dislikes. Suddenly, as a professional who was trained by making all of the important decisions himself, I found myself having to give in to outside influences—my clients! Is it any wonder, then, that so many of the "good designs" featured in publications are homes by architects, for architects? This is how we continue to live in the world in which we were trained. We make all of the decisions, tossing out rules and requirements we don't agree with, rejecting function over form perhaps or creating something never before seen in order to impress others in our profession. This is why we are seen as "creative," and this is the philosophy what will get us published.
I've often wondered why our profession, unlike every other art form, doesn't have a true critic or voice for debate of what "good design" is. Whether it's movies, music, art, or theater, there are critics who praise and pan any given piece of art in its respective genre. In architecture there are no professional criticisms of our work. If a particular building is published, the very fact that it is in the magazine at all is what's important. No references are ever made to whether it's a good building or a bad one or whether the end user is or will be happy with the space. Whether the building works or not most likely won't be known to the end user when the building is first completed, but why would a publication wait to feature a 2-year-old to 4-year-old building? That wouldn't sell! (This applies more often with commercial design as opposed to residential, but it plays on both sides of the profession). Has your publication ever featured a "bad" house, a "bad" design? Has your publication ever focused on what doesn't work or what would be different if the architect had to do it over again? Of course not; but I guarantee you have seen a bad review of a movie, CD, or play. This is my point: We work for ourselves to impress ourselves. I don't think we know how to talk plainly "about how a house really lives," with "a simple explanation for why a detail was chosen and executed," because we were never taught this skill. Until we're educated in Peoria, we won't be speaking to Peoria. Instead, our profession seems to think we should lift the masses up to our level rather than speaking down to theirs, and it all started on day one of architecture school.
Nostdahl Liptack Architects
I couldn't agree more with your editorial and feel a rant coming on about the demise of the profession. Those TV shows treat architects the way architects have set themselves up to be treated. Design-oriented architects have evolved into a profession of effete snobs who can't speak to ordinary people. I noticed this early in school, when we were asked to explain the "contextual milieu of our design parti."
As my daughters would say, "WTF?"
Later, during my ARE—back when we brought in our own little drawing boards and designed a building on paper—someone asked a custodian in the building if he could "utilize the existing duplex receptacle." The man was stumped. I said, "He means, Can he plug his lamp into the outlet?" and the custodian said, "Sure, why didn't you just say so?" and walked away shaking his head. With 30 years in the profession, I saw it start there and only get worse. I'm not saying we need to "dumb down" our thinking; we just need to remember what architecture is truly about. If we put the level of effort into technical competence that we put into cultivating elitism, we'd be much further ahead. And despite all this elitism, we don't protect the profession or our work product: How many times do you see a rendering of a new facility in the paper or on the news without any reference to the architect who designed it?
We reward and promote silver-tongued "BS" artists with fat salaries and power in this industry. It has nothing to do with their sensitivity to their surroundings or ability to design buildings that provide what is needed and convey feelings that were desired. An architect who can speak to ordinary people without trying to snow them with an extensive foreign vocabulary doesn't seem to command respect, and therefore, won't flourish in the larger architectural firms.
Organized, clear thinking and insight into what people need and want—and the technical knowledge to implement it into efficient, durable construction—is what sets architects apart from all the amateurs, owner's wives, and contractor wanna-be-architects out there—not the ability to wear a beret and act like an avant-garde artiste. Why do we perpetuate that image in the schools? We put the intellectual effort into superficial appearances, to try to impress people and command higher fees, but it has backfired with people who see through it.
Architects also don't take care of their own profession in ways that matter. We let everyone go to school who thinks they might like to be an architect, without adequate counseling about the realities of the profession (resulting in constant hordes of low-cost laborers to be cannibalized), and then we cut each other's throats to get any [scrap] of work because we are a dime a dozen. We need a union, and we need to think like a union of fellow professionals that has an important role in society. We need to protect the profession from interlopers like interior designers and design/builders, and not enable them by rubber-stamping their plans. We need to charge what it really takes to do a good job, and not compromise what the legal intent of "architectural services" is just because owners don't want to pay for it. It's there in law for a reason, and it's the assumed level of service that the public has come to rely on.
And one last thing: We need to protect the use of the "architect" title. It has been completely usurped by the IT industry to mean anything except what the legal title is defined as in every state in the country. Why have we allowed it to become legitimate to call yourself an "IT architect" just because you design software? If they started calling software designers "IT physicians" or "MS attorneys," those professions would go to court in a heartbeat to protect the meaning of the titles they work so hard to earn. We have such low self-esteem that we roll over on any attack to the profession, and hard-won legal monopolies that protect the public and our profession need to be defended constantly. What we are not prepared to fight for, we will surely lose.
Matthew Bancroft, RA, CDT, NCARB
Unfortunately, what too many architects think of when it comes to house design is so out of touch with the true purposes of what a home really is that, in the end, no one is interested in hearing it. The clients with a lot of money, who go to pricey architects, want a statement to outdo their neighbors or friends. Clients with less money, and even less taste, want to tell their architect what to do—something that almost never, if ever, goes over with the licensed set. Often, they get what they thought they wanted, although it usually doesn't look anything like they thought it would (although it sometimes does, which says volumes about the architect's skill and the client's taste—usually something better left unsaid!).
Designing a home requires a skill set that isn't taught in architectural school. In fact, it's mostly looked down on, during the period in which students are brainwashed into believing the nonsense they are taught about why so-and-so did such-and-such. That knowledge is important, but it needs to be assimilated in the correct setting, couched in terms that leave students' ability to think for themselves untainted—neither of which is on the agenda of any dean of architecture.
No, they are far more interested in impressing their peers—a group of like-minded narcissists—who believe the client should shut up and keep an endless supply of checks streaming in, while mouthing platitudes that would have pleased the emperor who had the clothing issues. That is why architecture is such an esteemed and reviled profession. Too many practitioners don't know the standard sizes of anything except their chosen brand of appliances, or they rely on a supplier to "work out the details"—"architecturalese" for "It's going to cost a lot more than we budgeted for." Contractors refer to our drawings by a slew of cute and funny nicknames, architect's funny papers, cartoons; you name it, we've heard the derogatory remarks. When you try to set one of these "master builders" straight on even the most prosaic subject, you face a diatribe on how "Mies did it" or "Frank would have done it" or the nom du jour, Gehry, as if because someone is popular at a moment in time, all other purveyors of the art must not know what they are talking about. It's part human nature, and part plain old human cussedness—most likely the same thing—but it sure makes for some lousy house designs!
I've been at it for 35 years and hope to get good at it one of these days. I wish some of the others had a similar attitude ...
All I can say is, right on!
There is so much "Archi-Talk" and "Archi-Babble" force-fed to architecture students in school that they become infected with this virus and think that "talking the talk" will somehow make them real "architects."
The TV producers are no fools, and they don't have the time to re-educate architects how to talk about their work in common everyday language that the viewers will listen to, let alone understand.
And then there's the favored way that TV programs love to portray architects. We seem only capable of talking to horses or chasing invaders from outer space.
And of course the talking heads on the national news programs can't help but tag every bad government program with the adjective "architect," such as "Dick Cheney, architect of the Iraq invasion policy..."
Couldn't they just as easily have used "engineer," "designer," etc. to tag a person who creates a questionable policy or program?
Richard Bryant, AIA
Regarding your recent editorial: I think the phenomenon of having the spouse speak is a natural reaction. TV shows are aiming at the users, and it's the user who reacts. I ran into this the other night at dinner with friends at a recently finished project. I started to give the tour but was soon overwhelmed both by the hosts, in wanting to share their goals and experiences, and by the other friends reacting and including their own stories. I found that the nuts and bolts of the design process that I had gone through was, in a sense, irrelevant.
I finally stood back and basked (fortunately) in the praise, answering specific questions or mentioning specific large elements or goals [when I could].
That said, I think that the TV shows should add the architect explaining the whys and wherefores, if only to give viewers some idea of the thought process that occurs. If only the architect can refrain from using "articulate," "express," "juxtapose," and other "archispeak" terms ...
It also may be that the particular architect [featured in each episode] is just not that expressive and doesn't make good TV! Perhaps we need Acting 101 in school now.
Black Dog Architects Co.
Less than 1 percent of homes are designed by architects. Most communities are laid out by landscape architects. Be it million dollar boxes or $100,000 boxes, most are soulless, disconnected economic ghettos. With the economic downturn, they now match the old urban ghettos for their barren emptiness. The Olmstead brothers prove that the master plan was the spine that allowed the cells of a neighborhood to grow on and prosper.
We have quickly learned that the spineless cul-de-sacs of suburbia have driven the bubble—and hastened the collapse of the housing boom and the economy in general. Perhaps this reality check will spur the AIA to care about all environments and effect growth patterns and their long-term effect on society.
I just read your editorial about house shows, specifically Beyond the Box. A house that we designed and built was recently shown on the "modern and eco-friendly" episode. Maybe you caught that one? It's a tall, narrow, modern house in Durham, N.C.
The day the crew spent filming the house was fascinating. And, they let me speak! Still, it was the owner who did most of the talking. I do have to say, he's better on camera than I am.
Great article. We have had the same discussion in our office!
Venture Four Architects
Hate to say it. We architects generally don't talk very well. We're far better off being left to communicate in drawings and sketches and have our mouths zipped shut while others do the talking.
Leonard Lodder, AIA, LEED AP
Studio 3 Architecture
I almost never respond to things like this, but I feel so strongly in support of what you say, that I am mandated!!
I've been in this wonderful business for more than 35 years, much of it in single- and multifamily residential. I'm continually astounded at how developers as a group seem to see no value in hiring a talented, creative architect. "Just build anything for the lowest cost and it will sell," they say. I'm horrified when I see virtually unusable spaces being hawked! There is almost no appreciation for how good architecture will positively affect their bottom line!
Our philosophy always has been to create "Great Places for People." Whether it be commercial, residential, or open space, good design hits the heart strings. And the historic numbers confirm that our work sells for 10 percent to 15 percent more than the project next door and sells more rapidly; even in a down market like now, it still sells!
What I find especially sad is that most people have no way to really appreciate the intangible difference that a good architect brings to a project. They'll get an OK result that they can live in, probably, no matter what, but how do we demonstrate "what could have been"?—the joyous result that didn't happen because a talented architect wasn't involved.
We're also charged with knowing and coordinating the overall project to be sure it all works together for the clients' best value. Otherwise no one but the architect has the broad knowledge to put all the pieces together (though builders think they do!).
We appreciate whatever enlightenment you are able to bring to the public about the value of a good architect to facilitate the greatest potential for any project.
Marina del Rey, Calif.
I share your interest in Beyond the Box. In fact, my house was the second one filmed back in January 2007. The episode was "Modern Metals"—maybe you caught that one? Mine had the mega-rib siding, the wire-glass backsplash.
I agree with you that our houses seem a bit extreme and oftentimes are unappreciated by the average person. I live in an area where the "cookie-cutter" is not just the norm; it's what people want, and it's what they see as true architecture. As if they don't know any better or any worse. These are the people who want crown molding and expensive faux finishes on the wall instead of expressed structure or even a well-proportioned usable space.
So, to me, the greatest accomplishment of these shows is to open the eyes of people who don't know that something different is obtainable for the average man. I am sick of homeowner associations' "Architecture Review Committees" dictating residential architecture. Ten out of 10 times there's no architect on the committee and no architect involved in forming the guidelines of our built environment. A country club across the street from my house is polluted with crap for architecture—and people want it, because that's the best thing going in the area.
We need to become more involved and respected as leaders [rather than being seen as] the profession for the elite.
If the cookie-cutter must exist, let's fix the designs to better fit the sites, climate, and client. Builders have adopted a "designer hat" that's so askew due to profit that they've lost sight of quality architecture and even quality building.
Judd Dickerson, Assoc. AIA
John S. Dickerson Architect