ARCHITECTURE is a funny field: Much of its most important, most talked-about work is done for a tiny number of clients — we’ll call them rich people — but the profession has a lingering (and in some cases sincere) social conscience and concern for the broader built environment the rest of us live in.
That blend of ambitions has come unstuck, an architect and a journalist argued the other day in this New York Times story. Here are Steven Bingler and Martin C. Pedersen:
For too long, our profession has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work, even as we talk about making that work more relevant with worthy ideas like sustainability, smart growth and “resilience planning.”
… The question is, at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?
… We’re brilliant at devising sublime (or bombastic) structures for a global elite who share our values. We seem increasingly incapable, however, 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.
… 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.
I have little disagreement with the authors, and their descriptions of working in post-storm New Orleans are quite persuasive. But I’ll suggest the problem is not simply with the culture of high-end architecture, but also a larger “culture of culture” — that is, in a pragmatic Anglo-American world that increasingly thinks that the fine arts and design are for the rich, and where there is very little education in architecture and urbanism for non-practitioners. If architects and the general public are estranged, both could benefit from moving towards each other a bit.
The piece is not long, but it’s fairly complex. I urge my readers to check it out in full. And I’ll look forward to the authors’ upcoming book, Building on the Common Edge.