After a recent internal Architecture Forum discussing the “Brutalist Legacy” of Boston, we discussed the merits of saving decaying buildings through restoration, renovation or if demolition is sometimes the best option. Inspired by that discussion and a recent op-ed in The New York Times, “How to Rebuild Architecture,” a couple of us put our thoughts down in ink.
From Alison Laas:
Listening, without agenda, bias or preconceptions, is a skill that every architect can work to improve.
Of course, as with every aspect of architecture, who we should listen to is a complex issue. The authors only highlight the limited scenario of the wealthy client hiring the starchitect and how the resulting architecture may not address the interests of a broader community. But the reality for many of our projects is who our client is and for whom we are designing is a much more complex and diverse group.
At institutions with whom we often work, the title of client can be assigned to any number of people or groups of people – from CEOs to facilities project managers to educators, researchers, doctors and nurses. When faced with input from so many people under the heading of client, we are often faced with conflicting priorities, needs and desires. The logistics of communicating with all of those with an immediate interest in our projects can often lead us to prioritize those with the loudest voices or the most immediate impact on our design fees, or perhaps lead us to not ask the more difficult questions about how the aesthetics of our designs might be perceived by a larger public. The best projects are those in which understanding and consensus is achieved with all of the constituents of our client group, and hopefully that of the greater public who will also interact with our buildings. The easiest way to start growing this type of consensus is through listening to our clients and users. Listening grows trust, which opens opportunities for communication, collaboration and new ideas. This is the key to architecture with which the people who use it can connect.
I would argue, however, that just listening to everyone is not the solution to great architecture. Without the role of the architect to process, interpret and transform the input of clients, users and communities we could just as easily end up with a built environment that is just as bland, and full of “sprawl and dreck” as the authors lament our current environment is. The role of transformation of community and client needs into spaces that are more than might otherwise be envisioned is the role that we as a profession need to promote. The best way for us to start this transformation is not by invoking a particular way of making architecture or setting out “natural design principles.” The best way for us to start the transformation of the role of architects in society and thereby transforming our built environment is to listen better.
From Dan Russoniello:
In their recent opinion piece, Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen provide a range of examples to argue that the architecture profession is out of touch with the general public and the needs of building users. I have to agree with a good deal of Bingler and Pedersen’s arguments. I question some of their broader generalizations, however, including their supposition that in some better days past, architects were more in touch with the people. The authors’ argument focuses on the headline garnering works of a few architects who are pushing boundaries at the farthest edge — but there is a wide range of architectural practices working outside this narrow picture (both good and bad). Architects must push their clients — they hire us for our expertise, knowledge and sometimes our distinct (or conformist) design aesthetic; when architects are able to offer clients solutions they have not anticipated, these can at first seem radical. Following through with an engaged back and forth process, the architect and owner can, as a team, push solutions that are innovative not for the sake of innovation, but that emerge from the specificity and uniqueness of the established problem.
I look to architectural writers and critics — the voices who can frame and articulate architecture to a wider audience for us, to change the pattern of starchitect focus and hero-worship. Two positive examples of writers this past year come to mind: The New York Times’ critic Michael Kimmelmen, and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron. Kimmelman’s August 2014 piece on the value of good hospital room design focused on design in the healthcare sector — a topic highly relevant at Payette — yet rarely discussed in mainstream architectural journalism. Saffron was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “her criticism of architecture that blends expertise, civic passion and sheer readability…” I read her columns often, having studied architecture in Philadelphia, and while her title is architecture critic, she is really an advocate for the careful stewardship and evaluation of the city’s rapidly developing urban fabric. Her writing is pragmatic, legible and addresses the tensions inherent in building the future of a beloved city by acknowledging the history and culture embedded in its structures.
My optimistic eyes see a generation of young firms that have received critical acclaim while also being part of academia and actually tout their ability to listen to client needs and synthesize solutions – all as what makes their projects distinct and successful. Their work is couched in solving problems defined by clients’ real (sometimes even measurable) needs, rather than problems defined by esoteric architectural discourse. Work AC and Mass Design Group are just two examples that come to mind approaching their practices in this manner. As more architecture schools challenge their students to recognize the value of design solutions driven by real problem solving, and as clients’ demands reach new levels of sophistication, then a good portion of the profession will respond to meet their needs.