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Architectures Cultural Cachet is Killing

By Ross Brady

n the 2013 documentary Archiculture, Cornell professor Mary Woods

I says: The remarkable thing to me is how optimistic students of

architecture areits almost a bit like an actor or actress, that they
still cherish that belief that theyre going to break out of the chorus
line. In the film her quote is used as a segue into the notion of celebrity
architects, which is unfortunate, because that metaphor shines a light on a
damaging conflation often made between the performing arts and the vital
societal function of making buildings.

Exalting as it may be, the cultural esteem that often surrounds

architecture is actually detrimental to it, since it fosters a perception that
providing visual distinction is the primary value of an architects work, ahead
of providing functional shelter. This understanding is of course backwards. As
important as both concepts are to an architects work, there is a fundamental
hierarchyone thats central to our roleand it doesnt seem to be widely

This problem starts with how the public sees the profession. Popular
culture, it seems, only has room for one or two architects at a time, with the
most noteworthy practitioners hailed as artists for providing a break from the
ordinary, often through the most accessible aspect of their work: its visual
impact. By itself, theres nothing wrong with thisappreciating aesthetic
distinction is inherently valuable, and architects who provide this successfully
should rightly be celebrated. But the publics concern for the profession tends
to end there. They dont need to look past architectures aesthetic value
because most people dont useand are barely aware ofthe small percentage
of visually distinct buildings in the world.

The problem germinates when a certain percentage of the public

decides to become architects. Architectural education seems to push the same
architect-as-visual-artist perception the students knew as laypeople. By
emphasizing open-ended, individually-oriented design studios and spending
little to no time teaching how buildings are constructed or financed, students
are forced to compete with each other in the only way theyve known so far:
making their work visually distinct. In such a system, success can only be
measured in aesthetic appeal.

Is it surprising, then, that a 2012 study found architecture students

take on anywhere between 40% to 140% more debt than the average college
student, while architecture salaries are notoriously lower than professions
requiring a comparable investment in education? In this light, it seems the
same aspirational prestige that surrounds many famous performers, and
inspires countless hopefuls to follow in their footsteps, may also help feed the
ranks of the architecture profession.

The parallels to acting stop there, because if an actor fails they

merely waste our time, while an architects failure can leak on someones
furniture, bankrupt a company, cost a fortune to cool or melt parked cars. Yet
many young architects, after spending years cultivating the value of visual
distinction, express dismay with the reality of having to consider
constructability or project budgets upon reaching professional practice. Worse
still, they likely know nothing about how either of those issues actually work in
relation to them. This not only devalues the profession by cutting architects
out of a majority of the process of making buildings, but its disastrous for a
public that needs functional shelter more than artistic provocations. Thus, the
prevailing perception needs to be flipped: function first, aesthetics second.
You may recognize this imperative as form follows function, but
this isnt a design issue as much as its a messaging issue. The least problematic
part of this occurs within the profession itself, as many architects know that
combining function with unique aesthetics adds irrefutable value to a project.
High profile firms like Diller Scofidio + Renfro and BIG routinely draw acclaim
for designing building elements that do something, but that sort of praise
circulates almost exclusively among other architects. The right messageone
that emphasizes a visually distinct buildings functional aspects over how it
looksisnt getting through to the public.

How to fix this? Architects could start by re-aligning their notion of

practice to encompass more of the building process than the small slice they
currently hold. Expanding the boundaries of the profession to subsume
segments like construction, finance and property development would give
architects the agency they need to aect the sort of changes they can currently
only theorize about. BIGs in-house engineering and R&D departments, and
SHOPs penchant for design-build while taking a financial stake in their own
projects, provide good examples. These are outliers, but if business models like
this were considered the norm for architects, the profession would have more
than just flashy formal moves to fall back on.

Architecture education could contribute to the solution by shifting

away from the heavy emphasis currently placed on design studios, instead
balancing their role within an integrated system that gives equal regard to how
buildings are used, designed, built, and paid for. By imparting the currently
established process of making buildings before asking students to design their
own, studio projects would likely become far more viable and eective at
addressing the problems they attempt to solve. Additionally, application of
modest restrictions toward student projects, such as disallowing visually
striking design elements that dont also perform a valuable function, could
reinforce the notion that visual distinction is not an end unto itself.

Property owners are typically preoccupied with a buildings

function to begin with, but may often view aesthetics as a separate issue.
Incentive to combine the two could be put forth through the prescriptive codes
and regulations theyre bound to follow. A way forward here might be
discernible through the municipal design review processes that are already
standard in such areas as historically landmarked districts. While these sort of
aesthetically-focused regulations are often bemoaned for stifling innovation,
they also open the door, legally speaking, to the possibility of implementing
guidelines that require visually singular design elements to be paired with
valuable functional metrics, like ecological footprint reduction or the
expansion of infrastructure.

These measures are cumulatively more broad and unwieldy, but a

first step might be to recognize that letting artistic sophistication be the
publics go-to association for architects is ultimately damaging to the
profession. Eschewing this label would signal a desire for architects to be
associated with providing something more substantive to society than the
occasional interesting-looking building. Get this message across first, and the
rest can follow.





Ross Brady has built a multi-faceted career spanning architectural
practice, marketing and journalism. His work ranges from
residential renovations to urban design proposals, to most recently
marketing and communications. He maintains an architectural
license in New York.


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