The role of architects, while clear to those in the profession, is something entirely different to nearly everyone else. Recently several prominent architects and the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO)have come under fire from Congress for their role in the Design Excellence Program, a program intended to improve the design of US embassies throughout the world. The major point of contention is that the services provided by architects have primarily consisted of “making buildings pretty.” Security, budget, safety, and other concerns were ostensibly being put on the back burner in favor of aesthetic considerations by the architects. While congress does potentially have a point with some of the designs –a billion dollar design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for an embassy in London doesn’t help- this view of architects is not new and a view that we constantly struggle to overcome.
In an editorial in the recent Architect Magazine, Ned Cramer’s rebuttal tries to make the case that architects are fully capable of making buildings safe, on budget, and pretty. Yes, it is true we are trained to walk and chew gum, but that is not how we present ourselves to the public or even to each other. I partially blame the AIA for not fully educating the public, but I also know that it’s not totally their fault either. The problem is the supporters of the AIA, or namely, architects. There is a culture in the profession that pervades the idea we are artists first and foremost. I wonder how many beautiful buildings have won national honor awards that were over budget, that did not manage the clients goals, or were horrible additions to the surrounding communities. We talk about how we can do all things AND make pretty buildings, but the ideal projects we hold up as the pinnacle of the profession have nothing to do with what most architects strive for on a daily basis.
Not only do we not value the problem solving that we as a profession bring to clients, I have heard other people, fairly recently, comment on who are “real architects” based upon the look of the designs they created. (Ironically the person speaking was not even a licensed architect. This talk infuriates me.) This type of attitude has no place in the profession, but is also intrinsically part of the reason that many look sideways at architects and the value they can provide. Most people, given the option, would can appreciate a good looking home, office, school, church, etc. but I can’t imagine them wanting looks at the expensive of a functioning building. The public does not want to feel as if they’ve been asked to wear the emperor’s clothes, being told by the expert what they should want yet feeling that they, at the most basic level, have not gotten what they paid for.
Now, of course there are many architects today that focus on the public good of architecture and many others that make great buildings that will never see the inside of a design magazine. I have the utmost respect for these people that do the “ugly” (sarcasm font not found) work that the rest of the world wants us to provide and that has at times been maligned. Do not get me wrong, I still love a beautiful building and I can be as critical as the next person, but I also am tired of a profession that is at times superficial and exclusionary both with each other and the public.
The one comment under the editorial by Ned Cramer reads, “Congress, as politely as I can say it, is stupid.” This comment shows the contempt for architects can have for people that “don’t understand what we do.” Congress may not see the value of what we do, but rather than brush of the ignorant masses, it is time we had a come to Jesus in the profession and genuinely talked to people where they are –not down to/at them.
To make this actually worth while I suppose I should provide a direction, at least for the Design Excellence Program, seeing as I don’t know how to change the culture. If I were brought in front of congress I would say something very nearly identical to the great response by the director of the OBO, Ms. Muniz:
“Great design is about building functional facilities that are meaningful in their context. It’s reductive in my mind to say a building is just about aesthetics or to say aesthetics are a priority. Great design is the collective effort to solve the requirements of the client.”
I would only add to that in removing aesthetics from the conversation. That does not mean that we should settle for ugly buildings of the past, but that is not the priority of the client and so it rhetorically stupid to use it as the basis of debate. There are many euphemisms that could be used for aesthetics that would work much better. There could be a discussion that embassies are in a variety of climates and are placed with highly divergent cultures. We should be working to find design solutions that address the climate, building maintenance, and the convergence of cultures as well as safety, security, schedule, and budget. Architects can help make an embassy feel safe and secure, but also provide an environment that improves the mental and physical well being of the embassy staff and that puts a good face to the world outside. All of these things (and many more) take good design, not just a pretty facade, to solve. They are not wholly about aesthetics and we even have statistical evidence for the benefits for these designs.
Some architects may call congress “stupid” for asking some tough questions, but until we start explaining better what it is we do and who we are as a profession this is probably one instance where congress does not deserve the moniker.