Which style of housing do the victims of hurricane Katrina prefer?

Last month the New York Times published a devastating critique of contemporary architecture’s relevance to real life, How to rebuild architecture, by architect Stephen Bingler and architectural journalist, Martin C Pedersen.

According to the authors, the problem is architects operate in a different world from the users of their buildings:

We seem increasingly incapable 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… We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand.

This disconnect between what architects want and what users want is endemic to large parts of the profession:

The problem isn’t the infinitesimal speck of buildings created by celebrity architects (some arresting, some almost comic in their dysfunction), but rather the distorting influence these projects have had on the values and ambitions of the profession’s middle ranks.

Here’s the money quote:

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?

Everyone with an interest in architecture or the nature of design ought to read this piece. It’s short, it’s sharp, and it’s bound to be influential (it’s also mercifully free of the sort of over-wrought language so common when architects write e.g. see Annals of archibabble).

This is an increasingly familiar critique and it identifies a key problem with the practice of architecture over the last 100 years or so; I’ve written about aspects of it before (e.g. see Which design will residents like?; Do social housing residents get the buildings they’d choose?; Is this what social housing residents really want?; and  What is it with architects?).

But I think it should also be acknowledged that the vast majority of buildings designed by architects – thousands of them every year across the nation – are successes; they’re well received by clients and by users.

Architects face special challenges that many other professions don’t, or at least not to the same degree. A key one is that virtually every single project is bespoke.

As I noted here (Is architecture that simple? ), the building that ultimately emerges on a site is unique. It’s the product of a complex set of trade-offs between functions, construction and operating cost, timing, marketing, aesthetics, relationship with the surroundings, sustainability, planning and building regulations, and much, much more.

Moreover, compared (say) to a lawyer running a complex case where success is essentially determined by the court’s decision, an architect must satisfy multiple “courts” e.g. client, user, local authority, and the tastes of interested members of the public.

Further, unlike the proceedings of a Court, a building is a tangible and visible output; at a minimum the exterior can be readily seen by everyone. Nor is any special knowledge required to pass summary judgement on a building’s architectural merit; any passer-by who takes an interest feels competent to toss off an opinion on whether or not they “like it”.

And unlike the work of the lawyer, every detail of the architect’s work gets judged by numerous users and observers. They have an enormous advantage the designer doesn’t; they pass judgement in retrospect.

Those who criticise a design with the benefit of hindsight tend to identify aspects that aren’t optimised, but they’re almost always ignorant of the unavoidable need to make trade-offs (some of which are beyond the control of the architect).

I don’t doubt that if they could, every architect would “fine tune” their design after it was built to improve it. I expect that looking back, the lawyer would invariably find room for improvement in how she handled her case too; but the difference is she doesn’t have thousands and thousands of people who presume to know where she could’ve done better.

The lawyer’s protected from casual criticism by the mystique of the law, but not so the architect. You’ll often hear people qualify their utterances with something like “I’m not a lawyer, but…”. However I don’t reckon I’ve ever heard someone say “I’m not an architect, but I reckon that building is a pile of shit”.

Messrs Bingler and Pedersen are nevertheless right to say that the profession is too often guilty of dismissing out of hand the general public’s reaction to their work:

We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen. So when crisis has called upon our profession to step up — in New York, for example, post-9/11, and in New Orleans after Katrina — we have failed to give the public good reason to trust us… We’ve confronted this problem before, with the backlash against what was seen as soulless modernism in the 1960s and ’70s. But our response, broadly speaking, was more of the same, dressed differently: postmodernism, deconstructivism and a dozen other -isms that made for vibrant debate among the professionals but pushed everyone else further away.

Unfortunately there are too many examples that prove this point, but it’s primarily a problem with the ethos of the profession – and one reinforced especially by many architecture schools – rather than with the way most architects respond to the real world challenges presented by their clients and users.

There’s a need for a new approach in architecture that puts what the users want front and centre, not least for the health of the profession. But while the current situation isn’t optimal, it’s not a crisis either; despite the ethos, what’s remarkable is just how good the vast majority of buildings are.

It’s hard to find any objective measure and of course there are exceptions, but my sense is that the great majority of architects in Australia provide real value for their clients and for the users of their buildings (however it’s no surprise architecture schools aren’t putting much effort into researching this critical issue).

One of the designs prepared under Brad Pitt's Make it Right program for housing victims of hurricane Katrina