Full disclosure: I am new here. I have yet to fully shed my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed idealism. I still think design can change the world, and I still think design has a place at every scale and on every budget. In fact, I still believe architects are “inspired and passionate agents of change” in our society.
Responses to the AIA’s survey asking participants if architects are inspired and passionate agents of change in society.
The American Institute of Architects’ recent survey of its members’ and the public’s perception of architects reveals that this makes me an outlier. Our positive contribution to individual projects and our benefit to our clients are not overlooked, but most of the negative (or the “least positive”) responses deal with our ability to inspire and change society. Personally, I don’t think it is our actual ability that is being questioned by these results, but the perception of our contribution is obviously muddled.
The serious constraint architects face in today’s culture of immediacy is the timeline on which we, as a profession, operate. When people create something, the expectation is not to produce a masterpiece on their first attempt. Artists, musicians, and writers all enjoy the benefit of multiple compositions and edits of the final product, and even slight failures will likely never see the light of day.
I am not naive enough to liken our profession to that of artists, but I do believe the argument can be made that the “art” is what is missing when our ability to inspire is drawn into question. Architects do not have the luxury of making mistakes during the process of creation — our first rehearsal is our final product. This requires not only measured progress and precedent but also damage limitation when something daring is introduced into a project. The result is that exploration is often subtle, buried in what is ostensibly a series of slightly progressing archetypes with architectural and programmatic alterations. As designers, our progress tends to be reflected in a portfolio built over many projects, each design a step further into refining and realizing a deeper philosophy. The message is measured in decades, and often entire careers. For a culture that favors the meme architecture of design blogs and Google searches — this is hardly an inspiring process.
Blank Canvases are Dangerous
The answer to our image crisis is not to “remove inhibition and affect drastic change in every project we see.” Iconoclasm is not the answer. Many projects have offered a full-scale platform for designers to express their uninhibited views on how buildings should look, be used, and interface with our world. A recent example of ambitious drawings made real is Make It Right’s effort to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
The problem in New Orleans, I would argue, is not the vision behind the effort (of which I am extremely proud that such passion exists), but in failing to answer the right question. Instead of replacing what was lost, and finding the opportunity for improvement within the context of what was a fairly well-functioning precedent, designers began to redesign everything, and from afar. The question being asked became: how sustainable and exciting of a design can you prescribe to a population at flood risk? This isn’t a bad question, but it ignores the socioeconomic condition and historical context, and fails to fully define the client for whom the designs were built. So the question is incomplete — and the result?
Designing on a blank canvas like this is akin to asking a kindergarten class, “Who likes pizza the MOST?” In New Orleans, the outcome is a collection of homes all clamoring to be heard above the cacophony of neighbors, with each home attempting to make a statement about its own significance. Unfortunately, the neighborhoods now lack a sense of cohesion or connection to the urban fabric. In the words of Gertrude Stein: “there is no there there.”
A Playground for Architects
The failure in New Orleans (and elsewhere) isn’t the variation in answers but the lack of critique and experimentation before a full-scale version was constructed. Residents have no choice but to live with the flaws, and architects are rightfully critiqued because in reality, place-making is an organic process that inherently takes time.
Architects need a playground, a venue for experimentation where the public and designers can interact with a spatial theory, document it, critique it, and then disassemble the project without a trace. The playful energy of studio culture is often stripped from the profession after architects graduate from school. But that is not always the case. For many years, firms have explored revolutionary ideas and materials, at full scale, through furniture design and installations. Events like PARK(ing) Day allow designers to install a small-scale space, and alter the public’s perception of our urban fabric without any permanence or damage. These ideas last much longer than the event itself and, with any luck, can motivate users to better critique other spaces they encounter.
An installation exploring a staircase as a place for conversation and a presentation medium.
The course of action for us to improve our image as “inspired and passionate agents of change” is to first become more inspired and passionate about our work. Design competitions are a perfect outlet for architects to explore more adventurous programs and forms, while also involving design goals that encourage us to reimagine dated archetypes. There is very little overhead cost, and the consequences of failure are nonexistent.
Competitions also give designers an opportunity to learn new programs that assist in design communication and realization but are otherwise out-of-scope in a typical contract. While there is often little direct translation to our current projects, competitions allow designers to distill their very best theories and carry them into practice with confidence. These are the threads that can define careers.
Learn to Listen
Architects change society all the time. Simply building a wall alters the urban fabric for years, possibly for centuries. So the problem is not that we lack the ability to act as agents of change. By our very nature, that is what we do. Our problem is how that change is perceived, and, again, the timeline on which we operate. Community outreach and input are vital to any public project, but it is also our job to illustrate how that input is translated into design. Educating the public on our process, and our constraints, fosters a more informative dialogue and streamlines future design processes.
But what can we do today? I would argue that something is lost in translation, so better understanding what inspires the public can help architects inspire, as well. In Baltimore, popular symbols of social change are the mural and the public garden. Often, painting a wall and growing food can kick off a dialogue well before any brick and mortar change is present. Giving a symbol to a movement is an extremely powerful gesture, as ICY Signs and Stephen Powers have done in neglected parts of Baltimore. Their work is a perfect example of public art adding value and purpose to grassroots rehabilitation and under-privileged voices. Work like this allows passersby to understand the struggle many face when working to restore a neighborhood. Often, the work is on paper and in hearts long before any noticeable work can commence. This is not just graffiti and weed trees anymore.
Murals serve as an avenue for neighborhoods to express their vitality.
The grassroots energy spreading across Baltimore and other cities has the potential to help us reshape the image of architects in today’s culture of immediacy. The fact of the matter is: the work we do cannot be rushed, so an outlet must be re-envisioned and introduced to inspire us.