Is the profession floundering?

By Vincent DeFazio, Assoc. AIA Posted on January 8, 2015

Vince.YAF.150x 150In the matter of three weeks, the field of (capital -A)rchitecture has been brought to the forefront of media outlets in two different world-renowned, American periodicals. Both Forbes and The New York Times have sparked a debate deep inside the profession that has heads ringing and pedagogical debates spurring. Academia from all over the world are chiming in on the quality and state of architecture, including some well-regarded ‘starchitects’ who claim that normal, everyday architects like you and I create ‘pure shit’. And therein lies perhaps the largest problem of them all; the groups involved in this discourse are so far removed from the underlying issues that their coined opinions are nothing more than lackadaisical words strewn together to piss off the next turtleneck-adorned vanguard. Architecture is failing. It’s failing from the hackneyed use of pastiche style that has plagued our streetscapes over the past thirty years for the betterment of a singular’s opprobrium. Instead of turning to another intellectually-based foray (barring evidence-based design, which is a much different beast in itself), the designers of today have followed apathetic movements such as ‘tack-on’ sustainability and a conglomeration of ‘styles’ that couldn’t pass for much more than a confused attempt at assembling building parts. ‘Starchitects’ of today could care less about the constituents they serve, instead seeking to boast overzealous and over-budget forms in the faces of the other 99% of the population. Architecture is dying because we’re letting it, we’ve lost touch with the intellectual, humanistic, and responsive side of what we do in favor of self promotion and ideological follies unbeknownst to clients we serve. It’s time to stop dabbling in this directionless muck the post-post-modernists have left us with – it’s time to regain an identity (stylistic approach) in architecture. It’s time to find a true direction once again.

How will the architecture books refer to architecture produced from the late 1970s through the early 21st century? In the midst of the times, it’s hard to envision what the ‘History of Architecture’ books will look like in 2200. A hodgepodge of mix’n’match styles that beget replacement in 15 years, a style-less endeavor which has no ambitions to do much more than flip a dollar and move on. Each of the three op-eds that have been published in the last month could almost certainly agree to that point, but where they begin to differ is their responses to the elitism that is almost welcomed in the field. Or perhaps the contemplation of what ‘good’ architecture really is. Aaron Betsky argues that those of us that do not make up the 1% of the population shouldn’t have any say in what is built or designed (Betsky himself, I’d bet, is part of the 99%) – instead we should leave it to the all-mighty architect. Of course, this was in response to the Bingler+Pedersen article in the Times the previous week which stated architects should listen more to the public. This was all capped off by our friend Justin Shubow who generously summarized the two positions only to add in that Gehry is right and architecture is dead.

Dead!  It is no more, run ye to the Gods, we’ve lost our ability to create!

A simple message to all three of these well-educated and equally well-spoken architectural ‘camps’ is this: do something about it. Architecture’s ability to respond to the ill-begotten response of the public and profession in the past was to write then make.  So far, there has been some writing and absolutely nothing done besides passive-aggressive intellectual bullying. We’ve lost touch of the treatises once penned by the deified architects of the past, today writing stops with the thought. Where is the action?

If we’re failing as a profession, we won’t ever know our true outcome since the end is near, or so Mr. Shubow would have you think. Architecture isn’t dying, nor is it ‘failing’. Philosophically-speaking, there may be issues but those problems manifest opportunities to retain our worth and fix what has been wronged. Nothing is ‘failing’. As a matter of fact, over 14,000 AEC jobs were added in October 2014 alone with a billings index sitting at 50.9 points in November. In all reality, architecture is thriving for the time being (especially in the context of the past five years). Justin Shubow’s claim that architecture is imploding seems a bit dramatic to the fact that there are misguided practitioners today. To an outsider, it may certainly seem bleak, but to all of us who are seeing gainful employment and fruitful projects, there is a reason to remain optimistic barring ideological struggles in the field. Architecture is a bit directionless for the time being, but it’s the next generation’s job to turn it around.

When it’s all said and done, the solution to increase our acceptance among the general public while increasing our ability to practice in a seemingly conservative society (art and architecturally-speaking) has yet to be seen. Writing and synthesizing said words with tangible design will bear progression; the current essays do little more than exhibit grown men afraid to speak truths to one another’s faces. It demonstrates the general profession’s lack of interest in progressing discourse and intellect in favor of increasing profit and decreasing ingenuity all while insulting one another over who has the shinier degree from the more expensive school. While we should listen to the general public, we should also recall our trained sense of making and our responsibility to serve all people. We must demonstrate that we are good listeners, that we are responsive and that we aren’t (always) as egotistic as most think; we are the problem solvers and critical thinkers of our time. Will we use it to abolish negativity or create more via insulting each other’s mothers?

‘Directionless’ is an abbreviated version of an originally published piece by Vince DeFazio, Assoc. AIA, which can be found on his blog, DEFdesign.

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