Architects and Politicos
We are obsessed with the “what’s” in our lives. Rear windshields are billboards for what schools we attended or paid for. Resumes chant a litany of what we have done (and avoid what we have left undone). Any cocktail party intro starts with “What do you do?”
However every “what” has a “who” as its audience.
If you go on a “vision quest” to the Himalayas, that “who” is you, but almost every other “what” has a distinct “who” that is both its audience and judge. When that rear windshield is a web of academic logos was the College Kamikaze Quest for the student or the cocktail party name drop?
I am an architect, a profession in value free fall – fewer think we have relevance or usefulness to warrant a worth that overrides a bad economy. There are now fewer opportunities for architects than at any time in my 36 years in practice. I believe our overwhelming traditional focus on the visual “what” of our work – its fine arts sensibilities – has caused us to slip further and further away from who uses and lives with our buildings.
That “what” focus inevitably bleeds down to the nitty-gritty of how we practice. An architect wanted to get a link to a piece I had written. When I went to my phone to get his edress his website chided me: “The site you are attempting to access requires Flash”, and I was locked out of any other way to get his contact info on all of Google. The architect chose the complete info control of an exclusive website over unfiltered info flow.
I am sure the site is super groovalicious – with movement, fades, video, sound – its “what” is, no doubt, dazzling. But it, and it alone, is the gateway to the architect’s work, and that portal had a specific key to access it that any number of folk did not have. The “what” of the website was more important than who could see it.
That disconnect brings home a central question in architecture that anyone can grok: Who are you living/working/morally focused for? Architects traditionally have valued the graphic representation of their work to other aesthetes as the bottom line criteria for judgment. We have tended to design for each other – the “who” is us.
This inbred outlook distorts our actual role in culture. The “what” we create is not just inhabited art, it either works for those who use it, or doesn’t. Our work either is seen by its surrounding community as enhancing the neighborhood or as tone deaf to context or even bluntly rejecting it.
So seductive for architects is the “what” we create that the “who” we design for, the users and viewers of our buildings, are often left in the dust. By definition a fine arts architectural education has at its core a faculty who live in the world of the “what” that teaches and trades in projected or printed images.
Although they would deny it to their dying breath, academic architects are as style-seduced as any fashion designer simply because it’s easier to know the “what” of anything – disposing of the messiness of cost, craft, context, and most sadly client. The short hand of words like “Modern” is more defendable than a messy understanding of all the ways buildings cost money, impact those around them, and are ultimately useful.
If “Modern” or “Sustainable” or other pigeon-holeing words legitimizes a building, the other criteria for judgment are details – details that exist in realms of focus where a fine artist feels uncomfortably incompetent.
A generation or two of “what” focused education and professional laud has meant fewer and fewer ways for architects to be seen as useful, as the rest of the world has used the internet to demystify almost every field – law, medicine, and yes design.
The “what”/”who” schism cuts both ways. The direct, 180-degree inversion of the “what” first mindset is on display in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town” http://www.amazon.com/This-Town-Parties-Funeral-Plus-Americas/dp/0399161309 describing the bizarrely distorted “who” obsessed world of Washington DC.
In theory our Founding Fathers were completely “what” obsessed: the ideas of democracy, liberty, and the rights and responsibilities of humanity revealed an overwhelming power of ideas that bore fruit in the greatest seat of concentrated power the world has ever seen.
Unfortunately Washington DC is not populated by ideas or truth, but by their keepers and users: us flawed humanoids. Leibovich’s endless anecdotal recantations put the distortions of a complete “who” obsession on icky display.
People use people to get to better people. People are power and in the glow of a powerful person those people around him or her grow in power. Of course it is ultimately millions of people that vote who create the power, but the disconnect between source and outcome is the only common thread between DC’s “who” obsessed culture and the rest of us who find value in the “what” of a bumper sticker’s literally paper-thin political name-dropping.
Humans are uniquely wedged between the motivations and consequences of their values. Because we have progressed beyond hunter-gatherer status we can deal with larger order social realities. A tribe can become a country, a hut can become architecture.
Whenever we are motivated to do big things in the vacuum of a self-serving perspective, the consequences are both unexpected and often bizarrely counterproductive. “Of the people, by the people and for the people” comes from another universe than inscrutable Federal Reserve Policies and a Zaha Hadad art object air-dropped into a city.
While architects and politico’s can live in their inside baseball do-loops with great comfort, the rest of us deal with their work product 24/7/365. Inevitably our culture grinds thru all pretense and self-serving rationalizations because reality always trumps intentions, but there can be fewer miscalculations victimizing society when we are clear about who ultimately judges the fruits of the “what’s” we create.