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Both/And – The Alternative To Defendable Design

January 4, 2014

Humans so desperately want defendability: we  subvert thought with pre-fab political POV’s, in our youth we take on pre-fab personas we find solice in: being a Trekkie, hipster, nerd, jock or goth and for architects all too often we treat Style as Religion as the easiest way to design without second thoughts. But the alternative to fealty to a Style – Modernist, Traditionalist, or I would argue “Sustainably Green”, is a mushy mix of excuses for banality.

To me The Central Question remains:

Who do you design for?

There are two “lists” of design criteria that have trended toward mutual exclusivity. First, designing in the world of Celebrated Design:

-the editors of mags/websites?

-the other professors?

-awards juries?

-the pre-existing ideations/fantasies embedded in your head?

-the photographs that result

Or, alternatively, do you design to address:

-what your clients need and love?

-the budget available to build whatever is designed?

-what complements the community in which the building is built?

-maximizing the efficiency of what’s built in the environment surrounding it?

-minimizing the out year costs of maintenance?

The first list can create buildings that  can be described in sound bites, article titles and picture captions, where the means and methods serve a Prime Directive: The Photo. That visual goal can be sweepingly beautiful, transformative of the perceived limits of architecture. While defendable, designing for the approval of the Modernist Aesthetic Complex is often a one-trick pony, with downsides all addressed by the second list which is often one hand clapping.

The second list creates buildings that often require explanation of their means and methods to fully appreciate the design, even if the product is a tour de force. But all too often the results pander to the lowest common denominators of easy answers. Innovation’s costs of time and money – for both design and construction –  are often simply unacceptable. What has been done before is always more defendable than alternative approaches.

The first list is for a small percentage of practitioners, who end up talking much and building little, and are ironically supported by the constructs that were created to support building (journalism, academics, the AIA).  These institutions intended to foster enlightened construction have devolved into supports for a religion of style – politically correct modernism.

The second set of criteria often overwhelm creativity with constraints to excuse laziness and fear. The benefit of playing it safe is usefulness, but the downside is the devaluation of what architects can do to the level of technocrat – the stitching together of codes, venders and design cliches for expedient safety. The majority of architects earn a living creating buildings that go along to get along, where having work trumps risk.

Both lists are safe for their practitioners.

Not being able to build Photo-Op Architecture because clients hate the work, or its unbuildable due to technology, code compliance or cost is no dishonor: its defendable as misunderstood genius.

Building unquestioning mediocrity excuses unthinking production as the cost of doing business: innovation is assumed to be the first casualty of buildability: the sad pandering results are defendable as necessary in “the real world” to get things built.

The biggest falsehood is that the two lists are mutually exclusive.  I have built about 80% of what I have been contracted to design: very little of it qualifies for awards or publication, but some of it has. Since I have built about 600 things, having over 100 of them published or winning awards can be seen as failure. It could get quite depressing if professional recognition was the way I judged the quality of my work, given that winning awards and getting published means being continuously rejected.

However I know that I address both lists every day, and buildings got and get drawn, budgeted, permitted and built through 3 recessions. Firms that offer pandering design or Photo-Op Architecture usually suffer in recessions – no one wants to risk cash on architect ego trips, or put hard earned money to create something what they can find on the internet in a pre-fab design.

For me “Success” is listening and responding and building to all the criteria of both lists Both/And, not Either/Or.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2014 10:10 pm

    Well said, Duo; “Both lists are safe for their practitioners.”

    A lot of my fellow rank-and-file architects seem to enjoy not enjoying the architectural glamor mags and the projects they publish; they deride the “starchitect” class.

    Although I understand being put off by (or intimidated by) adherents of your first list, rejecting the architectural one percent doesn’t automatically lead to better design.

    Confession: As a first time sole practitioner (after 25 years as an employee) I have already felt the tug of “going along to get along.”

  2. Allan Stadler permalink
    January 6, 2014 7:54 am

    THANK YOU DUO, For the last sentence!!!. Well said…………Allan Stadler


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