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Architectural Inequality

August 30, 2014


The media chants that the middle class is disappearing. “Income inequality”,  present since one person had more chickens than another, is a freshly loud cause for redress. All clichés are based on realities, and facts are stubborn things.

More people have decided looking for work makes no sense in the 6th year of a mass de-boot of a 20th century economy trying to register to unknowable 21st century realities. More companies are banking more money in fear of the same unknowns. The top 1% of earners and owners clutch and grab for wealth in response to those unknowns – or manipulating them to their advantage.

The ebb and flow of the winner-to-loser ratio is nothing new. Average income has flat-lined since the 1970’s but the stock market is at an all-time high (this week). “Fairness” seems to be an abstract faith-based construct, not a human rights issue.

As an architect, understanding these meta-issues is way above my pay grade. The present depressing realities are baffling the best economic, political and sociological minds, but in one of our cultural mirrors, architecture, the aesthetic middle class is fading fast as well.

But in my playpen, architecture, “fairness” has nothing to do with what gets built.

Every melody has a meter. Every picture hangs on a wall. Buildings blend or blow out their settings. If all music were only treble clef it would be cacophony. If every piece of art was set upon other pieces of art, focus is impossible. Absent “back ground”, tour de force architecture is more noise than inspiration.

Fortunately or unfortunately, most buildings do not have the budget for most architects to be creative. Great architects can make terrific buildings on a budget – (my favorite building of the last half century, Thorncrown Chapel was built with nothing to spare…)

Now and over centuries past, the result of having minimal funding and merely adequate creativity is a flood of architectural low expectations. High brow architectural aesthetes sometimes refer to these mediocre architectural outcomes as “vernacular” or “production” work.

But the same sad malaise of the post millennium middle class seems to have cascading resonance in the vast underbelly of  middle class architecture that slowly descends into cynical banality.

This sea of building that follows a “form follows finances” aesthetic is the metronome that has in the past  complemented the rare expressive anomalies of Fine Arts Architecture or owner idiosyncrasy. The Golden Arches of McDonalds, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch intentionally break from contextual expectation: they are crescendo’s of expression amid pervasive visual monotony.

These architectural foils are visually vitalizing, unless their extremity or quantity act out to poison the larger well of our neighborhoods and create a cultish devotion to their idiosyncratic rationales.

Without exuberant creativity, this era’s depressing low expectations are fulfilled. But buildings are excruciatingly expensive, and last a long time. They are undeniably present in the lives of their users and everyone who encounters them casually and culturally.

The human desire to stand out in a depressing time means a generation is getting tattooed or radically radiant hair colorizing . Architects have always proffered virtuosic solos. Civic pride in the form of the U.S. Capitol or the architectural machismo of the Guggenheim need either bare landscape or contextual mundanity to strut their stuff as Urban Supermodels.

When 10 pounds of expression is stuffed into 5 pounds of context its either a World’s Fair, Las Vegas or an architecture magazine. The normal strutting of high art architecture has become more shrill and exclusive as our culture becomes more defensive and risk averse. Rather than be symphonic in composition, the Architectural High Road is All Diva, All The Time.

The dirty little secret of my play pen is that the polar opposite mindsets of raw artistry and mindless pandering compliance to fear are far easier to hang your designer hat upon than making beauty within crushing limitation. Giving up or cursing the darkness takes less energy than spending endless hours time and effort in prioritizing what money and regulatory latitude can be marshaled to build better.

Having written a bit over the last 35 years I can warrant  that writing about complicated choices is much more difficult and time consuming than simply expressing personal preference. Similarly, teaching sculpture narrows the palette of curricula to visual primacy: with cost, code, craft, context, client, and culture backpedalled by professors that are building less and less – like everyone else in architecture.

The distinction between High Intent and Cacophony blurs when every professionally lauded building, like Lake Wobegone’s school children, seeks to be above average. Architectural Darwinism limits of the vast majority of buildings being built to those who survive the Regulatory Death March and Budgetary Anorexia. So celebrated architecture is trending to the extreme – like the lives and bodies of the Kardashians and the professional Jockocracy.

Cathedrals were swaddled in medieval infill, the Eifel Tower blasted up amid Haussmann’s hegemony, and the Modern Movement feasted on historicist mediocrity. Sadly, as the venues for focused public acclaim (magazines, books, conferences) winnow down as the unfiltered cyber-venues explode into meaningless overkill the loudest aesthetic voices tend to be dominant amid the depression of a profession with an extremely uncertain future.

As middle class buildings become rarer, and more and more brain dead zombie replicant structures are designed by codes and cost, our built world suffers.  Harmony is lost, orchestration fades, and the architectural concert hall becomes a rave where the deafening baseline competes with shrieking solo’s, desperate to be heard. More and more, there is nothing between foreground posture and back ground anonymity – an aesthetic 99% – 1% schism that caricatures each side.

Just like Prairie Houses morphed into Raised Ranches, those mid-century Golden Arches have been dumbed-down to a 2-dimensional Nike-like logo, and thoughtful vernacular design has become pale paper thin Box-itecture.

We are left with architectural apartheid: exquisitely overwrought art pieces set amid a rising tide of curtain wall and Dryvit – neither living in the world of hope and meaning most of us want around us.








3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2014 7:54 am

    There is light, look for the light. Look at the projects that eschew sculpture and Cost engineering, that are grounded in ecology and community, that ask critical questions which challenge assumptions about form and function, that are experimental.

  2. john stafford permalink
    September 1, 2014 5:31 pm

    You can’t go wrong with the parabolic curve. As a builder, it is a joy working with an architect like Duo. So much building is boring now with the 1% holding all the money.


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