Skip to content

House Doctoring: Bottom Up Relevance

May 3, 2015


The profession of architecture is in a PR free fall:

Decrying architects as elitist is about as challenging as clubbing a baby seal. But architecture’s slide into fashionista fine arts irrelevance seems to get worse with every affected Starchitect rationalization for buildings morphing into sculpture. It’s an easy target to bash the elite’s pricey buildings in the 7th year of a recession. But the bashing is not about the clients, or purposes put to “signature buildings” – that’s happened since Hadrian’s Villa.

Architecture’s slide, despite this article’s Modernist Mockery, has zero to do with any style. All the recent articles are a screaming snark on the profession of architecture embodying the tone-deaf Twit Olympics of dilittantery – architecture is becoming a poster child of the 1% and all that goes with it.

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted relevance via cheap houses for the masses: his unmaintainable Usonian Homes. Le Corbusier created a “City for 3 Million” where all classes were equally warehoused in sterile towers. Architecture’s latest attempt to gain traction for the 99%, a well intentioned not-for-profit, Architecture for Humanity, has recently collapsed amid recriminations.

The truth is we are what we are trained to be: and architecture schools are becoming art schools, not places for the training of a profession. Of course Yale and Kansas and others have a “Building Project” were students can get splinters and then go back to clicking a mouse. Of course schools like Yestermorrow try to get design and craft fused, versus separated at birth. Efforts like “The Rural Studio” bring fine arts to those who could never pay for patronage. The AIA created a Custom Residential Architecture Network to display architecture’s usefulness to the average homeowner.

But facts are facts and the occasional guilty make-up call and magical thinking does not obscure the fact that the academy, the AIA and the architectural press has become a niche choir singing to itself – and, unsurprisingly, hearing only perfect harmony.

What can change that? As fewer and fewer architects find work, only the modeling of the success of those who have work may make a dent in the tone deaf elitism of my profession’s “thought leaders”.

My office has about 55 active projects. I employ about 8 people. This has not changed through 4, count’em 4, recessions: do I win awards? A tiny few. Do I get published? Sure: but about 3 or 4 projects out of the 50-60 in my office are harvested from that blind exposure.

How have I never, ever, laid off an employee, missed a payroll, had enough work over 30 years (600 built things) to own my office’s building?

I work guilelessly with my clients and builders to actually be useful and inspirational in the scary process of designing and actually constructing something: I walk the talk:

Or rather, I drive and meet: consider yesterday, Saturday:

7am: drew the alternate scheme (the 4th) for my 2pm meeting

10am: meeting in Armonk, NY, with old clients to discuss a possible $25K porch.

11:45am: Meeting in Launch meeting with clients in Rowayton, CT, listening to their thoughts and looking at images for a new entry BEFORE I design anything.

2pm: Meeting in Cheshire, CT to go over the (now) 4 schemes for a garage and in-law apartment with a couple and a parent – and drew a 5th I had thought of in the 3 hours in the car between the 3 appointments so far.

3:30pm: meeting back at my office in Madison CT to go over hardlines owners had reviewed for a new kitchen/mudroom.

5pm: meeting in Ledyard with 20 year clients and my roofer to review the damage of an ice dam on a project we finished 2 years ago

Pretty glam, huh? Not one of these clients found me thru media: all thru personal contacts – no project over $200K, save the last which was almost 10x that.

No pretenses, money always on the table, no hidden design agendas, no feigning expertise, just listening, talking, working and driving a few hundred miles to help 5 families get closer to having a home they love in the world.

One or two of their projects may get published or win an award: but they will likely all get built. And be useful. And, I hope, be beautiful.

There are no small projects because there are no clients less important than others – because there are no humans less important than others: Wright, Yale, Corb and the AIA might find noblese oblige a nice corollary business gesture to Fine Arts Architecture in the Fashion Industry Model, but it is unsustainable.

Walking the talk means learning what school can’t teach: but if school, the AiA and architectural journalism offers up patronizing lip service to the literal 99% who do not think we may be useful, people can see through that yadda-yadda straight to hypocrisy.

You cannot listen when you talk: if architects speak to each other they hear nothing else: listening and being open to how others think and build is harder than sitting in front of a silent screen and clicking genius to an often unappreciative world.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Penny Maher permalink
    May 3, 2015 7:46 am

    Duo, no one was more surprised than I was when, seventeen years ago, you said you would come to our house to discuss designing an addition to our home. I was working for a major lighting company and had extensive contacts with architects who fell into the “elitist” category, and I had been following your work through published articles for a number of years, so I was unprepared for your down-to-earth enthusiasm for our relatively modest project.
    The process of working with you was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and we have a beautiful home as a result. I have had friends have completely opposite experiences and I’ve advised them to seek another architect. If more architects shared your outlook I’m certain “average” home owners would enthusiastically seek professional expertise.

  2. May 3, 2015 3:11 pm

    Duo, I mean this as a compliment: you sound like one of us – and by that I mean the dedicated residential building designers of the AIBD. I’ve admired your work for years. You get it. You get that you are not designing monuments to your own creativity. You should consider doing what an increasing number of residential architects are doing: joining us. Varina W. Wooster, Immediate Past National President, AIBD.

  3. May 3, 2015 4:04 pm

    Architects need to deal with the mess we have made: in the end designing monuments for those who want them is a good thing: – I have done a bunch of those: this is not about outcomes, its about a culture of academia that is self-perpetuating: architects are commissioned by the states that licensed them to go beyond style and fulfill a full litany of legal and moral canons: those canons have become, sadly, about perpetuation of authority that wants to be independent of responsibility: licensure means something: not necessarily in outcomes but definitively in the expectation of objective ethics, versus CYA manipulation or profit mongering pandering…see the CORA position paper and the CANONS piece that followed it…

  4. Maryzahl permalink
    May 3, 2015 7:47 pm

    Duo Love your line : you cannot listen when you talk. Xo Mary

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Patricia Baldo permalink
    May 3, 2015 8:26 pm

    Duo, you are so on target, as usual. Thanks for understanding real people.

  6. May 8, 2015 11:37 am

    If you look around, as you drive the freeway, don’t you wonder where the architects are ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: