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Architecture In Love : the flat roof syndrome

July 7, 2015


We all want love.

But who we want it from is where humans differ. Most of us are content to desire love from those we actually love. But those in full devotion to anything seek love back from it: the “it” of music, sport or God.

But art can be the Higher Power for some. And for some architects, now the most celebrated among us, want the creative act to be embodied in mutually worshipped common Holy Spirit.

As St Paul said to some anxious folk from Corinth in first century Greece love “Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

As a Beatle coined 1900 years later “all you need is love”.

Lovers at this level seldom impact the rest of us, unless we buy into their devotion. Hundreds of millions have stopped hearing the beauty of St. Paul’s words in this century, and once we Boomers die off Lennon’s words will become quaint.

An athlete or musician plays before those who opt to pay attention. The artist makes paintings or sculpture for anyone to encounter and leave – inspiration, rejection or indifference is incidental, not inevitable.

But the architect is different. We help create buildings that others are compelled to use. The alternatives to fine arts architecture do exist. Architects can pander to what has been done before and express love in the sincerest form of flattery. Architects can weave what we design tightly into its environment where little effort is used in occupancy. We can make building so affordable that anyone can aspire to use our service.

Or we can be devoted to the love of other architects, and others who are devoted to them.

The problem is that, unlike music, painting or soccer, what we do is imposed on others. They have no choice but to use what we build. What we do can cost the owners of what we design extreme amounts of money and effort in their buildings’ repair, service or use.

Architects are most often selected for any given job by non-architects: and the tools most often used for selection are the visual clues their built work offers as to what the end product will look like. Like the first generation of Face Book, the cover image is purported to offer up the criteria for commitment.

That first contact is almost always 2 dimensional, not in the world every building occupies: local and terrestrial.

Like the hook in a pop song, the instantaneous thrill of distinction is the dominant tool of discernment, as humans are programmed to go with our gut “curb appeal”, “fall in love”, “point of purchase” judgments.

So when those who evaluate architecture see “new” they tend, as we all do (with cuisine, clothing or video) to like the thrill better than the thought it takes to understand something as complex as a thoughtful building.

Sadly that judgment works well in food, couture, music and art as they are transitory, can be removed, tossed or digested.

But the credibility of the thrill consensus embodied in what is now exclusively celebrated in 90% of media that celebrates 1% of 1% of architects skews the judgments of building patrons into 2 radically divergent paths:

The Believers opt to Believe in the Glory Laud and Honor of Fines Arts Architecture, the rest of us, not the 1% of 1%, run away from it: laughing or creeped out.

Why are the celebrated buildings so successful at being honored? I think its because every human admires defiance: courage, expression: its why Christians overcame Rome, its why Gregorian chants became niche and Mozart rock starred – and its why the denial of the terrestrial – gravity, weather, materials – thrills the critic.

The flat roof – now perhaps less required as sculpture needs expression in the nouvelle-ist of aesthetics – the flat roof crystallizes the Magical Thinking of all lovers:

If I cut my hair, he will love me

If I buy a new guitar I will get this gig

If I use that blue the gallery will select my piece

If I deny gravity (or users, or weather, or context, or craft, or culture) the editor, the jury, the professor, the selection committee with validate my building

Architecture is like the rest of us: a fool in love: but not with a Higher Power, another human, but tragically, narcissistically with itself – the “itself” of a closed loop of artists and acolytes, selecting each other serially for Glory Laud and Honor, while the vast majority are left fixing the leaks of the flat roof, the sculpture, the idea that was so compelling to so few.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Hanna permalink
    July 7, 2015 8:30 am

    I LOVE this….recalling the flat roof of 1 Tower Hill Rd. and Ali shoveling snow and ice off of it……by the way: Episcopal clergy are hired by non clergy, often 2 dimensional people…sigh. Thank you, Duo!

  2. July 7, 2015 10:38 am

    I’m not sure what the question was……or what the answer states ? As a designer of the built environment ( un-architect ) , I wonder what our world would look like if architects designed everything ? It would be a gravity defying amoeba or angular geometric nightmare . I applaude those who can take the architecture of the past and move it forward . Thank you Mr. Dickinson for your thought provoking essay…..but what was the question ?

    • July 7, 2015 1:42 pm

      no question, just an observation in furtherance of The Big Question: can the profession of architecture be relevant when it singularly values the “cutting edge” over thoughtfulness?

      • Marcelo Sanchez permalink
        January 16, 2020 12:58 pm

        Hi M Dickinson. I was hoping for a more scientific critique over the physical value of the flat roof, under the light of the building relationship with its context. I would be under the impression that form follows function. Would you care to elaborate and provide a certain depth on your perspective? Otherwise this is not an essay and therefore it is not saving anybody.

        All the best to you.

      • January 16, 2020 1:33 pm

        The science is clear: flat roofs leak more than pitched roofs: what function is reflected by flat roofs besides cheap? As to whether this is an essay, it is a blog post: this is an essay

  3. Karen Ramus permalink
    October 3, 2017 1:59 am

    Hi Duo! As a child of the 60’s many Oregon schools were built with flat roofs. Big mistake with liquid sunshine pouring down in buckets. During the big snow of the 60s are friends flat roof Home caved in. Our Fairgrounds (you’ve been there) has flat roofs and I’ve a wall of water pour into our atrium. So please architects do us a favor don’t design anything with a flat roof inn Rainy Oregon!

  4. Karen Ramus permalink
    October 3, 2017 2:01 am

    Hi Duo! As a child of the 60’s many Oregon schools were built with flat roofs. Big mistake with liquid sunshine pouring down in buckets. During the big snow of the 60s our friend’s flat roof on their home caved in. Our Fairgrounds (you’ve been there) has flat roofs and I’ve watched a wall of water pour into the atrium. So please architects do us a favor don’t design anything with a flat roof inn Rainy Oregon!


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