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Talk Is Cheap: Architecture Isn’t

April 17, 2016


I was an English minor at Cornell, but that was a rare thing for an architecture student. I do write, early mornings and weekends, but like school, the vast majority of effort is in figuring out how to build things.

But others write, or talk or teach about things for a living. Some have done the things they present to others, but most, in fact almost all, in architecture have not. Like the Robert Duval sports writer in the the movie “The Natural” who loved baseball but never played it, these folk love architecture, can see the forest for the trees, and unlike me, write well.

But its a top-down exercise, seeing the subject in a wider field than I could about architecture simply because I bathe in it. Today, in an hour, I go to work with a client thinking I have lost interest because I did not return an email last night, an entry that must comply with zoning, the interior of an office space to figure out – Right Now: I have over 50 projects and clients, 7 employees with a payroll every 2 weeks and 6 not for profit boards to hew to.

The un-practicing architecture critic has a different agenda: he/she needs access to “thought leaders” to have the info he or she has not lived to create arguments and insights a venue thinks is worth money to publish. The critic, like the political commentator, knows his “take” of aesthetics must be consistent or he loses the street cred of her or his peers.

Architects have budgets, clients, laws, materials and contractors in their lap every day: they are the way anything gets built: the critic has almost no exposure to these realities except through the necessarily self-serving perspective of the architects they write about.

Neither perspective is complete: but at least an architect can effort getting beyond the day-to-day and seeing the larger picture: the unpracticing design critic cannot download a lifetime of experiences a la the Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.”

The InterWebNets allow tiny venues like this to “feel” important. But the web also allows unvarnished realities and unedited airtime. This tiny venue has had 95,000 points of access to readers. One of those folk asked “Which do you enjoy more – building or writing?”

I truly enjoy writing or I would not do for free here, tiny compensation elsewhere. But building is a life’s work for me: not designing in my head, on paper or on a screen, but in built, existing things that engage humans other than myself.

Writing a journal is a good thing: I have one for the last 40 years: notes by, for and to me about me: no intention of engagement, just a mirror and therapeutic expression. But a journal is a gift from me to me: it has no worldly function or intention.

Writing here is a good thing: even though the horrendous typos are inflicted till changed, no editor tempers awkwardnesses, and no one pays a dime or is assigned to ever open a single glowing “page” to read, so I have had 95,000 gifts in these 5.5 years here.

But architecture writers have a mission to frame the life mission of designers in a greater cultural lens than the architects themselves could ever be expected to have. The greatest home-run calls were not by former players, but by journalists: but when a pitcher is having difficulty, the Little League experienced commentator struggles to invent Knowlege he or she simply has never experienced.

There have significant building architect writers who could meaningfully communicate with a large audience of non-architects: but its a tiny group: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Charles Moore and several of his cohorts, Sarah Susanka and…? Usually you get the gobbledigook of Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright or ranting in words and terms and sentence structures that allow me to appear articulate in comparison.

I only claim to understand a few things, and the now reviled football is one of them. I played coached and had a son play through college. So when I see ignorance wrapped in jive that is most football commentary, I cringe. Unfortunately the former players alongside the non-players are similarly compromised by their personal experience being jammed into a different circumstance of the moment.

Both perspectives – educated, but unpracticed and experienced, but subjective – can be woven to understand any subject better than either one independent of the other. But at the moment, the practitioners spew incoherent fine-arts speech or defensive dismissals of anything but the greatness of their efforts, and the critics become part of the “thought leader” world: where defendable points of view are lauded by the chorister who is singing in harmony with the rest of the choir.

Different tones, some counterpoint but the music is harmonious: and cannot reflect a profession in extreme change where only 1 out of 3 architects with a professional degree has a job.

That said, I enjoy listening to baseball on the radio, announced by humans who, to my knowlege have never, ever played the game: like me. 80,000 architects design buildings for that almost 400,000,000 people use everyday: about 399, 920,000 readers are just like me and baseball, happy to listen to people who can speak and write well about something they understand better than me. But have never done.

But where are the “color commentators” in architecture? Writing blogs, I guess.

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