Architect of the Young

A Professional Narrative

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    Vincent DeFazio
    Jan 9, '15 3:23 PM EST

    In the matter of three weeks, the field of (capital -A)rchitecture has been brought to the forefront of media outlets in two different world-renowned, American periodicals.  Both Forbes and The New York Times have sparked a debate deep inside the profession that has heads ringing and pedagogical debates spurring.  Academia from all over the world are chiming in on the quality and state of architecture, including some well-regarded 'starchitects' who claim that normal, everyday architects like you and I create 'pure shit'.  And therein, lies perhaps the largest problem of them all; the groups involved in this discourse are so far removed from the underlying issues that their coined opinions are nothing more than lackadaisical words strewn together to piss off the next turtleneck-adorned vanguard. Architecture is failing*.  It's failing from the hackneyed use of pastiche style that has plagued our streetscapes over the past thirty years for the betterment of a singular's opprobrium. Instead of turning to another intellectually-based foray (barring evidence-based design, which is a much different beast in itself), the designers of today have followed apathetic movements such as 'tack-on' sustainability and a conglomeration of 'style's that couldn't pass for much more than a confused attempt at assembling building parts.  'Starchitects' of today could care less about the constituents they serve, instead seeking to boast overzealous and over-budget forms in the faces of the other 99% of the population.  Architecture is dying because we're letting it, we've lost touch with the intellectual, humanistic and responsive side of what we do in favor of self promotion and ideological follies unbeknownst clients we serve.  It's time to stop dabbling in this directionless muck the post-post-modernists have left us with - it's time to regain an identity (stylistic approach) in architecture.  It's time to find a true direction once again.  

    How will the architecture books refer to architecture produced from the late 1970s through the early 21st century?  In the midst of the times, it's hard to envision what the 'History of Architecture' books will look like in 2200.  A hodgepodge of mix'n'match styles that beget replacement in 15 years, a style-less endeavor which has no ambitions to do much more than flip a dollar and move on.  Each of the three op-eds that have been published in the last month could almost certainly agree to that point, but where they begin to differ is their responses to the elitism that is almost welcomed in the field.  Or perhaps the contemplation of what 'good' architecture really is.  Aaron Betsky argues that those of us that do not make up the 1% of the population shouldn't have any say in what is built or designed (Betsky himself, I'd bet is part of the 99%) - instead we should leave it to the all-mighty architect.  Of course, this was in response to the Bingler+Pedersen article in the Times the previous week which stated architects should listen more to the public. This was all capped off by our friend Justin Shubow who generously summarized the two positions only to add in that Gehry is right and architecture is dead.

    Dead!  It is no more, run ye to the Gods, we've lost our ability to create!

    A simple message to all three of these well-educated and equally well-spoken architectural 'camps' is this: do something about it. Architecture's ability to respond to the ill-begotten response of the public and profession in the past was to write then make.  So far, there has been some writing and absolutely nothing done besides passive-aggressive intellectual bullying.  We've lost touch of the treatises once penned by the deified architects of the past, today writing stops with the thought.  Where is the action?


    According to Gehry, 98% of architecture created today is 'pure shit'.  He claims "There's no sense of design, no respect for humanity or anything else".  Unbeknownst to most architects and laypeople alike, the leaky masterpiece that is Bilbao Guggenheim has the utmost respect for its context and its people.  It's not like it oppresses its neighbor buildings or incites intimidation to those passing by with its sheer scale.  Incorrect, there's a mis-communication between Frank's work and his ideologies - his buildings almost always are disrespectful of humanity including context and general public acceptance.  Most of his buildings are crudely out of place and technically deficient leaving museums with beautiful galleries unable to be usedbecause of the leaks in the roof or classrooms abandoned because of falling structure. You best believe that Gehry has much to say in theoretical land, but when it comes to a building actually standing up, count him out.  Bravo, Mr. Gehry, your words and your work are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.  What makes all of this laughable at the end of the day is the 180-degree swing his humanitarianism work takes in New Orleans, something Mr. Betsky was a huge proponent of while sitting dry in the Netherlands hosting a hip competition for brutally invasive French Quarter masterplans. While Gehry is one of the few activists in writing and architectural actions, his words do not meet his work and leave much to be desired for a contemporary direction in a society seeking feedback. 

    Avant Garde

    As previously stated, Aaron Betsky was a huge proponent of Brad Pitt's 'Make it Right' campaign which fostered replacement homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Betsky's approach to the inadequate evidence-based designs in New Orleans are a result of his own belief that architecture is to be seen as an experiment on society.  No matter what their hardships, they (the general population) are subject to our follies and mishaps as a way to progress architecture.  While Bingler's 88-year old mother is an ill-advised layperson, she should suffer through our art such as the 'ugly' house experienced in her neighborhood so we can learn.  I'm sure Aaron understands when his roof leaks it is only due to his guinea pig status.  Betsky's approach to architecture basically exerts Gehry's claim that only 2% of what's designed is worth any merit, the other 98% don't deserve architecture or a say about it for that matter.  The 2% which can afford it have no right to complain, either.  If the functions of their investments don't mirror their original goals they must recall they are simply lab rats in this vast wasteland of architectural mishaps.  If that's the case then architecture really is becoming a "gated community" which even the designers who create can't afford to move in - not like they're missing much with all the leaky roofs and collapsing walls.  

    This problem of the avant garde architect however is nothing new.  All the way back to the days of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, architecture and architects have been reserved for the richest and most privileged of folk.  The public's perception of architects as egocentric, arrogant and out-of-touch professionals probably isn't too removed from reality but only because that's been the only way. Architects were literally deified during the Pyramid era, and highly regarded when they re-emerged as the Catholic church's right hand visionary.  While Bingler's mother does bring an interesting topic to the forefront, she hasn't been trained as an architect nor does she quite understand its principles; how could she ever feel the right to comment and critique such a structure?  See what just happened there with the last sentence? You sat and agreed, nodding your large head, didn't you?  Don't feel ashamed, because that statement is for the most part true, but it doesn't remove the reality that his mother is a person who should be regarded and whose opinions are just as important as any trained designer's.  We don't have to do everything a client or the public asks as Bingler + Pedersen are beginning to assert, but we also shouldn't ridicule.  Frank Gehry does whatever he wants, some other firms are unable to make their own decisions.  However, at the end of the day Architecture is all about finding a fair balance between using criticism and using personal judgement - something today's 'Renaissance' man is certainly lacking. 

    Failing Practice

    But we're failing as a profession, so we won't ever know our true outcome since the end is near, or so Mr. Shubow would have you think.  Architecture isn't dying, nor is it 'failing'*. Philosophically-speaking, there may be issues but those problems manifest opportunities to retain our worth and fix what has been wronged.  Nothing is 'failing', as a matter of fact, over 14,000 AEC jobs were added in October 2014 alone with a billings index sitting at 50.9 points in November. In all reality, architecture is thriving for the time being (especially in the context of the past five years).  Justin Shubow's claim that architecture is imploding seems a bit dramatic to the fact that there are misguided practitioners today.  To an outsider, it may certainly seem bleak, but to all of us who are seeing gainful employment and fruitful projects, there is a reason to remain optimistic barring ideological struggles in the field.  Architecture is a bit directionless for the time being, but it's the next generation's job to turn it around.

    In prior generations, architects utilized theoretical discourse as a way to drive progress under a singular ambition, even if practice wasn't strong, writing helped affirm values while digging designers out of ruts.  This inherently created styles and 'schools' [Bauhaus] of thought which broke off and became their own entities should their ideologies suffer a change of heart. Through this, a clear sense of cohesiveness was established which drove built projects to pursue similar interests - even if there were disagreements among one school of thought to the other, their responses were each following a relative common path. Architecture was still making buildings and technical assemblages of different components, however it sought to ensure meaning in its existence.  As Betsky mentions in his op-ed, architecture like this once 'resonated' with people and created spaces that are 'worth experiencing', what can we say of those kinds of displays today?  While the stylistic approach may be likened to the failing two party political system in the United States, it still drove coherence to an overarching goal of advancement.  Gehry's architecture may not necessarily work, however it does drive progress - to Bingler+Pedersen's point, at what cost?  How can we still celebrate progressive and audacious architecture while maintaining our responsibility to the public?  Shubow exerts the point that all of the population must live with what architects create, how can we maintain a service to both the client and the general constituents of the immediate areas our work impacts? There are plenty more discoveries to be made, but unlike what Betsky suggests, the public cannot remain our guinea pigs if we want to continue to practice our efforts.  To that end, the pursuit continues to find an individual - or group of individuals - who can lead the way to a brighter future for architecture.  Both through practice and perception, how can we assure we don't fail, we don't become too closed off and that everything we built ends up being nothing more than a mere stain on the bottom of Frank Gehry's shoe?    

    When it's all said and done, the solution to increase our acceptance among the general public while increasing our ability to practice in a seemingly conservative society (art and architecturally-speaking) has yet to be seen.  Writing and synthesizing said words with tangible design will bear progression; the current essays do little more than exhibit grown men afraid to speak truths to one another's faces.  It demonstrates the general profession's lack of interest in progressing discourse and intellect in favor of increasing profit and decreasing ingenuity all while insulting one another over who has the shinier degree from the more expensive school. While we should listen to the general public, we should also recall our trained sense of making and our responsibility to serve all people.  We must demonstrate that we are good listeners, that we are responsive and that are aren't (always) as egotistic as most think; we are the problem solvers and critical thinkers of our time.  Will we use it to abolish negativity or create more via insulting each other's mothers?  

    *Fundamentally, architecture is growing.  The ideal that it is 'imploding' on itself comes from a non-practitioner who isn't even trained as an architect.  See AIA's Architect magazine for full evidence of the apparent growth.     

    VIA | Justin Shubow 

    VIA | Aaron Betsky

    VIA | Bingler + Pedersen


    • Lightperson

      Any article that again uses Gehry, Brad Bitt, "starchitects" and doesn't seriously talk about the wider profession beyond must immediately be rejected.

      Jan 9, 15 4:02 pm  · 

      ^ Yassss, this. 


      Directionless is good. Look at what direction has done to the artworld: 

      What you want is competing directions. The poor folks do use architecture, but we move into old bones and create new architectures within. What I don't like about these cultural centers is that they depend on public and private dollars to keep going, but more than that -- they always get it. Private and public dollars keep them afloat. So you've got these big beautiful buildings that are too big to fail, while other parts of the city that might need more attention are getting smaller pieces of the pie. 

      Jan 9, 15 6:25 pm  · 


      Agreed wholeheartedly.  I prefer not the term 'poor' (although I myself probably classify as such...) but "normal" folk or the middleclass.  I grew up in a middleclass home and my parents never could have afforded an architect, there were times where they could have used one and had money to spend but absurd rates were offsetting.  At that same point, as a designer I think it's important to remember we all still want progression and working on remodels of you parents' home won't get you there.  It's about tackling each problem in a unique way.  If there are budget constraints, well we just have to work with them because that's what we do, solve problems and make meaningful things.  Thanks for the read!

      Jan 9, 15 7:41 pm  · 

      A lot of great points, but an essential flaw in the defensiveness from "outside" criticism.

      "Fundamentally, architecture is growing. The ideal that it is 'imploding' on itself comes from a non-practitioner who isn't even trained as an architect. See AIA's Architect magazine for full evidence of the apparent growth. "

      You speak so eloquently about our profession being shut off from the public, yet when the public criiticizes, you feel the need to ostracize.  Afterall, he "isn't even trained as an architect!"   What is shutting us off from the public is our training (excluding narcissists).

      That's why there has always been a large dissenting voice from the public once we removed the ideals of beauty and harmony from our lexicon.  It's only now that we hear it seaping through to the established bastions of mainstream culture.  After 75 years of a schizophrenic reality whereby one promotes modernist avant guard as the apogee of culture and the reality of then living in 'pre-war' apartments or traditional homes in the burbs, it's not surprising to see these kinds of protests surface so far up the food chain.  The only question is will we have the humility to listen.

      Jan 11, 15 7:20 am  · 

      In very few cases are architects the "creators" of the built environment. For the most part we are simply tailors of the emporer's new clothes. To not recognize this is to blame plastic surgeons for Nicki Minaj's appearance. Anything done solely for money is guaranteed to be shit.

      Real architecture isn't what huge egos do with unlimited budgets. 98% of everything is shit including Gehry's work, so it's rather disingenuous of him to complain. Headline projects and starchitects are the problem, not the solution. But they are simply the easiest targets in advertising-income driven corporate media that is simply another demonstration of the result of money being the most important consideration.

      Jan 11, 15 11:00 am  · 

      Good post. I would suggest we spend 75% of our academic careers discussing design, politics, and bullshit... and 25% the practice of Architecture. In short rendering the university output unprepared and basically useless allowing others within the AEC industry to take over our jobs leaving us with the one thing we were trained in well - design and bullshit. So we take on the bullshit and the media writes more bullshit about our bullshit and then we wonder why our salaries are low. AEC industry is huge, but academia, the place to prepare us for the Profession concentrates on the 75% we don't need to be worthy of serving the public. I think your article by pointing out how the media is claiming an implosion while the AEC industry is rolling points out the obvious outcome of an academic career aimed at design and bullshit. DESIGN is important, but you can't deliver design if you can't be an Architect is irrelevant for the most part, it's about being competent at tasks that architects do or at least used to do....

      Jan 12, 15 7:54 am  · 

      Chris +1.

      Jan 12, 15 8:39 am  · 

      Chris +2*infinity. 

      Jan 12, 15 1:34 pm  · 

      Vincent thanks. This read was a seriously intense and well thought out, perhaps many times, nearly dissertation level writing on a serious problem. As you noted, writing may be the way, and you did it well clearly got me excited. You also inspired me to post another blog on my end as related to "avant garde"......I see you have another post and look forward to more.

      Jan 12, 15 8:55 pm  · 

      Nice post.  

      Jan 12, 15 9:08 pm  · 

      I remember making an analogy to nature several years back to try and explain this particular period in architecture.  As in evolution there are periods of rapid change that bring about random mutations, these mutations are at times "failures" and at times beneficial.  during more stable times a more gradual and fine tuned process of selection takes place.  We are in that random mutation phase right now, and as in nature, soon there will be a selection of desirable traits followed by a refinement.  

      Jan 12, 15 9:32 pm  · 


      That's brilliant...'mutations', I really love that.  I may have to borrow that when I explain to others the troubles our profession is going through.  I wonder if then 'starchitects' can be seen as 'mutations' as well, they do create some progressive structures but at a cost much greater than money, at times. Thanks for reading!

      Jan 13, 15 11:17 am  · 

      ^ I like that idea - it does seem appropriate that we are in one of those periods with lots of ideas and little direction, which will only look coherent and meaningful in hindsight once the successes become clear. It would be an awful shame to stifle this plurality of ideas with some rigid idea of what is good for the public.

      Indeed 'the public' is a rather weakly defined stand-in for a heterogeneous and discoherent group of people. Plenty non-architects choose to live in modernist condo towers and willingly spend free time and money visiting avant-garde cultural institutions designed by famed architects. They count too. No one really is capable of giving voice to the conflicting desires of such a large and aimless group of people.

      I feel one can fairly reject criticism like Shubow's while endeavoring to listen to the interested parties on each project. Done properly it's something that happens on a case-by-case basis - you can't generalize the appropriate way to respond to the public. Which is why such brief, simplistic criticisms are properly called-out as thoughtless.

      Archdaily had another thoughtful take on this issue.

      Jan 14, 15 1:41 am  · 


      That is a specious argument.  No one is saying that 'the public' shouldn't be living in modernist condo towers, (especially when embedded in a hip historic district;) or visit avant guard cultural institutions.  That is the retort given to distract from the actual point of the NYT article that seems to have gotten under the architectural world's skin.  Imagine a marketing agency saying "no one is really capable of giving voince to the conflicting desires of...people".  They'd all go out of buisness.

      So let's keep sticking our heads in the sand and covering our ears.  Let's keep drawing the short stick from a society that intuitively understands we are full of it.  Then we can go on some hand wringing binge about how society dosen't get it.  And by all means, shut down the dissenters!

      Jan 14, 15 10:24 am  · 

      we are in one of those periods with lots of ideas and little direction

      We are in a period of a single idea with laser focused direction: maximum profit. Once you understand that everything makes perfect sense.

      Jan 14, 15 5:50 pm  · 

      Thayer-D, I really don't see what the original pieces by Bingler and Shubow were getting at. It struck me that they were describing a phantom problem extrapolated from isolated anecdotes.

      What exactly is the public dissatisfaction they are talking about? My point is that I don't think there is a broad public dissatisfaction with architects today. The AIA positioning survey Shubow cites seems to contradict his point. It concludes as below:

      "- Architects are seen as relatively easy to work with by members of the public; the
      relatively low use of architects’ services among the general public does not reflect a
      belief that architects are difficult or unpleasant to work with. Indeed, most people—and
      especially those who have or are inclined to work with architects—think architects are
      relatively agreeable and collaborative in their working relationships.

      "-But while the public generally thinks architects provide essential skills and services, they
      are torn about whether these skills are worth the perceived cost and difficulty of hiring
      an architect"

      Aside from a few starchitects, most architects do seem to try hard to provide places that suit the public interest. Maybe the public doesn't feel architectural design is worth the price; I think the same could be said of the services of any educated professionals. No one likes spending money.

      Again to refer to the examples cited, here is the New Republic piece about the Make It Right foundation's homes in NOLA. Reading it I don't get a sense of dissatisfaction with the architecture so much as the conclusion that the foundation pursued ill-advised planning strategies to develop houses in a location people don't really want to live, and wasted some money making it fancier than needed. It doesn't sound like a disaster - just a project which failed to meet unrealistic expectations.

      That to me is the biggest problem for architecture - overpromising on results it really can't deliver. Architects who really care about public interest need to go beyond architecture and get involved in planning, community activism, and even local politics to encourage the kind of development that really meets civic needs. The case-by-case design of buildings is only a small part of solving the problems in our built environment.

      To the extent that public interest includes balancing the needs of the poor vs wealthy it will always engender a degree of community opposition. Public interest is controversial, hard to define, and often just unpopular, as one can observe following any political discourse.

      Jan 15, 15 2:52 am  · 

      the relatively low use of architects’ services among the general public 

      ... does not make for a statistically valid sample but clearly indicates how superfluous the practice is.

      Jan 15, 15 8:42 am  · 

      What I like best about this post is that whether or not I agree with everything you've stated, it excites me and makes me think. This isn't writing that just feeds me what I want to hear so I can bring it up in a conversation some day and have everyone around me nod in agreement; "I read on Archinect the other day ..."

      No, this is writing that begs for a second reading, a third reading, and more. It begs for dissection. It begs for response. It begs for action. Great post. Looking forward to reading more from you. 

      Jan 17, 15 2:49 pm  · 

      I truly appreciate that Everday.  More on the way! 

      Jan 17, 15 5:00 pm  · 

      In capitalist society - now global - economics are the driving force behind everything. MBAs are taught "economic efficiency": how to squeeze costs to maximize profits. This results in exactly the conditions we have today: massive unemployment, price competition in every aspect of society from manufacturing (outsourced to slave labor countries) to labor (outsourced, or imported from other countries, or subsidized [WalMart, etc.]) to services (fees for architecture). Value engineered is value added, but only where value is measured by return on investment.

      The value systems of profit and quality (as measured on a civil / humane / environmental scale) are essentially diametrically opposed. That's what's missing from this piece and from our society. I'd like to see this piece expanded to incorporate this reality, as that is the only way that we will be able to rationally explore strategies for change.

      Jan 18, 15 12:02 pm  · 

      Miles, I agree and disagree.

      I felt very much the same as Vincent when I started and I had a subscription to ENR instead of some architectural magazine, but was re-reading all my theory anthologies on architecture (ockman, nesbit, hays, etc...) same time...long subway rides.

      This flat out rejection of a capital society is naive and ignorant, and I think Vincent calls out this obvious stance by many "design professionals" and "acadamia" - the fluffy world of financially supported yet in denial world of academics....  Again, there is a lot we do as architects that has good value, but because we want a pure system - one or the other, we've given up work we could just as easily do - Construction Management, Marketing, minor Engineering, etc...

      The CAD/CAM trend to produce is closer to craft than you think, and the attempt to become Design/Build is really an attempt at becoming Architects again.

      But as you note, and I agree, the MBA's have taken over everything, I mean everything...I learned at a credit earning floor discussion at Janos Spitzer Flooring, that apparently the hedge fund guys got into sourcing wood for flooring, meaning Quality went to shit for the sake of Quantity...

      So yeah Quality has gone to hell in a hand basket, but it's not totally the MBA's fault, if we spent more time in school trying to figure out how re-interject our craft into the process while managing quantity with the intent on quality, maybe we wouldn't be these outsiders complaining about our social neglect.

      Jan 18, 15 2:54 pm  · 

      Quality has an economic cost, and is one of many factors reduced to maximize profit. Until something other than money is valued, nothing else will have any value, except as a way to produce profit. 

      We're nearing the end game for capitalism. There is an article at Global Research that shows how pharmaceutical corporations are a model for the problems that plague us today.

      Jan 18, 15 10:25 pm  · 

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As architecture continues to lose members, it's ever-important to empower and give voices to those young designers in the field. This blog does exactly just that, seeking a powerful young voice among those with many more years in the profession.

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