Do we have unrealistic expectations for architecture?


As a profession and, even as a society? There seems to be the hope that architecture can solve all our social ills, be spectacularly beautiful, represent our highest levels of intellectual discourse, and express the innermost selves of our designers.

And, the thing is, I don't think I'm really exaggerating. In schools, in the popular press, and in architectural theory books, architecture is elevated to some sort of exalted status, akin to some kind of religion. Yes, there are some amazing buildings out there - some which have stood the test of time, or deeply changed our experience of culture and of our cities. But, honestly, in my mind these are the exception rather than the rule. From what I've seen, most commissions are actually quite humble and everyday. 

Anyways, seeing as we set the bar so high, it's no wonder that many aspiring architects drop out along the way, when they realize that architecture is just another business - driven by a bottom line, with customers to cater to and bills to pay. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with the practice necessarily (although it seems to have it's fair share of issues), more that our collective expectations seem to be out of line with the reality. There doesn't seem to be as much of a reality check for graduating engineers, doctors, or teachers. In most other professions people generally seem to know what they're getting themselves into: they're getting a nice, interesting 9-5 job... They aren't under the impression that they will be intellectual polymath superheroes upon graduation!

So, would you agree with my perspective that our expectations for architecture might be unrealistic? Perhaps, do you think it's necessary to keep the bar so high that architects aim high and masterpieces like the Sagrada Familia come around every once in awhile? Or do you think the field could use a little sobering up?

Jun 3, 14 10:22 am

We should all join AA (Architect's Anonymous) and go through their 12-step program!

Jun 3, 14 10:37 am

ncarb is going to fix that by letting students become architects.  the 'market' will be able to get rid of the boring architects then.

Jun 3, 14 11:22 am

I don't think it is a done deal to allow licensure upon graduation.  I think that there is a lot of backlash coming from that.  Even the AIA recognizes it isn't logical to do.

Jun 3, 14 11:25 am

Jdparnell, its like that in many developed countries and it works fine.  

Curt, the market won't get rid of boring architecture because developers are the ones really calling the shots and that's what they want.  The market will however self regulate new grads from being able to build anything bigger than a small house until years and years of experience.  

You old dudes.  Smh.  

Jun 3, 14 11:39 am
Non Sequitur

what, you mean I can't cure cancer with my pimp designy-architectural god-like powers?

Jun 3, 14 11:44 am

2013.10.06 11:35
Read earlier: "...locale and history have simultaneous real and fabled coordinates, anchored both in actuality and in the archetypes of innocence and experience, paradise gained and lost... ...the reader enters a fictive world with its own unique operating principles, in which past and future conjoin to form a continual present in which the extraordinary meet the commonplace to defamiliarize and release an aura of strangeness and wonder... ...traditional oppositions--realism and fantasy, fact and illusion, history and myth, reason and irrationality--coming together in a complex of significance."

[2007] "In the future, your whole life will be a phone call." [Gosh, that now reminds me of Her.]

2014.02.03 09:47
"In the future, all education will be an advertisement."

"In the future, every generation will be defined by product placement."

2014.02 18 13:54
In the future, some world organization will survey every person on the planet with the question:
Outside of your own profession (if you have one), what profession is most effective at and/or most capable of improving your life?
After the results are published, architects the world over are outraged that their profession was never mentioned, not even once.

Jun 3, 14 11:58 am

thwoomp, I think you're asking very good and realistic questions, and I agree with you, in general. 

I think it's important for us to BE passionate about the highest and best possibilities for how our discipline can affect the world, but I also think we need to be realistic about the differences between ideals and practicalities. 

This is partly why in my ProPractice courses we emphasized ethics so highly.  If we want to be an ethical discipline within a local and global community we *have* to explore and define for ourselves what an ideal version of our discipline can accomplish.  That gives us direction on the path, even as we make decisions that diverge from that path.  I've said here often that while my personal philosophy is deeply based in ideal uses of materials, I understand that in practice those ideals might *only* be able to met in something small like how I handle the termination of a tile corner.

We have to find the moments of idealistic beauty in the project wherever we can, while also acknowledging that architecture almost always only springs from a business relationship therefore is influenced by many, many other non-idealistic forces.

Jun 3, 14 12:41 pm

Related to what Donna said, I think it's a matter of scale.  I always tended to agree with Colin Rowes idea of the "pocket utopia", but I would even take it a step further/smaller to the scale of the "utopian fragment".  Can our grand schemes be scattered throughout the shallows of the mundane into small fragments of an impossible totality?   I would say yes.  I would also say that these moments- from a small fountain, a perfect door detail, a flawless joint, a small garden, will shine even brighter in contrast.  Architecture is a fantasy filtered into reality.  I have learned to appreciate the small moments that filter through.  For this to happen, the fantasy must be alive but not overbearing.  

Jun 3, 14 1:16 pm

Does an increasingly insular culture breed increasingly insular thinking?

Jun 3, 14 1:19 pm

Isn't it interesting that when you create that "perfect" space, that beneath the surface of fantasy, lies incredible pragmatism? What's I'm saying is that although once finished, the space can gain critical acclaim, at minimum, it's still a composition of studs and gypsum board.... 

Jun 3, 14 1:28 pm

I'm a landscape architect so I work mostly outdoors, and, at this point have managed to be in a practice that focused on public/institutional clients.  We try to create the type of spaces that encourage interaction (doctor/patient, student/teacher, neighbors, etc)  by choice of canopy, seating, spacing of walks.  Using mostly native plant palettes we strive to bring recognition to a place's natural habitat and it's seasonal beauty.  The hope is that these interactions can build stronger communities, but all we do is attempt to maximize the potential for these interactions.

Donna - I'm glad to hear the ProPrac ethics emphasis, I know some programs have it as an integral part of the curriculum.  In engineering we're tested on ethics as part of the PE exam and it is also covered in our law courses ('legal' vs 'ethical' is always a curious discussion).

Jun 3, 14 1:46 pm

Architecture is no more than what Corbu said it was:


You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these three materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly, you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: 'This is beautiful.' That is architecture.


Imagine if it was:

You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build a new inclusive society where all social and institutional ills have been righted....

nope. I think expectations have completely run away from us as a profession.

Jun 3, 14 3:12 pm

True, but Corbu was also kind of disillusioned with his grand utopian schemes.  

Jun 3, 14 3:22 pm


Jun 3, 14 3:27 pm

jla-x, yes - that is what I am saying. Corbusier never would have said that (the second quote) - the idea is patently ridiculous. Somehow, though, it is what is being taught, perpetuated, and fantasized about in academia.

Jun 3, 14 3:44 pm

Corbu was also kind of disillusioned with his grand utopian schemes.  

He's not the only one.

Jun 3, 14 6:17 pm

In my mind architects can only reach those lofty goals when they are part of a solid team who share similar values and expectations.

A great client, thoughtful designer, and an experienced builder do actually have a chance to produce great things; as individuals though, they are kind of stuck. 

Jun 5, 14 4:57 pm

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