BAD FAITH 2

I am deeply appreciative of the seriousness and directness of those who have commented on the BAD FAITH post so far. Each deserves an individual response. Still, one underlying question is clear: if architects are not to be the mere servants of developers, what are they to do? Because I have raised that question, I feel obliged to attempt an answer.

 I mention Cedric Price in my post. His is certainly a fine model of practice to follow. He was not independently wealthy, nor did he live like a poor man. He enjoyed excellent cognac and fine cigars, and never wanted for them. He had a fine marriage. His circle of friends and colleagues included the best and the brightest. And he turned down work he didn’t believe in. He chose carefully, not making more than enough money to go forward with his work and his life. Oh, and he also had a sense of humor, and some perspective on himself, which enabled him to see things more fully the round. However, he is far from the only architect to uphold high standards in an often venal profession.

 If you look at the lives of the best architects of the preceding generation, you’ll discover that the esteem in which they are held had little to do with blockbuster developer projects, though they were often approached to design them, and just as often refused, because they believed that the critical issues of architecture lay elsewhere. Wright was always broke (by his own admission), because he devoted a large proportion of his time to questions of houses and housing and cities and researching the relationships between architecture, technology and building crafts. Le Corbusier, the same. While the “plan Voisin” was commissioned by a developer, it was his program, and not the developer’s, that prevailed. The number of urban studies he did for minimal or no fees is astounding. His research into typologies brought him little money, but just enough to carry on. Mies fared rather better financially, but not so much. His fees for the Seagram Building and 860 Lake Shore Drive no doubt financed his research into public housing projects and his conceptions of ideal civic space. We could go on—Louis Kahn focused on public buildings of symbolic importance, where the integrity of the architecture resonated with ethical ideals of civic life. He wore rumpled suits and dreamed of a better city enabled by architecture. One can agree or not with the viewpoints or the architecture of each of these architects, but their devotion to the principle of architecture as a primary instrument of human agency is indisputable. These were architects who took personal responsibility for the place of architecture in the complex human world. And they were the role models for my generation.

 Something happened in the 1970s. These and a few other exemplars of architectural thought and practice had died. The brief flowering of political populism of the 60s was being translated increasingly into commercial projects. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown wanted architects to “learn from Las Vegas.” Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter advocated “collage” cities, made up of implicitly commercial fragments of different, even conflicting parts. It was an intellectually exciting time, as ‘paradigm shifts’ always are. The marketplace of competing capitalism was equated with freedom of choice, hence social equality. Architectural thought, indeed its ideals, began to shift from singular visions of urban space to more commercially viable projects. The real-estate developer emerged as the best social agent for a burgeoning consumer society. For younger architects the architectural role models were not the ‘old masters’ like Mies or Wright or Corbusier, but corporate firms like Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), offices with mainly commercial projects, who were servicing the rapid expansion of consumerism. Not only architects got on board, but municipal governments, as well, with the establishment of various public ‘development’ agencies and commissions, and giving ‘tax breaks’ and other financial inducements to private developers. The real-estate boom of the 80s was on and, with some stumbles, has continued up to the recent crash.

The point here is not that the good old days were better and we should somehow go back to them. The world has changed too much and ‘going back’ never works, even if it were possible. But there are things to be learned from the past about the practice of architecture, ways of thinking and acting that might inspire us, bring a new sense of purpose, and give us renewed energy to go forward. As much as I dislike lists of dos and don’ts (they have a musty, superego-ish sniff to them), in this case it may help me get to the point. So, for architects, a short list:

 Don’t accept a commission (or a job) unless you believe that it makes a positive contribution to your community—however you define ‘community,’ and however you may define ‘positive.’

 Don’t convince yourself that taking on a project you have no such belief in is just a ‘stepping stone’ to projects you can believe in. It won’t work, and never has.

 Do devote as large a portion of your time as you can to independent research and experimentation about problems that you think are important to architecture and your community. Don’t wait for a client to ask for it—you are the only agent for such work. Be prepared to finance it from your own pocket. Then publish the results so they can be available to as many people as possible.

 Do keep your office as small as possible. Creating a large ‘overhead’ is a sure road to taking on projects and clients you don’t want, but ‘must’ accept to pay your employees.

 Do remember that your responsibility as an architect is first to the wider community you inhabit, and only then to your clients. Don’t accept clients who do not share this understanding.

 Do remember that what you do as an architect—at whatever level you practice—is vitally important to the field as a whole and to your community. Don’t imagine that what you do doesn’t matter, or is too small to make a difference.

 There is one thing I failed to mention about the best architects of the former generation: they were all teachers. Wright had the Taliesin Fellowship; Mies the Bauhaus and the Illinois Institute of Technology; Kahn the University of Pennsylvania. Price had no fixed academic affiliation, but taught constantly at various schools in the UK and Europe. These architects believed in the coming generation, devoted much energy to it, earning a modicum of money with which they could carry on. They taught by the example of their work, but also by their direct engagement with young people aspiring to be architects. I cannot think of a happier form of practice.

LW


About this entry