In Response: Are Architects Really The Last People Who Should Shape Our Cities?

Are architects really the last people who should shape our cities?

The following is in response to an article published by Jonathan Meades in The Guardian on September 18, 2012, “Jonathan Meades: Architects are the last people who should shape our cities.”

I will start out this commentary by disclosing that I am a designer with a Masters in Architecture who has several years experience working in the field. I currently work as a communications consultant for the design profession, and consider it my life’s work and an enormous task to bridge the gap between designers and the users of the places we create. While I am biased towards the necessity of talented, inspired designers and architects, I will be as objective as possible in my response to Mr. Meade’s article.

I often hear complaints that architects do not explain their work well enough – think doctor, lawyer, electrician, or any other specialized field speak. It’s frustrating not only for the person trying to understand what we do, but for the architect who listens to assumptions that the product is a singular entity that was plopped down in its location with a wish and a prayer and an egotistical smirk. I would argue that what architecture needs is better communication. Publishing photographs and articles does not mean architecture will ‘seep into the collective’, it means that designers now have a forum within which to explain what they do and why they do it. It’s a delight to be able to Google images of L’Unite, and read simultaneously the theory and philosophy behind the design, and how successful it remains today. This would not be possible without communication. It is the glue that holds the profession together.

Le Corbusier’s ‘Unite d’Habitation’

There is a universal truth that all architects know, but is generally a very challenging thought to express: that architecture is actually a sum of parts. A building is not ‘an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself’, as Meade boldly states. It is the connection point between multiple disciplines that is the starting block for future transformation and morphology, which the architect actually has little control over. The best architects understand this and use their projects as ways to test theory, understand material, and/or achieve certain agendas based on a myriad of fields. This could mean understanding the effects of spatial arrangements on prison inmates, or environments that aid hospital patients in healing more quickly and getting back home. Designing for the unknown future is an enormous challenge, and one that architects toil over completely.

At the beginning of a design project, the architect is generally either approached by the client, or enters a design competition. Meade states that, “with the exception of those places where they have been granted the license to do what they yearn to do – to start from zero – architects have less influence than they believe.” Trust me, architects understand the levels of influence that they actually have. The gray area, however, is what that level actually is. No project starts from zero. Ever. There is always something there; much the way a painter puts a layer of color on the canvas before beginning to manifest their creations. For an architect, there is the past, the present, and the future. Even if nothing has ever been built on that site, ecology has been transforming the site for millennia, and will continue to do so. The challenge for architects remains to be able to separate oneself from the art. A building is as much a utilitarian product as it is a work of art, and different buildings are successful for different reasons.

There is an alarming statistic that I’ve heard–that only 2% of the world is designed by a trained architect, landscape architect or planner. This is alarming not because we egotistically believe that we should be the only people who deserve to lay a hand on the built world, but that we understand spatially what increasing population and decreasing space means. Despite what you may think, architects (most of the time) do not haphazardly place a building down and call it a day. There is a layering process that is involved in every aspect of design. Meade describes that, “architects cannot devise analogues for what has developed over centuries, for generation upon generation of amendments. They cannot understand the appeal of untidiness and randomness, and even if they could they wouldn’t know how to replicate it.” Architects rarely desire to directly replicate. There is a fundamental understanding that architecture is actually a framework that allows the world to act around and in it. Infrastructure in cities is a connection into another system, and that system is a connection into another one, and so on. Tidiness to architects and planners is a system that works – a system that moves people from one place to another; outdoor space that people feel comfortable spending time in; safe and livable homes, where people can grow and expand their families; and working space that suits the needs of the user, etc. It is not an isolated profession, and modern communication capabilities are finally letting architecture ‘out of the box’.

What is interesting about Meade’s opinion is that he hits the nail on the head in terms of dissecting the complication of the term ‘place’. What he does not construct, however, is the capacity to understand that architects know this. He states that, “New buildings are simple: imagination and engineering. New places are not.” If this were true, the architectural profession would be obsolete. Architecture is about synthesizing the multiple, and because of this, the tangible product is always morphing and transforming. Creating architecture IS creating place. What that place is is so varied and objective that calling it an autonomous discipline is absurd. To think otherwise is naïve.

“Architecture is about synthesizing the multiple, and because of this, the tangible product is always morphing and transforming. Creating architecture IS creating place.”

Perhaps the most bizarre part of Mr. Meade’s anti-architect rant is his commentary on brownfield sites. He claims that sites that are ‘decaying’ should be a source of inspiration and left alone, but architects only look at those areas as potential jobs. He describes that what an architect sees, “blindly and banally, is not richness and severality. But, rather something that is crudely classified as a brownfield site, that is tantamount to being classified as having no intrinsic worth. It is a non-place where derivative architecture can gloriously propagate itself with impunity. A brownfield site is a job opportunity, a place where the world can be physically improved. The architectural urge doesn’t acknowledge the fact that it’ll all turn to dust.” It is so much more than that. Architects are always looking at new ways to improve spaces (environments, urban and rural) for generations to come. This does not only include generations of people, but generations of plants and animals. It is our duty as stewards of this planet to preserve it the best we can. Unfortunately, we are in a time now where the population is increasing and available space for people to live is decreasing. Because of this, new and more inventive ways of space planning are essential. Because of decisions made in the past, there are areas on the planet that are decaying and in disarray. Designers look at these sites as places that over time can be nursed back to health, and remain areas for all species to enjoy. Our desire is to create spaces that will stand the test of time, for the benefit of future generations. That, inherently, will mean a layered urban archeology.

Richard Haag’s ‘Gas Works Park’ in Seattle, Washington.

Reading Mr. Meade’s commentary made me angry. I will fully admit that. There are parts that are blatantly wrong and quite cynical. My hope is not to change his mind, but to teach people that architecture is a field which bridges the politics, environment, people and culture of a place and attempts to create spaces that do more good than harm, and give the user a healthy environment within which to live and work. To separate ourselves from projects we have worked so hard on and invested so much time into is difficult, which is why some designers go so far as to have input on every piece of furniture and every painting. We photograph to document, to learn, to teach, and YES, to continue to get work. There is, however, never a doubt that once the last piece of material is put into place, the architect steps away and lets nature take its course.

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