The Yes Man
March 2nd, 2011
There is an interesting interview with Bjark Ingels up at ArchNewsNow that I would suggest reading (here). The precocious architect is being interviewed by Vladimir Belogolovsky (the interview originally appeared in the Russian magazine Tatlin), whom I assume to be a cranky old russian man fed up with everything going on in the world these days. Although off-putting to youngsters, those types of people frequently have great knowledge that we choose to ignore. I’ve done it many times. Older people aren’t necessarily always right about everything, but they’ve just seen so many more things – there’s power in history.
Anyway, back to the interview. The large introduction paints the portrait of Ingels (widely revered in architecture schools across the country) as a “yes man”, a term generally associated with mindless drones in some office building who say yes to all their superiors in the hopes of some promotion. But in this instance, the author is simply referring to Ingels’ desire to cooperate with all of his coworkers – “developers, investors, politicians, engineers, contractors, builders, and the public.” The author, amongst listing off the many awards Ingels has won for his (mostly) yet to be built work, points out that the young architect has had better success designing buildings that no one asked for, and then finding developers to work with him, rather than entering into international design competitions, which has been the traditional method for young architecture firms to get their work noticed on a large scale. Ingels prefers to find his own problems with the world, and then offer up his own solutions to those problems. Then, if you convince someone with lots of money that it’s everyone’s problem, they want a solution as well. A solution that you just happen to have waiting in the wings.
The interview itself is largely a background of the architect – where he went to school and why. I found Ingels’ depiction of architecture school interesting – “I would go out of the studio and see traffic, people, bicycles, shopping malls. I would go back to the studio and none of that would matter. It wasn’t my world.” He’s saying that his world is one of the pedestrian architect – concerned with everyday problems, the working (Dutch) man on his bicycle, the mother of three at the shopping mall. Not the philosophy of the architecture studio. A valid point indeed; I’m sure all architecture students have found themselves in this position at one point or another – I know I have. He also stresses his appreciation for Koolhaas (his employer/mentor), and how he learned from him that architecture can be an instrument of society, to spur on societal advancement through building.
This is a highly contested idea in the architecture world, and Belogolovsky comments on it at the end of the article with a quote from alternately revered and hated architect Peter Eisenman: “Architecture does not solve questions. On the contrary it generates new ones. It does not solve problems, rather it creates new ones.” Belogolovsky goes on to bemoan the fact that Ingels studied Koolhaas before Corbusier, but I think that’s his old man syndrome getting in the way. The Eisenman quote is fascinating: as an architect he can be quite puzzling, and as a philosopher somewhat off-putting. I think the question of architecture as social activism is mainly a philosophical one. Do I honestly think that a building can make people behave differently – better – towards one another? Not really. But I think architects NEED to believe that. They NEED to believe that what they’re building could make a difference in a perfect world. If you strive for idealism, and purvey that idealism in your message, it’s a suggestion for everyone else to do the same. That’s about as close as we’ll get to changing the world through architecture. Architecture can provide the setting for change, but people must provide the spark needed to create change. I would agree with Ingels that architects need to be in tune with contemporary society, and understand what people want out of buildings, but we must also not turn our backs on the philosophy of architecture. We must understand the subtleties of the art of building, and not turn into architectural politicians.