Reflections On A More Social Architecture
August 8th, 2011
Should we be concerned about the current economic impasse, which has slowed, if not halted altogether many architectural projects nationwide? Are recent developments such as the government deficit, fraudulent business acts, skyrocketing gas prices, growing unemployment numbers and general unrest around the world affecting architecture in any way? Should the rise of tangential design/build fields such as Interior Design, Construction-Management, Facilities-Management and so on be a warning sign that architecture’s role in society is precarious? A recent article “Starchitect High” in the Metropolis magazine by Christopher Hawthome (1.) about a recently completed high school in Los Angeles by the Austrian architect Wolf Prix and his firm, Coop Himmelblau, offered something to think about pertaining the role of architecture in contemporary society.
The article itself is much about an unconventional experiment attempted by Mr. Hawthome to criticize newly built architecture through the eyes of the users rather than his own. Without dwelling much on the detailed account of positive and negative opinions voiced by the students and faculty about their school, it is rather important and quite relevant to look at the underlying issues of the blatant irresponsibility, superfluous and profligate usage of resources by the public school system of L.A, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the architect Wolf Prix and architecture patron Eli Broad that paint a disturbing picture for architecture.
The article reveals that in a dire attempt to improve the social and community problems of over crowding in the public high schools of L.A, the LAUSD had launched a 20 billion-construction campaign. This noble gesture had called upon a local architect firm AC Martin Partners to design and build the Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 within a reasonable budget, but an impertinent involvement by billionaire Eli Broad transformed the project and basically handed it over to Prix. Hawthome writes that, “ (Broad) thought (the school) needed a more prominent and headline- grabbing designer.” Thus a project that was estimated to cost about $30 million ended up costing roughly $230 million. That is about 8 times over the original estimated amount. Such profligacy is simply unnecessary and unacceptable. Especially in a delicate economy. What message does this send to future architects? Does it mean that only famous architects can design great buildings and should we then design to achieve social status as well or might we design because we care about the world we live in? What about the community? Does it suggest to them that it’s okay to spend recklessly? As if to say, if the big banks are doing it, and the architect is doing it, they can do it as well. It is here that we can see the influences of money widening the gap of an already frayed relationship between architects and the society that they tirelessly strive to build for. If architects do not design consciously, practically, functionally, creatively and also economically, how different are they from commercial developers who grapple for the same money, status and power with ulterior motives. By continuing to build iconographic and signature-esque architecture, architecture suggests that social, political and economical needs of society are in a way irrelevant.
Vincent P. Pecora (2.) states that, “For most of its history, architecture has been a profession dependent upon close ties to wealth and power, even in realizing its minor dreams… The elite citizen, the corporation (whether religious or commercial), and the state have generally been the architect’s patron.” It is true that the ‘elite citizen’ has historically funded most significant and known architecture. If you think of any building that is recognizable worldwide, you can certainly trace it to some wealth or privilege. So the L.A high school satisfies the norm rather than a deviant according to Pecora’s statement. Only a handful of buildings defy this position by involving the needs of entire communities like the new Cambridge Public Library by AnnBeha Architects which sought the residents(citizens) of the City of Cambridge to participate actively before building it. Due to compromises made about the historical value of the old library and present socio-economical factors facing the city, it took a little longer to complete. But effort was worth it. The Cambridge community enjoys this public center now more than ever because their input was valued and thus included in the overall design. I don’t think a developer would have cared this much.
As students pursuing architecture, we at times struggle with a certain question. To whom is our architecture answerable? That is who benefits from our designed spaces? Do we design and build buildings for ourselves, the patron (professor) or the general public? This question is strangely avoided or it is simply never talked about by architects in the real world. Conversations tend to revolve around forms, functions and aesthetics which is undeniably vital in architecture. But what about the people who are to use these buildings?
Could it be that the implicit bond with the elite citizen subconsciously holds back architects from asking and being part of social dialogue? Could acknowledging this problem be a way out of the economic impasse? Can architects be active participants in the social, political, and economic discourse?
2. As quoted by Vincent P. Pecora in his essay, ‘Towers of Babel’ in “A Social Criticism of Architecture – Out of Site” edited by Diane Ghirardo.