This past May, the University of Texas at Dallas announced the groundbreaking for the new Crow Museum of Asian Art (covered in more detail on p. 8), which generated much discussion within the TxA Publications Committee. Morphosis’ renderings of the project depict a formally adventurous design, an approach for which the New York-based firm is well known. Enthusiasm around the project was counterbalanced with reservations — and questions. In an era that is riddled with “wicked problems” like climate change, social injustice, and political instability, is there still a place for formally driven architecture? Is it out of step with the magnitude of our problems, or is it exactly what we need — an injection of lightness and inspiration?
These are some of the questions that inspired this issue, and the answers suggested are full of complexity and contradiction, to borrow Robert Venturi’s phrase. They are inextricably connected to the origins of the profession, how it is defined today, and the ongoing challenge of how architects communicate their value to the public.
The architectural profession as we know it today is relatively young. For most of human history, there was no division of labor between those who designed and those who constructed buildings. Cities largely arose organically, an eclectic mix of structures developed by craftsman and builders of various trades. But this all began to shift with the Renaissance as the domain of the master builder was divided into two components: design, a practice of the mind rooted in the liberal arts tradition, and the physical construction of the building executed through manual labor. (It’s also worth noting that the term “liberal arts” originates from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” The liberal arts were so named because their purpose was not to make money; they were thus to be undertaken by members of the upper class, or “free men.”) The design and construction of cities shifted from a grassroots endeavor to one organized by the wealthy.
The Enlightenment, with its focus on the development of scientific knowledge, split the design and planning of buildings into increasingly specialized fields: engineering, which focused on the technical aspects of building, and architecture, whose domain became concentrated around aesthetics, leaving the role of the architect ambiguous and our work a rarified luxury service that remains largely irrelevant to the general public.
In the 2014 New York Times article “How to Rebuild Architecture,” authors Steven Bingler (an architect) and Martin C. Pedersen (an architectural journalist) stated: “Architecture’s disconnect is both physical and spiritual. We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand. In the meantime, we’ve ceded the rest of the built environment to hacks, with sprawl and dreck rolling out all around us.”
Ouch. So how to remedy the situation? A couple of approaches come to mind (and there are likely many others!) for how architects might better articulate their value. One is to expand services into a design-build or even a develop-design-build model (as Root Architects have done with Working Capitol — see p. 76), the latter in particular allowing architects to directly shape the development of our cities — but with one major caveat: Architects must do so in a way that embraces local context and engages communities. As interdisciplinary thinkers, architects are well-positioned to play a part in tackling the aforementioned wicked problems. However, we must also acknowledge the Eurocentric modernist bias under which most of us were trained that has led to a host of environmental problems and alienation of the general public.
Secondly — and this is a tough one — we must also become unabashed advocates of beauty, aesthetics, and well-being. This is tough because these are qualities and conditions that currently are not highly valued in our society, where cheap and fast at any cost remains the prevailing mantra. Beauty and well-being are integral to our experience as humans, yet until the fundamental value of humanity — in all its forms — is recognized, the inspirational and numinous will remain subject to the chopping block. The measurement of success must evolve beyond profit as the sole benchmark of success. Granted, qualitative success is much harder to measure, and it will require not just a small shift in thinking but rather an entirely new paradigm. It’s a tall order. Our best bet is to remain empathetic and to embrace our role as champions of beauty, humanity, and our environment. And the first step is developing a strong and inspiring image of what a better world can look like.