The Collectivization of Architecture

 Posted by on 20 July 2004 at 2:19 pm  Uncategorized
Jul 202004

On occasion, I hear Ayn Rand criticized for creating unrealistic villains in her novels. “Oh, no one is really like that!” they object. Yet real life examples, often worse than the fiction created by Ayn Rand, are not too hard to find. Luke Milner was good enough to alert me to the present example, in the form of a open letter to the NY Times from the folks at the Project for Public Spaces. It could have come straight from the mouths of a slightly more modern version of Ellsworth Toohey’s “Council of American Builders” from The Fountainhead — particularly given the obligatory swipe at Howard Roark.

The letter concerns the Project for Public Spaces’s hopes for the new architecture critic of the NY Times. They want someone who “could push the boundaries of what design is and, even more boldly, explore its deepest purpose.” But what does that mean? After a bit of sucking up to the Times, we are blessed with some hints of philosophy:

Both inside and outside the formal boundaries of architecture there is today a tremendous energy being devoted to rethinking how buildings, streets, and green spaces shape our lives, our communities, our economy, our democracy, and our sense of ourselves. The distinguishing feature of this new direction in design is the subtle but significant shift from the “project” to the “place.” This small recalibration in focus delivers an enormous change in results. When creating a place becomes the goal, then important questions about what happens all around and throughout the building or development move to the forefront. It’s a step away from the 20th Century vision of the architect’s work as an isolated triumph of aesthetic devotion (even fetishism) to a more inclusive 21st Century idea of the designer as part of a vibrant, messy, exhilarating process of creating a living, breathing community.

Notice the implicit and false accusation that traditional architects are, by virtue of their devotion to aesthetics, insensible to the needs of the people who will inhabit their buildings. It’s a nice example of a subtle false alternative: either form or function. The theme of the “messy” community is continued in the next paragraph:

In many ways this is more akin to the beginning of a social movement than an architectural movement, but its influence is being felt and reacted to by designers all over the country. There is a trickle-up effect at work here. So far, this new current of thought has been outside the range of most architecture critics. The brand-name architects doing big-ticket projects probably comprehend the escalating impact of these ideas to a much smaller degree than their less-insulated colleagues on the frontlines of the field — those trying to create comfortable but affordable inner city housing or suburban developments that enhance the integrity of nature and the spirit of community at the same time as fulfilling market needs.

The claim that the shift is more of “a social movement than an architectural movement” is quite apt, given what the letter says next about the sheer number of people that ought to have a say in the process of building:

Making this leap from project to place has profound implications for the profession. Architects lose the Howard Roark supremacy in setting out how things shall be. Ideas, decisions, and even inspiration will come from a wider assortment of sources, including people who live there, work there, or visit there. And a number of disciplines must be drawn upon to create places that meet the various needs of people using them. Architects, landscape designers, traffic engineers, community development advocates, and economic development authorities, among others, will be in the mix, jostling and debating about how to best make a place where people will want to be.

Ah yes, the state of architecture will be so very much improved when casual visitors to a place can make lasting decisions about the buildings in it! And adding “community development advocates” and “economic development authorities” to “the mix” will surely result in great leaps forward!

More seriously, anyone with half a brain knows how inefficient and stupefying committees are. But, as with so much else emanating from the left, the achievement of the apparent goal is not the point. The point is rather that everyone will participate, that everyone will have a say, that feelings will be expressed. In practice, all that means is that control will rest with the Ellsworth Tooheys.

Perhaps the most infuriating and pernicious section of the letter is the last, in which the opponents of the collectivization of architecture are discussed:

This is different. This is unprecedented. And it’s scary to some. It’s a new world, and the Times deserves a critic happy to let go of old idea formations in order to wade into the middle of it. Many critics today, however, take just the opposite tack–clinging to the heroic ideal of the architect as the master, and holding on for dear life to the traditional view of the architectural masterpiece as a triumph of abstract ideas and ideals.

Ah yes, any opposition to their grand and wonderful plans can only be reactionary conservativism! After all, they are in favor of progress and innovation! And what reasonable person could be opposed to that?!?

Frankly, I’m beginning to think that one very revealing indicator of intellectual honesty is fairness to the opposition. By “fairness,” I don’t mean charity, respect, or politeness to the opposition, but rather something far more narrow and minimal. I mean that the opposition is presented as having some particular view and arguments, even if bad and wrong, rather than merely some kind of emotional ejaculation. In this example, to use such sophistry in an obviously carefully written letter to the NY Times is quite revealing.

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