Monday, February 17, 2014

Pay Attention

Royal Ontario Museum
Daniel Libeskind
Toronto, Canada
Hello Everyone:

Recently I was going through my dropbox folder and I found this article by Kaid Benfield, published on October 28, 2013 in The Atlantic Cities titled "Has Architecture Lost Touch With the People?"  Interesting question to ponder.  I thought it would be an interesting topic consider and would dovetail nicely into the subject of a lecture I'm planning to attend tomorrow evening at the USC School of Architecture on "What Not To Build?"

The architecture profession is a funny one.  It straddles the line between fine art and functional art.  I'm not going to get into a whole discussion about the difference between the two because there's been enough written about the subject.  Suffice it to say, architects seem to intent on making an artistic statement, rather as the compliant alleges, serving the people.  Kaid Benfield uses his article to figure out to what degree, is the this charge true.  Have architects become so preoccupied with being artistes that they've forgotten that to listen to the actual users of the buildings and places they're supposed to serve?  Let's consider the evidence.

Royal Ontario Museum interior
This issue was brought into focus by Christine Outram, "senior interventionist" at Deutsch L.A., in Medium article titled "What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don't or Why I Left the Architecture Profession." (  The story is a short but stinging attack on contemporary architecture.  In it, Ms. Outram writes,

In legal terms, an architect is the all seeing, all knowing, building professional.  You are liable for anything that goes wrong with a building but if someone just hates the spaces you design?  If someone feels uncomfortable, or cold, or scared?  Well there's no lawsuit for that...The problem is that architects seem to pray at the feet of the latest hyped-up formal language.  I dare you. Flip through an architectural magazine today.  Find any people in the photographs? I didn't think so. Find plenty of pictures that worship obscure angles an the place where two materials meet?  You betcha.

Interior of Starbucks on 1st and Pike
Seattle, Washington
Christine Outram contrasts "architecture" (in quotes by Kaid Benfield) with the coffee place behemoth Starbucks. Ms. Outram writes, "This really hit home for me when I read a recent article on the design of Starbucks stores." In the article Ms. Outram refers to, the author writes,

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted out o fa coffee shop.  The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee, what the consumer sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.

The need for a place of relaxation and belonging led Starbucks to make a number of important design decisions.  Love or hate Starbucks, you can't argue with their immense success.  When was the last time you came across an empty Starbucks.  Personally speaking, the one near my apartment is always packed.

University of the District of Columbia
Washington D.C.
  In response to Christine Outram's article for Medium, Kaid Benfield writes, "Once I got past the holier-than-thou tome of Outram's article, I did see some truth in it. My very first article for the blog contained a photo...of a vast open plaza not far from my home that was dreary architecture, and nothing if not depressing..."  Mr. Benfield qualifies his criticism of the plaza of the University of the District of Columbia by stating, "But at least that plaza, part of a university complex that suffers from 1970s Brutalist design, was apparently well-intentioned."  Brutalist designed well-intentioned?  I suppose it's a matter of the eye of the beholder.

The "Crystal" Royal Ontario Museum
Toronto, Canada
Then again, some buildings appear to be so blatantly aggressive and shocking instead of serving the public.  One example is the deconstructionist "Crystal," a six-year-old wing of the Royal Ontario Museum.  In Mr. Benfield's not so unbiased opinion, the addition "desecrates the original museum building to which it attaches.."  He does have a good point. The addition does dramatically stand apart from the original building, threatening to overtake the smaller older building.  It's more of a distraction then compliment to the original edifice.  Mr. Benfield admits that his appraisal of the "Crystal" is based on his own preference. That being said, Mr. Benfield believes that the issues associated with contemporary architect are more subtle than Christine Outram is willing to admit.

Gare d'Avignon
Paris, France
 In a sort of "some of best friends are..." type statement, Kaid Benfield states that he knows lots of architects that are doing "...good, humanist, contextually sensitive design."  In her article, "What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don't or Why I Left the Architecture Profession," Christine Outram makes passing reference to Jan Gehl Architects, "...particularly known and respected for their ethnographic techniques..."  Mr. Benfield cites Gare d'Avignon in Paris, France as a "highly original 'statement'" building that isn't "...inherently anti-human. He writes, "It's as much sculpture as rail depot, but it also is an utter delight to visit or pass through."  Mr. Benfield also cites the  modernist, yet reserved, Embassy of Finland for its clean lines, living wall and park-like setting celebrating nature and all things Scandinavian.  He holds the East Wing of Washington's National Gallery of Art in the same level of esteem.

Street entrance to the Starbucks at the Farmers Market
Los Angeles, Ca
Kaid Benfield takes Christine Outram to task for comparing retail to other types of architecture. Corporate architecture is cold, soulless, devoid of life.  The point of establishments like Starbucks is to attract customers and get them to spend money.  This is something that the coffee shop giant does very well.  It's not architecture in capital letters but it works.  Mr. Benfield asks us to consider the phenomenal success of the suburban indoor shopping mall.  The typical exterior of a mall is not very attractive as are the parking lots but the interior is something else, designers have figured out what the people want.  Once again, in Mr. Benfield's not so unbiased opinion, the results of the designers' research haven't been good for America and as an architectural form, the mall is in decline. Even Starbucks may prove to have an expiration date.  Mr. Benfield observes that the chain has paid close attention to the customer's in-store experience, which aid its longevity.  Finally, when it comes to less attention getting buildings, the issue gets fuzzier.  Architects work for clients not themselves.  Mr. Benfield rightly points out that for an architect to turn out good, humanist architecture, he/she needs an equally good, humanist client.

Rockefeller Plaza ice rink
Do architects have a responsibility to the public?  Good question.  To what extent do architects have a responsibility to, not only their clients but also to the public in context to the sacrosanctness of private property in the United States.  There are laws that recognize the public's interest in property matters, hence zoning laws. What about interest beyond what the law allows?  What about ethical concern?  Kaid Benfield observes that Christine Outram suggests that the architect does have an ethical duty to the public interest and the public is better off when he/she acts ethically.  In some cases, such as courthouses, part of the civic plaza, should be designed with the public interest in mind.  A private residence in the middle of a remote lot?  May be not so much.  What about the case of a private office building on a downtown corner or in the case of Rockefeller Center, private property intended for public use?  Nearly all commercial, government, and institutional building, at the exterior portions, becomes part of the collective experience in varying degrees.  Mr. Benfield postulates that there should be an architectural code of ethic that recognizes the architect's responsibility to commons.  He backs his argument by stating, "Outram's article suggests that an important part of an architects practice should be taking the pulse of the public, or at least a wide swath of building users..."

One answer comes from The Charter of the New Urbanism, developed entirely by architects.  While it does not address the importance of public engagement, instead, it provides a set of guidelines that govern the relationship between the built environment, the people, and the public realm.  The manifesto has been superseded by an "urban-to-rural Transect," as a way to translate the Charter's principles into  more precise guidelines based on the site's context within the larger region.  New urbanism has its naysayers.  Environmentalists have argued with practitioners over the latter's disdain for environmental regulations and often non-critical approach to expansionist greenfield development.  Modernists have a problem with some the new urbanist's adherence to traditional forms.  Historicism is the bane of modernists.  Planners sometimes have issues with the perceived rigidity of the doctrine's principles.  Mr. Benfield concludes that new urbanism is "...the best-articulated attempt out there to relate architect to the commons and to a set of humanist standards, until someone comes up with a better one."

Ghirardelli Square
San Francisco, Ca
 Kaid Benfield cited a recent MIT report that stressed the importance of process and engagement on good place making.  This dovetails nicely onto Ms. Outram's complaint that architect don't listen to the users of the spaces they design.  The report, released by the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, focuses not only architecture but also on the design and evolution of public space.  The study is mostly case analyses that present some common elements of successful process and engagement.  Mr. Benfield remarks, "Outram no doubt would wish (as I do) that more architects would read the MIT paper, which stress in a chapter title that "placemaking is about the making."  Amen.  The authors of the study side in favor of collaborative community engagement, something that hasn't always guided the process in the United States.  In the accompanying press release (excerpted here):

Design of public spaces during much of the 19th and 20th centuries was guided by industrialization, auto-centered planning and urban renewal.  Top-down planning, centralization of control and land use regulations eliminated community voices and ultimately, fractured the bond between communities and public places...

Further, the release places emphasizes collaborative engagement leads to better stewardship of place and community:

The relationship of places and their communities is not linear, but cyclical and mutually influential.  Places grow out of the needs and actions of their formational communities, and in turn shape the way these communities behave and grow.  This mutual influences of community and place creates a virtuous cycle of placemaking that supports the mutual stewardship of place and community and the creation of civic infrastructure necessary for health societies and collaborative problem solving.

Mr. Benfield notes that the case studies prepared in the report were put together with the assistance of architects who were good listeners and collaborators as well as contextually sensitive designers.  Of course.

Northgate Development
Thornton Creek, Seattle, Wa
Who is listening to whom?  Mr. Benfield answers his question by citing his previously discussed Mariposa complex in Denver, Colorado, which replaced aging public housing. Working with the Denver Housing Authority, Mithun Architects conducted a "cultural audit" using what the firm describes as, "a methodology of documentation and rigor that uses interview, survey, and in-depth market analysis to provide a contextual community snapshot."  The audit was based on open-ended interviews of residents and visitors, producing a summary of community opinion regarding necessary services, features, and future aspirations.  These findings became the guidepost for what followed.  The team also conducted a health impact assessment covering not just the immediate property but also nearby areas.  Data on a broad range of health issues were assembled from surveys, public meetings, public agency data, and interviews.  Three different brain storming sessions involving planners and community leaders were conduct to inform the project on environmental and transportation issues.  Mr. Benfield uses the example of Plan El Paso by Dover Kohl architecture and urban design firm as an example of good listening by architects.

Another example of good listening by architects is Thornton Place, a mixed-used development in Seattle, Washington.  This project received accolades from the community for its sensitivity to community needs, bringing to life a long-buried stream and green space in a neighborhood previously accentuated by parking lots and other auto-centric features.  There are other examples that Mr. Benfileld goes on to cite other examples, enthusing about the future.

Kaid Benfield concludes by agreeing with Christine Outram that there are some insensitive, uncaring architects out in the world, some of them highly regarded.  He also agrees with her inference that architects, like the rest us, have an obligation to society.  Where they differ is on the role of the architect as part of the solution.  Mr. Benfield sees architects as both part of the solution and part of the problems.  Mr. Benfield states, "If your values are humanist, and you're not noticing and excited by the work that some of these great (an I hasten to add, environmentally responsible0 architects and designers are doing, then maybe you're the one who isn't paying attention."

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