Architectural Blatherations

Why Architects Don't Like People

top rule

The Good Oil

People, it seems, get in the way of architects and architecture. Take a look through any of the glossy architectural magazines, those showcasing the talent, and one cannot but be struck by the absence of people in the photographs. The supreme exemplar is the recently published magnum opus, the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. Wherever possible it seems the photographers vacate the buildings and surrounds, to present the building as a pristine objet d'art, uncontaminated by users, clients and inhabitants.

More than ten years after Dr Garry made this bleedingly-obvious point in The Favored Circle; authors, pundits, and bloggers are claiming it as their own dazzling insight. Nice to have you on board, Dr Farrelly in your article of August 2007, and you too Mr Bruce Nussbaum, in your speech to Parsons in March 2007. But you could at least give us a credit! Is that too much to ask?

Architects are unsocial individuals

It comes down to psychology, it would seem. Architects do not seem to be very communally minded individuals. Fifty years ago, Donald MacKinnon conducted a whole battery of psychological tests on three test groups of architects: the average, the good and the exceptionally creative. None of the architects were especially sociable. All three of MacKinnon's groups regarded the architect's responsibility to society as unimportant.

His most creative group was not really that interested in interacting with other people at all, and when they were obliged to deal with others, their preferred method of interaction was giving orders to them. As the sociologist Dana Cuff found in her interviews of some eminent New York architects, they conceived of people as beholders, not willed agents. Remarkably, basic social notions such as community, family, friendship or work-relations were ill-defined in the minds of these architectural patricians. 1

Architects have unsocial theories

From this follows a second point, noted by Bill Hillier some time ago.2 He described the central problem in the theory of architecture as the determination of the abstract principles underlying built form. Once discovered, it is believed, these principles allow architects to design good architecture. Since Greek times it has seemed self-evident that these principles must be mathematical in nature. Sometimes the mathematics has been numerical, and sometimes geometric. The former leads to proportional and modular systems. Taking the latter route entails asserting that architecture must emulate the underlying geometrical order of nature, and tends to produce schemes for the analysis of finished forms. In either case the quest is for a naturalistic order, derived from the structure of the world, and profoundly supra-human.

The point is that theories of architectural form have hardly ever been social theories. I can only think of two exceptions: the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and the Modern Movement of the early twentieth. The former was an odd combination of reactionary romanticism and revolutionary socialism. Of the latter, the historian Spiro Kostoff remarked:

Modernist rhetoric waxed eloquent about the needs of users. It represented architecture as the vehicle of social welfare and set public housing issues as the highest priority of architecture. But there was no question of consulting with the user of the housing estate during the course of their design.… [U]sers did not know what they wanted or, more importantly, what they should have. Their collective needs, interpreted by the architect and the sponsoring agency, would be codified in the 'program'—as had been the case with hospitals, schools and prisons in the past. The fit might not be comfortable at first. The setting might appear alien to our habitual ways. The fault was with our habits. We would learn to adjust to the new Wohnkultur because it was based on rationally derived standards.… Architectural revolutions required the redesign of humanity. 3

So not only are architects not very social animals, neither are their theories. Really, nothing could be further from the truth than that the nobility of architecture has always rested on the idea that is a social art, as the Boyer report4 into architectural education described it.

The cycle of architectural theory

The history of architectural theory could be written as a cycle of formalistic theories, followed by a crisis of confidence, a search for external values to base a theory of form on, then slowly increasing introversion and formalism. Architectural theory has also historically aligned itself with philosophy rather than any of the social sciences. Academic and critical debates take place on the high ground of aesthetic theory. They are more congruent with the general cultural studies that the French do so well than with any form of Anglophone sociology, or even Anglophone philosophy, so architecture has looked to Europe for at least the past century to ground its intellectual content. Taking the postmodern as their own fond invention, architectural intellectuals have enthusiastically contributed to the now huge literature on that topic. Notions of text and discourse and the like pop up quite frequently, intellectually aligning architectural theory with literary studies more than anything else. Since, as the American sociologist Randall Collins has pointed out, sociology is an underdeveloped discipline in France, architectural theory is also sociologically impoverished.

1 D. Cuff, Through the Looking Glass: Seven New York Architects and Their People, in Architects' People, ed. R. Ellis and D. Cuff (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 64-102.

2 B. Hillier, Quite Unlike the Pleasures of Scratching: Theory and Meaning in Architectural Form, 9H : 7 (1985): 66-71.

3 S. Kostoff, Foreword, in Architects' People, xiii.

4 E.L. Boyer and L. D. Mitgang, Building Community (Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1996), 3).