The Good Oil
A fundamental difference exists between the typical architect and the elites who appear in the glossies and who are held up as exemplars. Typical architects are deeply concerned with building, and with clients. They design to satisfy clients. If the client isn't satisfied, they get a bad name.
The elites seek only images. The client or the user is the last person they want to satisfy. Their audience is the editors of the glossy magazines, the historians, and the jury committees of the grand prizes. No great architect ever lost their place in the history books because their clients and users despised their buildings. Who cares what they say?
Architectural distinction is decided by a surprisingly small circle of critics and opinion-leaders. From our own studies, we'd put this at no more than 500 people—in the entire Western world!
An added peculiarity is that most of these critics will have had no direct experience of the building they are praising or denouncing. Just think how odd this is, and how odd it is to be accepted as the norm.
How you would you feel about a movie critic who based his or her reviews on a reading of the script, and a look at some stills from the film—but never actually saw it? This is exactly how architectural critics work. They look at some drawings and some photographs. Only a tiny proportion ever visit the objects of their discourse. None of them spend days or weeks there, soaking up the atmosphere, nor listening to how the building's users regard it.
As a result, what the critics think about buildings is often at odds with what the people who work or live in them think. Consider, as a prime example, Richard Meier's Long Island courthouse in Central Islip, New York. This has won several awards. No doubt, as you read this, architecture students across the world are being shown slides that reveal its magnificence and splendour.
Typical praise came from the jury for the U.S. General Services Administration who gave it an Honor Award:
The light-filled, grand public spaces of the interior openly welcome you to a place where important human matters are deliberated.
The courthouse has a curiously low profile on Mr Meir's website: you have to go out of your way to find it. Perhaps Mr Meier was unsettled by an interesting 2001 article in slate.com by Mr Brent Staples. Mr Staples had been doing jury duty at this courthouse. He found the building daunting:
Do not worry about getting lost on the way to court. At 12 stories, this stark white structure is the largest in the county, visible from a great distance and unmissable in this flat, low-rise landscape. Meier's composition—the curves against the straight lines, all of it raised on a pedestal—is breathtaking from a distance. But the scale and the composition grow steadily more alienating as you approach this mammoth building on foot. The sense of menace is augmented by the raised concrete plaza that pedestrians must cross to enter the building. The plaza is blank, unadorned, and a tad fascistic in its effect. Crossing it on foot reminded me of that nightmare in which the dreamer runs furiously, getting nowhere.
He then makes what we think is a very important point:
This is penis-waving by the architect, his way of saying “not so fast—slow down and look at what I have done here,” while the visitor is belittled by the vast white bulk of the building.
There is no other occupation in which so much attention is paid to so few, the so-called ‘star system’ of architecture. In sociological terms, this is called strong stratification. About a hundred or so contemporary architects and their buildings are venerated and held as exemplars of the best in the profession. We have to agree with Mr Staples: most of these people are penis-waving. We strongly suspect that this is why so few women remain in the profession after graduation. Gratuitous attention-seeking is much more a masculine trait, and one that is at the basis of the upper-end of the occupation. Who, after all, invented the greatest phallic symbol of them all, the skyscraper? Whenever we hear of some new building declared ‘the world's tallest’, we always think that the architects and owners must have some sad sexual problem.
This might (just) be tolerable if the buildings treated people as people. Yet, time and again, we find these masculine signature buildings are inhumane. Here is Mr Staples again:
The great cylinder through which you enter the building conducts wind downward onto the plaza and into the rotunda itself. This effect was so pronounced in December that some of the doors were chained shut to prevent them banging open. Step inside the cylinder, and you encounter a vast, empty rotunda that soars up 180 feet. Eye-opening, yes. But heatable, no. During the time I spent in the building, the guards who manned the metal-detectors and the security booth were huddled around a space heater grumbling about the cold. Walk through the metal-detectors and you enter an even larger space, a vast central atrium that extends the full height of the building, revealing a cross-section of the floors above. This was meant to be a public space. But during my weeks in Central Islip, people seemed hesitant to congregate and tended to rush across the space as quickly as possible. This sense of urgency stemmed from the gargantuan emptiness above the atrium and from the absence of nooks in the room that might shelter intimate conversation.
We are forever astonished by the number of so-called ‘great’ buildings that are roundly despised by the people who have to live or work in them. Their complaints are never ventilated in the architectural press, nor in the studios in the architecture schools. No doubt the Central Islip courthouse will soon start appearing in contemporary architecture courses, but you won't hear anything like this being said:
The hallways, atrium, courtrooms, and judges' quarters are all soaring spaces. But our jury room had little majesty. The room was too small to accommodate the initial jury of 16—which included four alternates—and barely big enough to house the 12 who remained when the alternates were dismissed. We were reaching over each other for doughnuts, breathing uncomfortably in each others' faces, with no personal space to speak of. For relief from each other during the lunch break, many of us retreated to our cars in the parking lot.
Amazing. A building so oppressive that it drives people back to their cars. Nor will you hear stories like this:
The bathrooms just off the jury room (two toilets for 16 coffee-swigging adults) were inadequate and dirty after just a few days. Even the main bathrooms by the elevators were too small for the massive scale of the building. The jurors were scraping shoulders with nervous defendants and their lawyers, all vying for urinals, toilets, and a place to wash their hands. This congestion at the pissoir is a bad omen, given that the courthouse is not yet fully staffed and has yet to house one of those sensational trials that draws an audience from the four corners of the Earth. At least we learned where Mr. Meier found the space for that atrium and those soaring hallways: He chopped it out of the bathrooms.
A reader pointed us to our favourite British news source, The Guardian, which expressed similar sentiments in an article of October 14, 2006, discussing Britain's premier architectural award, the RIBA Stirling Prize. Citing Irena Bauman's book How to be a Happy Architect (Black Dog Publishing, 2007), the article said:
Winners of the prestigious Stirling prize for architecture, which will be announced tonight, have been lauded by architects but are often beset by faults and loathed by the people who use them, according to one of the government's design advisers.
Last year the judges were widely criticised for selecting the controversial new Scottish parliament building for the top prize in the face of a catalogue of problems that dogged its construction and forced it to go 10 times over budget.
Problems have also occurred at Peckham library, in south London, the winner in 2000. Librarians complain of dinginess inside and the fact that older people are put off from entering because it is on the fourth floor.
Many of the other buildings to scoop the prize have failed to live up to the praise heaped on them. Critics say architects have become detached from everyday life and are calling for a rethink of the prize so that buildings are judged on how well they stand up to use.…
Some of the most serious faults uncovered in the research were found in the first winner of the prize - Salford University's centenary building. John McKenna, its building manager, said: “As a result of many oversights of design, the maintenance and upkeep of the building has been costly and onerous.”
The study shows that problems have also cropped up at the new media centre at Lord's cricket ground in London, winner of the prize in 1999. Light filters had to be installed after journalists complained that the building was too bright to work in. It also got too hot, so the air-conditioning had to be improved.
In 2001 the Stirling judges gave the award to the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. They praised the suspended walkways in the converted steelworks. But Helen Smith, Magna's general operations manager, said: "The architects did not cater for the fact that visitors throw things over the edge and it is very difficult to get on to the walkway below to clean." It also has problems with a leaking roof.
The 2003 judges were bowled over by the lighting in the Laban dance centre, in east London. But users complain that it is too light, too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Two of the glass panels have also cracked.