Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Architects are egotists by their own design
Architects, opined a companion over dinner, have designed themselves into a re-entrant corner, bricked themselves behind their arrogance and vanished up their vent pipe. Admittedly my companion was a design academic, not an architect, so maybe he would say that. But it’s not an unusual view.
Stephen Lafferty, ex-president of the Tampa Bay (Florida) chapter of the American Institute of Architects, described the profession as a dinosaur, “unwilling to change, slow to move and, without some intelligent change, soon to be extinct”.
Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum was more general and more succinct. “Let’s talk about the arrogance of architects,” he wrote recently, insisting those people-free pictures so beloved by architects reveal an arrogant insistence on designing for – not with – humanity.
But is it arrogance? Or just insecurity? Take architectural publishing. Nobody reads architecture books, right? Normal people find them impenetrable and architects read only pictures.
So most architecture books are the coffee table sort, where huge, empty glass-eyed images, like big-eyed kittens on velvet, are held apart by that pureed pig Latin they squeegee into the gaps. Architecture books with people in them don’t sell. That we know.
But something most people don’t realise is that those glamorous architecture tomes are mostly vanity press, paid for and even – improbable as it may seem – written by their architect subjects. This is a peculiar architectural phenomenon. You don’t see historians making films on themselves, or pop groups painting self-portraits. You don’t see Whiteley on Whiteley. Flannery on Flannery. Even Howard on Howard.
Even the most towering of egos usually refrains from total control of history. Most professions get on with it and let the commentators comment. Not architects.
Some, such as Don Gazzard and Daryl Jackson, explicitly self-author. Others buy in their writers, covertly controlling what they say. (Most Harry Seidler books, for example, were written this way.) But the preferred method – favoured by Philip Cox and Feiko Bouman, inter alia – is simply to forget that books have authors at all.
Maybe that’s fine – fine that a book is really an outsize publicity brochure. Fine that the librarians, neat freaks all, are left to fudge the “author” box. Maybe that’s just detail.
You’d think they’d at least be embarrassed, exposing such neediness. And perhaps, to be fair, they are – only the control craving and the distrust of the Other wins out. So yes, it is insecurity. But why? Why do architects feel so misunderstood, so convinced that no one else gets it? Brain surgery, after all, is a minority sport; ditto rocket science. But architecture holds most of us in its tender maw for most of our (slightly chewed) lives.
In part it’s a desperate narcissism on architecture’s part, a need to look perfect – like Seidler’s attempt to stop biographer Alice Spigelman revealing that his grandfather was a poor Romanian woodcutter, not an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat. It’s an aesthetic misjudgment, a failure to see the gipsy whiff as a plus, not a minus. It’s also a denial of truth.
But, of course, arrogance is just insecurity’s flipside. And to some extent it goes with the territory. “Grand Architect of the Universe,” runs the Masonic Prayer, “… enable us to uncover the Perfect Ashlar within us … teach us how best to perfect our spiritual edifice.” Similarly in the Keirsey Temperament Sorter “architect” is one of 16 personality types: the type that sees the world as clay just asking to be moulded. Architecture is a top-down kind of deal. Which makes arrogance, of the Ayn Rand type, an occupational hazard.
The antidote, says Nussbaum, means recognising that “design democracy is the wave of the future”, that “we all live life in beta now”. It’s an appealing idea, dovetailing neatly with the modish view of the internet as a vast, forced democratisation of knowledge and skill. We’re all designers now, all “designing more of our lives”.
And just as the journalist’s job is now to “curate the conversation”, the designer’s is simply to field the debate. Less top down than bend over.
All very postmodern and pluralist and PC. But Nussbaum is dreaming if he thinks democracy and design are seriously compatible. Truth is, they’re not even love muffins.
This is partly because specialism – as in honed, polished expertise – is the core of what we call civilisation. Designing your own may bring spiritual satisfaction, and homegrown design may be less ill-advised than homegrown, say, brain surgery. But be it blog, bog or village, it still has that unmistakable backyard look.
“Design democracy” is a feelgood idea, and that’s about the only quality it offers. As the Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy told last year’s Aspen Ideas Festival: “If I was competing with the US, I would love to have the students … spending their time on this kind of crap. To be a great designer is very hard. It’s not about your friends [liking] something you did.”
It’s hard because humans are hierarchical primates. Only the few can be great at design or anything else. To be a great architect – a Brunelleschi, say – may require a self-belief so vast as to be limitless, but it also requires more than a Botoxed self-portrait as proof.