Architecture in the crosshairs

Business school by Frank Gehry for University of Technology, in Sydney. (No source given)

Business school by Frank Gehry for University of Technology, in Sydney. (No source given)

Steve Hansen captures valuable territory in the recent Bingler, Pedersen, Betsky style-wars skirmish. His essay “Architecture Should Be Functional, Not Merely Daring,” is on the website Sourceable.com. But while Hansen puts some good wood upside Aaron Betsky’s head, he ignores one of the chief points made by Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen in their Dec. 15 New York Times oped “How to Rebuild Architecture.” Hansen writes:

Betsky’s viewpoint deserved the criticism, but it doesn’t really matter. His elite cohort will continue to manufacture righteous indignation at the banality of architecture that the general public actually likes. They’ll continue with the high-priced commissions and their “thought leader” status. They have little effect outside their bubble.

But as Bingler and Pedersen point out, that last assertion is not so:

The problem isn’t the infinitesimal speck of buildings created by celebrity architects (some arresting, some almost comic in their dysfunction), but rather the distorting influence these projects have had on the values and ambitions of the profession’s middle ranks.

Modern architecture is the only kind built by 99 percent of architecture firms, the only kind that wins 99 percent of commissions for major public buildings, the only kind taught at 99 percent of architecture schools, the only kind praised by 99 percent of architecture critics, and the only kind eligible for 99 percent of architecture prizes. I could go on. The figure of 99 percent might in some cases be a slight exaggeration, but the overwhelming lack of stylistic diversity in the profession can have only a profound effect.

Having overlooked all of that, Hansen is capable of writing this:

… [C]riticism of a particular style is really not very interesting. Bingler and Pedersen ding modern architecture for its disdain for the less avant garde style, but demerits should go out regardless of style if a building suffers from a lack of functionality.

Of course. But modern architecture prides itself on its rejection of precedent whereas traditional architect embraces precedent (disdained by modernists as “copying the past”). Every field of human endeavor recognizes the wisdom of building on past success and learning from past mistakes. But unlike every other field, modern architecture, for all its jabber about utility, turns that wisdom on its head. It thus tends to make buildings that are far less functional, whether for their intended purpose or for adaptive reuse.

The resulting cost in time and energy over decades of this lack of functionality may not make criticism of modernism very interesting, but it does make such criticism vital to the success of cities in our future. Standards must be set. Distinctions must be made. When they are not, architecture fails. That is the situation today. Still, leaving aside these minor concerns, I must nevertheless commend the courage of Steve Hansen for taking the orthodoxy of architecture’s establishment to task. Read the entire article.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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