Justin Shubow’s latest piece at Forbes.com, “The American Institute of Architects’ Outreach Campaign Is Doomed to Failure,” alerts readers to the multiple levels of hypocrisy that drive the self-promotion of the architects lobby. Like his study of Frank Gehry’s proposal for a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, undertaken in his role as head of the National Civic Art Society, Shubow marshals an impressive array of links to support the facts that nail his complaints to the door of the high church of modern architecture.
Shubow is architecture’s Martin Luther. Not a happy but a necessary role, necessary to the restoration of architecture to its right and proper place.
I’m sure you will enjoy Shubow’s meticulous thrashing of AIA’s “I Look Up” ad now running on TV. Before I realized what it was, I was waiting for the logo of a personal financial adviser to snake across the bottom of the screen. Will the “I Look Up” campaign “change public perception of architects and architecture,” as intended, according to the AIA website? As Shubow writes, “Architects are always in a precarious position. Unlike doctors and lawyers, their services are never required.” He adds:
In the past, architects overcame this challenge by demonstrating the superiority of their skills and knowledge. Their buildings were simply better. Now, however, few people believe that. The reputation of architects is at its lowest point ever. They are perceived as being problem-causers, not problem-solvers. They are purveyors of the ugly and dysfunctional, of the emotionally detached and culturally disconnected.
As long as modern architects keep bricking up the wall between architecture and the public, the profession is more and more likely to meet the fate of Fortunato, trapped in the cell of his own self-infatuation in Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” The AIA’s self-infatuated ad campaign will not avert its eventual asphyxiation.
Shubow reports that the AIA has removed from its website the result of a previous failed effort to stroke itself. I refer to its own survey of Americans’ 150 favorite buildings, done in 2007 to honor the organization’s 150th anniversary. It showed that Americans don’t like modern architecture. It’s no wonder that the survey still makes the AIA uncomfortable today. I wrote a column about it back then, and as a service to readers I reprint it here.
Not long ago, in my pursuit of a job after my layoff from the Providence Journal, I sent newly installed AIA President Elizabeth Chu Richter an excruciatingly polite note. In light of its recent program of repositioning, I offered my services to help the AIA try to fathom the role and aspirations of tradition in architecture. As I clicked the send button, I felt my spine twist slightly. But I had to find a job. Of course, I got no reply at all.
Shubow understands why. The AIA is not trying to understand or even to change the public’s perception of architecture and architects. It is a cult that relies on obedience from its members, and as an organization it will show the back of its hand to anyone who has not drunk the Kool-Aid. But individual architects need, as we all do (or most of us), to feel good about their role in the world. The “I Look Up” ad tries to convince architects that they can look up to themselves. Don’t break your necks, please!