Beam me up, Alex!

Famously disliked and inhospitable Boston City Hall. (Jodi Hilton/NYT)

Famously disliked and inhospitable Boston City Hall. (Jodi Hilton/NYT)

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam recently saw “Look Up!” – the TV ad beamed around the country by the American Institute of Architects. In his latest piece, “Look up, there is a problem with architecture,” he seems not to have been impressed: “How did the profession of Michelangelo and Frank Lloyd Wright get reduced to hyping its legitimacy in paid promotions on CNN and Fox News?” Beam then recounts the growing chorus of dismay expressed in the media about architecture and the growing chorus of pieces in the media about the growing dismay.

“But what is the problem?” he asks, then answers his own question:

For one thing, architecture is a medium that you are forced to consume. If I choose not to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, because the reviews look squirrely to me, then I don’t have to read it. But if I go downtown to shout hosannas to Super Bowl star Malcolm Butler, then I have to look at Boston City Hall.

That is a very big part of the problem, a big reason why most people dislike modern architecture, but early on Beam puts his finger on another part of the problem when he describes architecture as “a profession dwelling comfortably under the radar.”

Thing about it. A profession that specializes in designing very large things that cost very large piles of money and which play a very large role in whether one likes or dislikes the built environment, which very many – that is all – people are forced to experience day in and day out. Why is this profession dwelling under the radar? That’s a very good question.

The answer is that unlike most professions, and indeed most human endeavors, the establishment that runs it brooks no debate about its most fundamental principles. With its slick commercial the AIA appears eager to prove that it brooks no debate. You will see in the commercial nothing that does not seem to confirm the AIA’s belief that modern architecture is the only architecture. Its self-infatuation unwittingly high-fives everyone – Alex Beam, Justin Shubow of the National Civic Art Society, whom Beam quotes, and many others, including me – who has recently taken the AIA to task. Doesn’t it want to know why it wants everyone to “look up”? Apparently not. It’s circle-the-wagons time. Clearly the AIA is an organization that has no clue and doesn’t want one.

Watch the AIA commercial here to see if indeed you do “Look Up” as your eyes roll and roll toward the heavens.

What the AIA looks up to. (Screenshot from AIA "Look Up" commercial)

What the AIA looks up to. (Screenshot from AIA “Look Up” commercial)


About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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1 Response to Beam me up, Alex!

  1. You (and Alex) make some sturdy observations, and I know you are more than well-versed in all the reasons people chose modernism and contemporary architecture (means of production, goals of clients, etc) and I won’t dive into that. I hope in this imperfect campaign we can see a willful stepping out from “below the radar,” and an invitation to those of us that live within and around buildings to be part of the conversation about how those buildings come about. A good way to do that in our region is to engage with the BSA Space, a gallery created by the community I work for (the Boston Society of Architects, which is the Eastern Massachusetts chapter of the AIA, full disclosure!). Come watch a movie about tiny houses this Friday night, 4/3. Those certainly skew vernacular and are absolutely human scale! Our design awards are in the current Design New England and, yes, most submissions are contemporary. Many embrace tradition. That said, I’m happy to see a start, if an imperfect one, and, well, pretty glad you noticed it! I hope you’ll tweet #ilookup, perhaps with your well-trained critical eye.


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