Raising the Bar
An old student of mine who recently opened his own office in Washington, D.C. asked me why I thought the new homegrown architecture of that city was, to put it kindly, uninspired. After serving eight years on the Commission of Fine Arts I’ve seen a lot of projects. Apart from a few buildings by outsiders (Richard Rogers, Bing Thom, David Adjaye) most of the work has been pedestrian, architecturally unambitious, and lacking any real critical thought, that is, intellectually mushy. Without constructive and challenging criticism—which can only come from colleagues, not from critics or clients—practitioners easily get lazy. While there is an enviable amount of construction in DC—federal, municipal, and private—there really isn’t much of an architecture scene, I mean the sort of things that made the Bay Area exciting in the 1950s and 1960s, Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s, or LA today. What is needed to make a city a creative hot-bed? The availability of work, of course; a major local figure (a Wurster, a Kahn, a Gehry) helps to attract young architects, train them, and raises the local bar; and a thriving local school of architecture (Berkeley, Penn, SciArc) will reinvigorate office staffs, give part-time employment to fledgling architects, but especially will encourage critical dialogue. But these are conditions, not causes, and the actual chemistry that produces a creative architecture scene is somewhat mysterious. New York and Boston have one, neither San Francisco nor Philadelphia do anymore. Chicago may get one (again), and I would keep my eye on Vancouver, British Columbia, maybe Montreal. Washington, not so much.