Architecture

WHAT’S IN A NAME

blank-nameplateMichael Kimmelman in a New York Times article on a new Italian winery near Florence, identifies the architect as Archea. There is no Architetto Archea, it’s a made-up name. While most architecture firms continue to be named John Doe Associates, the use of invented names is increasingly common. There are the mega-practices Aecom and Aedas, the mainstream Ennead (originally Polshek Partnership), cutting-edge SHoP, and the recently disbanded Office dA. Some of the made-up names involve arcane wordplay–Coop Himmelb(l)au, Mecanoo, Asymptote, Arch-Tectonics–and some seem calculated simply to grab our attention, like the Danish firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), the London firm, FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste), or the Beijing firm, MAD (which doesn’t seem to stand for anything). Pritzker Prize-winner Wang Shu’s firm is called Amateur Architecture Studio; Snøhetta is named after a Norwegian mountain peak. Interestingly, firms practicing traditional or classical architecture, tend to avoid made-up names. Perhaps tricky names are a subtle form of architectural branding: I’m not stodgy, I’m hip, in fact, I’m not a firm at all, I’m a creative force.

There is also a practical reason to adopt a neutral name: not privileging the founding partners by attaching their names to the practice. Most firms change over time (Archea, founded in 1988, now has four principals and eight partners), partners come and go, and in any case, an impersonal name better reflects the collaborative nature of large architectural practices. Or at least, that is the theory. In some cases, the need to personalize reasserts itself. Morphosis was founded in 1972 by a group of architects, although today projects by the firm are usually credited to “Thom Mayne of Morphosis,” a similar status is accorded “Rem Koolhaas of OMA,” and “Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX.” Several years ago the landscape architecture firm founded as Field Operations, began referring to itself as “James Corner Field Operations.” What’s in a name? Apparently, quite a lot.

SO MANY CLASSES, SO LITTLE TIME

École des Beaux-Arts, Atelier André, 1880s

École des Beaux-Arts, Atelier André, 1880s

Architectural curricula have changed in the last several decades. First, they are shorter. Architecture, since it concerns creativity, takes time. The original course of study at the École des Beaux-Arts recognized this; you simply kept at it until you were considered ready to leave. Modern architecture programs used to be five or six years. Since they devoted  time to general subjects, this usually meant about four years of intensive architecture study. In the 1970s, most universities followed Harvard’s lead and made a three-year Master the professional degree. The problem was that a BA degree didn’t really prepare students for a career in architecture, so while graduate students might be more mature, they still had to be taught the basics, just as before.  Compressing four years of material into three was made more challenging by the emergence of another trend: elective courses. When I was an architecture student my six-year program was composed entirely of required courses; today 20-25 percent of most programs is elective courses. These courses cover a large range of material, some essential, some peripheral, some downright arcane. Electives are popular with students, of course, and also with teachers, since they allow the teaching of highly focused subjects tailored to the instructor’s own interest or research agenda. Deans like electives because they can be taught by inexpensive part-timers.

But curriculum design is a zero-sum game: teach this, and you don’t have time to teach that. So, with less time and fewer required courses, what has been left out? Architectural history has taken the largest hit, compressed into one quick survey course, transformed into “history-theory,” or just cut out altogether. One of my classes was life drawing, two hours a week with charcoal, easel, and a model; I can’t imagine that many schools require this today. Another was an introduction to sociology–how people behave–important for an architect. Years ago, I taught a required course in specifications; today, that subject is generally folded into a catch-all class in “professional practice.”

Architecture is not the only profession facing the challenge of streamlining. In the 1970s, many American medical schools, in an attempt to produce more graduates to meet practitioner shortages, switched to three-year curricula. Subsequently, many of these schools reinstated a fourth year, but consisting chiefly of electives. It was not an unqualified success. One study of medical education concluded that “A much greater emphasis on educational rigor in all fourth-year courses (especially electives) is necessary to address the reputation for academic laxity and grade inflation.”

What is to be done? Extending graduate architecture programs by a year would be a start. It is not as if there is a shortage of architects–quite the contrary–so if a longer program reduced the number of graduates, that would not be a bad thing. The number of elective courses should be drastically curtailed. Important subjects should be mandatory; peripheral subjects such as furniture design (you can’t learn to design furniture in twelve weeks), should be cut. With a bit of ingenuity, it might even be possible to make room for life drawing.

MAKE A STATEMENT

Craig Ellwood, South Bay Bank, Manhattan Beach, CA (1956)

Craig Ellwood, South Bay Bank, Manhattan Beach, CA (1956)

I came across a term new to me in an architectural magazine today. The writer was speculating about whether Jeff Bezos would have an influence on the design of the new headquarters of the Washington Post. “One question is whether the newspaper’s new owner wants a statement building,” he wrote. A statement building! It struck me as a sad commentary on the present state of architecture that what at one time would have been called simply good design had now been elevated to the status of a “statement.” And a statement of what? The architectural equivalent of a designer label: I am a Gehry, I am a Hadid, I am a Foster? A ratification of the status of the client: I am rich, I am special, I am not run-of-the-mill? Or a corporate message: we value design, we are green, we are on the cutting edge? It is times like this that I miss the certainties of mid-century modernism, when it was sufficient for a building–whether it was a corporate office, a house, or a bank–to merely exhibit structural and functional logic, clean but not labored details, and a modest range of materials. If there was a statement here it was simply “I am modern.”

CORPORATE HOMES

Microsoft campus, Seattle

Microsoft campus, Seattle

In the midst of the astonishing sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, a related announcement has received less attention: the newspaper will be getting a new home. Developers have been invited to make proposals, and while the final choice has not yet been made (and given the sale of the paper, who knows?), some of the alternatives have been made public. The architects include the usual megafirm suspects, and the designs are equally predictable–buildings for anybody, anyplace. What a difference when the Chicago Tribune held a well-publicized architectural competition in the 1920s for its home, and Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut were among the entrants. That was a time when corporations sought to present themselves to the public through adventurous architecture–think Woolworth, Singer, Chrysler, RCA. Sometimes this strategy backfired (PanAm, CBS, AT&T), but when it succeeded it produced masterworks such as Wright’s Johnson Wax, Mies’s Seagram, SOM’s Lever House, and Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and the John Deere headquarters. Pepsi Cola, Bell Labs, IBM, and Union Carbide built exceptional buildings, too. In fact, a list of leading mid-century corporate patrons reads like the Fortune 500. One would be hard put to compile a comparable list today. None of our largest new corporations–Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Amazon–would be on it. Exceptions: Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to design an addition to its campus, and Apple is building a high-tech donut designed by Norman Foster. But most of today’s technology companies appear content to occupy the safe architectural middle ground. Is it that buildings really don’t matter to them? Or are they sending the message: we’re not elitists, we’re one of the crowd, we’re just like you. Mr. Bezos, the new boss, could change that.

TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR

starsGuy Horton wrote an article recently in ArchDaily on starchitects. He included a number of comments by various architecture critics and observers (including your truly). I was struck that many of my colleagues called for “retiring” the term–whatever that means–as if it were primarily about semantics. It’s not, it’s primarily about money. Just as certain Hollywood actors can make a film script into a bankable movie, certain architects can add monetary value to a project (with donors, buyers, the general public). That is why the acting star and the designing star get paid more. And that is also why both invest heavily in press agents, publicists, and public relations. What certifies a starchitect is as hard to pin down as what makes an actor a star. Probably a combination of native ability, public acclaim, and desire (one rarely becomes a star by accident). Perhaps key is  connecting with the zeitgeist. In a consumer culture that depends so heavily on name recognition and celebrity, it was probably inevitable that the architectural profession would eventually be affected–or is it infected? In any case, the impact has been significant. In The Favored Circle, the Australian architect/sociologist Garry Stevens posits the emergence of two distinct categories of architects. “Those at the summit of the field who design structures of power and taste for people of power and taste,” he writes, “have little in common with those who toil at CAD workstations detailing supermarkets.”