Is the Architecture Fun Over Or Just Getting Started?

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes about architecture in the New York Times that "It Was Fun Till the Money Ran Out"-that before the financial cataclysm,


the profession seemed to be in the midst of a major renaissance. Architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, once deemed too radical for the mainstream, were celebrated as major cultural figures. And not just by high-minded cultural institutions; they were courted by developers who once scorned those talents as pretentious airheads.

But what about now, that the only money for building will be coming out of Washington for infrastructure investment? Does the work go to the pretentious airheads?


Foster Associates Canary Wharf Tube Station

In Toronto, the government is investing in transportation infrastructure; the locals are no longer good enough for them so they are flying in starchitects like Norman Foster and Will Alsop. Will they do the same thing in the States? Ouroussoff writes:

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to invest heavily in infrastructure, including schools, parks, bridges and public housing. A major redirection of our creative resources may thus be at hand. If a lot of first-rate architectural talent promises to be at loose ends, why not enlist it in designing the projects that matter most? That’s my dream anyway.

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr didn't think much of the article and have written a letter to the Times in response, noting:

For the vast majority of design and construction professionals this era ended long ago. It's as though the New York Times is the last to offer a eulogy at a funeral that long since took place.

"If a lot of first-rate architectural talent promises to be at loose ends, why not enlist it in designing the projects that matter most?" Ouroussoff concluded. Most of us have been doing that for some time. Ever since the late 90s there has been a new awakening in the profession that has gone unnoticed by much of the media. The profession shifted its focus away from jewel-making and towards designing structures to better meet the needs of the client and the community as a whole.
http://water.usgs.gov/osw/images/Historical/03-004_15.jpg
Entry and mid-level professionals dejected by the celebrification of architecture, where a few select architects became commodities and the rest were seen as second fiddle, turned their attention to the needs of the everyday entrepreneurs and futurists building in their own communities. While towers rose in Vegas, Dubai and New York—a quiet revolution began at a more human scale in these cities and beyond.

Thousands of building professionals—a cross section of architects, engineers, planners, builders, suppliers and many others working together, most at small-to-mid-size firms—are already hard at work transforming the fabric of our communities. They are greening roofs, building with reclaimed materials, installing solar-heated water systems, and working alongside owners to cost-effectively put more sustainable building alternatives into practice. These professionals are quietly addressing the real issues faced by the built environment with pragmatism, innovation and creativity in equal measure. Moreover, many of these professionals remain busy despite an economy that has slid into reverse.

We suggest, that it is these building professionals—and not just the "first-rate" design talent Ouroussoff calls upon—that have the experience and qualifications to address the very-real issues posed by an out-dated infrastructure.


Sandbag house by MNA Architect

True, these professionals are not working on the kinds of attention-grabbing projects that Ouroussoff mentions in his article. Most are small-scale structures, additions to existing structures, upgrades and retrofits. Projects like the Western Addition in Oslo, Norway, the rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas or low-income housing in Cape Town by MMA architects come to mind, along with many other small-scale remodels that get overlooked by the media altogether. However—and here we agree—it is exactly this kind of often tedious, self-effacing work that is needed if we are to meet the needs of the next generation.

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr conclude:

Nicolai Ouroussoff "dreams" of re-hiring the biggest names in the profession to lead this revolution. To us, that's like hiring the designers of the Hummer to rethink our transportation and energy policies. It's not that they couldn't or wouldn't do the work (many already are), but why call on designers who spent the better part of their careers building ever-competing, energy-consuming, sky-piercing structures, when you could hire any of a myriad of qualified (if less well-known) firms already experienced and engaged in rethinking the built environment?

We encourage Ouroussoff and the New York Times to pursue a deeper examination of the changes taking place in the field of architecture. If President-elect Barack Obama and his administration truly want to reenergize this country with a New Green Deal they should engage those who are best equipped to deal with the challenges we face in the coming decades, not the past. We should hire the emerging professionals already practicing sustainable design and not just a few high-profile architects. Because for these professionals committing time to the projects that matter most is not a dream. They are already hard at work.

There is actually even more at Architecture for Humanity


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