Friday, January 28, 2011

Visionaries, Unlike the Rest of Us: How to understand elite designer architects

Louis Kahn, who had a lot
of personal drama, standings
inside his most magnificent
There's a common French expression that turns up everytime the topic of conversation turns to the differences between a work and leisure-centered lifestyle: "in France, we choose not live to work, but work to live."   Most people indeed want and do find work that lets them 'live', in which one can spend precious time with family, friends, and hobbies.  And yet there are certain professions where this ideal is a non-starter, such as my own. To put it simply, architects who care about design excellence frown upon those who innocently seek a work-life balance.  They don't see practicing architecture as a job that occupies eight hours in the day only to forget about it when they come home. Rather, one should live to work, be passionate about what one does and take as much time necessary to do it well. Architecture demands it!

Well, about half of us have failed to heed this calling and have managed to carve out a comfortable work-life balance in this profession, usually by foresaking design responsibilities for dryer technical roles.  The less individual input and investment the task requires, the more likely one can go home at a reasonable hour. Construction administration, which takes place near the end of the project (where the architect's involvement is most limited), and consists of following an automated routine of answering emailed inquiries and checking shop drawings, is especially helpful in getting one to leave at 5pm. Similarly, I often notice that our consulting engineers also enjoy this luxury, delivering the bare minimum drawings and happily pasting in stock solutions, without making any effort to consider alternatives or out-of the box ideas. Those who are happy with this arrangement don't seem to envy the constant late hours spent by designer-types preparing the perfect competition entry with piles of sketches, models, renderings and gallons of coffee. After an extended period of doing roles that require such different amounts of time and energy, those who work to live no longer understand those who live to work (I strongly suggest reading a related post here).

It seems that among all professions, architecture is one of the very few that has to confront, albeit uncomfortably, such opposing mindsets about how to balance work and life.  Half art, half science, sometimes a completely non-profit endeavor and other times a strictly commercial service--architecture is torn between being a life-long, semi-religious vocation for some and just a day job for others.  This split seems widen the chasm between who speaks publicly for the profession and those who don't due to their preference for a quiet private life.  The kind of architect we tend to admire--one who does a competent and honest job within a 40-hour workweek, spends time with family and is involved in private social clubs-- is not the one sticking his neck out in public forums, masterplanning committees, speaking to the press, or teaching the next generation of designers.  Interestingly it's the kind of architects we love to hate--aspiringly philosophical and frequently ideological, a lover of grand urban schemes at the expense of private welfare, self-centered yet unaware of it-- that dominate unopposed the overarching public discourse on architecture even as they labor 100-hour workweeks.

This was especially brought to my attention with the personal interactions I've been fortunate to have with a number of high-profile architects in recent years. The roster includes a couple of people who worked under one of the twentieth-century's greatest masters, another one having designed the world's tallest buildings, and others who have won numerous prizes and are published in the most prominent magazines and books. These individuals are generally regarded as leaders in their field, visionaries in every sense and will be remembered as pioneers by their peers.  Yet, when I spent time with them, for all their accolades and admiration, they came across and as extremely tired from stress and frustrated.  At first these traits lent these individuals a refreshing humanity about them, but over time I came to understand that these traits were symptoms of an overall melancholy that afflicted all of them.  You could see on their faces the huge sacrifices they had to make to earn their coveted reputation--the decades-long exercise of pulling all-nighters and lost weekends and their inability to stop doing it, knowing that to maintain relevance they will have to keep working as long and as hard as ever before, where 'burning out' happens on the day of their death. These people can't imagine ever retiring.

Unsurprisingly, a trail of wreckage in their personal lives usually accompanies their rise to professional acclaim.  Stories of late and short-lived marriages, bitter divorces, custody fights, much younger girlfriends/second wives, delayed parenthood with nanny troubles, or the wackiness of permanent bachelorhood are common with this set. For those who do have children, they will admit to not being able to be there for them.  Outside of the office, their life is mired in precarious personal situations, and they obviously feel most at ease working.  They proudly reminisce of the times they would practically live in the office and chide those who weren't willing to stay as long, rejecting the reason that it was important to have a life outside the office.  Though these kind of architects are at their core well-meaning, even charming, their justifications in how they had to make insufferable demands on their staff reveals a slight psychopathic tendency, even as they themselves are largely blind to such a diagnosis.

Shouldn't we disregard these personal failings and judge these individuals solely by their works? After all, none of us are perfect and it is part of human nature to be fallible in all kinds of ways.  Such personal tensions and stress is a normal part of a creative life, and have always been, so why does it matter?

 It matters because what these architectural visionaries do eventually affects everyone else and how we live.  They rarely ever reap the financial benefits of their ideas, and they continue to play second fiddle to their clients, but at some point we will ultimately have to deal with, without ever being asked, the built manifestations coming from these people's minds.  One could easily go through life completely uncultivated, never having to see a painting, listen to music or read a book. For those who are cultivated, we can freely choose what we want to see and experience and vice versa. The one thing that doesn't give us much of a choice is the built environment that we are forced to live in.  Though our built environments are the result of a good-faith attempt to rationally organize what should go where, the look and feel of a place, what our senses perceive, is the work of a designer, both architects and urban planners.

Louisville Museum Plaza by REX/OMA.
A new viable paradigm for urban life or
a giant middle-finger to the Midwestern
way of life?

When these special individuals set forth a vision, they draw from a lifestyle and a collection of experiences that are unlike almost everybody else's. Along with their denial of much of a balanced emotional or social life, they are also adamant in living within a very narrow slice of urban life. Settling down in a car-based suburb with a wife and 3 kids, attending weekly church services while going to PTA meetings at the neighborhood public school is almost proudly shunned by this elite.  Rather, one often finds them living in an apartment in a walkable city like New York, San Francisco, Boston or Chicago, sending their kids (if they have any) to an expensive private school they can't afford while eating epicurian fare and purchasing pricy locally grown produce.  Instead of spending time volunteering for the boy scouts, church committees, or coaching youth soccer, they present lectures at a local architecture forum (attended chiefly by urban bachelors like themselves) or critiquing student projects at the local architecture school.  For a group that proclaims a keen sense of place, they proudly confess a complete ignorance of the world outside the one they inhabit. If a place cannot be walked to or accessed by public transportation, they deem it unworthy of knowing anything about it, much less respect it.  In their minds, any place that doesn't foster walking, dense neighborhoods, extensive transit, a university, or artistic cashe is of no interest to them. Rather, these places are the targets of their scorn, embodying all the things that they loathe about modern post-industrial life: auto-centric sprawl, excessive consumption and a low-brow cultural superficiality.

As visionaries they are steadfast about living in a way that conforms to what to the images they conceive in their heads.  If they design projects that consist of mixing uses in a large superstructure regardless of functionality, you can bet that they live a life where all their needs are met within a few blocks.  If they imagine a future where people grow food on the sides of buildings, you can be certain that they practice locavorism with a tenacity that disregards the expense, energy and time such a lifestyle requires.  You will see them argue that their daring design for a speculative condominium tower that caters exclusively to wealthy customers is actually a a coherent response to impending crises of overpopulation and environmental destruction. They will point to their recent museum of contemporary art in an opulent emirate as their heart-felt contribution to enriching the cultural life of the community.  And that multimillion-dollar private house expresses their commitment to a model for sustainable design for all.  These visionaries are men and women of conviction, in spite of the contradictions.

Such committment to a set of core ideas tends to distort one's judgement on what works.  It doesn't matter if their design didn't maximize a client's leasing goals, or effectively controlled the flow of traffic through its main spaces, nor even made a place that is comfortable and practical to its users--no, what matters is that their design achieves more worldly goals such as solving society's most pressing problems such as environmental destruction, social injustice, and a scarcity for genuine art objects expressing the Zeitgeist in world mired by crass commercialism. A project can be considered a 'success' if it embodies highly developed forms, evocative materials that lend an overally lyrical visual quality. If it can incorporate sustainable measures, or arrange the owner's program in as dense a footprint as possible, then it's even better.  In the end, what works depends on whether a designer's moral program has been fulfilled.

Contrary to the ideal of form following function, so much what is considered great contemporary architecture doesn't seem to function all that well. It may convincingly function in a more symbolic way, such as how it rethinks ways in which the private and public interact the residential design, or how spectator and performer connect in an eye-opening way, or how it subverts our own assumptions about urban form and context. But things like convenience, comfort and ease-of-use is given short shrift. Two recent local examples illustrate this classically: Norman Foster's Winspear Opera House here in Dallas has garnered rave reviews about how well it functions in its urban role and how it rethinks the idea of the isolation versus transparency with regards to the peforming arts hall typology (I shared my own praise here).

Yet opera-goers close to me complain of grossly inadequate restrooms that produce extremely long lines during intermission; narrow public stairs incapable of handling the crowds coming down to the ground level after the conclusion of a performance; and the forcing of all visitors to queue outside a single pair of front doors to get into the building. Rem Koolhaas' Wylie Theatre across the street is revolutionary in the way it recasts the programmatic relationship between the backstage and the stage itself by setting it vertically, allowing a level of flexibility unimaginable in more conventional buildings of the type. Yet, the restrooms look like they belong in a subway station, access to the brutalist-styled lobby requires visitors to decend down a hair-raisingly steep ramp (handicapped users will need to zigzag down a set of shallower ramps the length of a football field to get there) before climbing up by a narrow and unceremonious stair up into the main auditorium space. The bright green chairs are wretchedly uncomfortable and have scratched and bruised my knees due to their lack of leg room from being fixed to a large suspended steel platform that can be raised and lowered by cables. I guess that's the price one pays for having most gorgeous aluminum-sheathed box in the world. 

To such criticisms, the architect will cheekily reply that they intended to make it a bit uncomfortable so that that spectators would stay alert and pay attention to the performance, or meditate on whatever thematic function the architect really cares about.  And what they really care about is that it furthers "a conversation about architecture in the city".

And therein lies a larger though unstated truth about these designer types--they do not want to make the lives of those using their building any easier. Instead they believe it is better to make things a bit harder, since it disciplines users to live in a morally correct way.  You can't expect to do as you please in their buildings--the architecture imposes its will on you. Foster openly admitted that queuing up outside before a performance was a good thing because it forces a camarederie to develop while waiting, much like lining up to watch Star Wars at the cineplex (Is he saying that opera houses should be more like movie theatres?).  This lack of ease, or more fundamentally, of freedom, is no accident, and has a lot to do with the way the designers of such special buildings choose to live.

Re:Vision Dallas imagines a future of
farming on the sides of buildings and
tolerating the drones of inefficient
wind turbines--Pretty, but it won't work
Contrary to their bragging about how great life downtown in a big cosmopolitan city is, they are not all that free and independent.  They only can function within a tight and fragile urban and institutional footprint where everything the need is exactly in place but no more than that. They are highly vulnerable if one of the pieces to their life suddenly disappears, whether it's a transit line or stop being closed, a sudden job loss or a spike in crime that chases away retail businesses. One former Rem Koolhaas protege who now is dean at an architecture school in a highly auto-centric city proudly admited to me not knowing how to drive a car, and gladly is given rides by her students and colleagues. Mind you her reputation has been built on her original ideas about how cities need to be reimagined. She showed up to a function in a city four-hours drive away and gladly decided to fly in. These types tend to fly a lot, which gives a clearer meaning to phrase "fly-over country".

What does this all mean? It means that much of what they come up with, no matter how enchantingly beautiful, will not work very well. Some of their projects will fail gloriously. Almost all of them go wildly overbudget.  Hopefully their ideas go no farther than a charming rendering. They gravitate to where their ideas don't have to be tested by reality.  They are safe from failure when they take on projects in which the opinions of financial risk-takers or end-users doesn't seem to matter too much, like cultural palaces and university buildings.  But In every other situation, where profitability of development matters and the everyday lives of users is enhanced in real identifiable ways--beware of certain architects promoting ideas of "rethinking" and "re-envisioning" at your own peril.


Scott Walker said...

I've always had issues with the Opera House in Dallas. Besides its impracticalities, I just thought there was too much red in the building, making it feel more like a gaudy movie theater on the outside than a timeless monument hosting the world's finest singers. I do like the inside for the most part--this would probably different if I were less mobile or if I drank coffee before the show. However, if a person sits at the side ends of the balcony, they will get neck pain from having to crane their neck uncomfortably just to see the show. Seeing how that mars the essential purpose of the building, the building's design falls short of its goal, and its design is inferior. It's not even a matter of practicality or existential variable, but its essence, the thing that makes it art.

The dynamic you describe between the "designer" and the "conformist" architects recalls the tension in Ayn Rand's the Fountainhead, which you likely considered while musing over it. She seems to say that a compromised artist of any kind loses both their integrity and any kind of success. With a few well placed angles and lines, heaped with Rand's strange abstract prose indicating the superiority of his designs, Roark stands athwart conventions and thrives as his thoroughly compromised rival (Rand's extremes often become exasperating caricatures), Keating, languishes pitifully in his own mediocrity.

I don't know if I agree with her judgment, which idealizes and obscures a serious philosophical treatment of something as weighty as art. She does perhaps make a case for at least considering beauty once more, an idea that most people have discarded in favor of cheap comfort. The affectations of designers may violate our ease, but the practicality of the uninspired shakes our spiritual well-being. Just look outside Dallas's downtown. It's quite comfortable and roomy, but horribly ugly. The commute anywhere in DFW would corrupt even the finest mind. I'm sure it's this that creates such artistic extremists ready to wage war on the insipid masses inured to aesthetic garbage. I'm not sure they help since their buildings aren't always masterpieces enchanting those who enter--the Foster's opera house simply irritates me. Nevertheless, their rationale is understandable.

Chloe Garcia said...

I also agree that to be successful, you have to be passionate about your job.

Miriam said...

This post made me wonder if you even care about architecture. Sure, a lot of well-known architects are married to their jobs, and that may be a bad thing for their families and friends. But I'm not sure I understand the theory that working too hard makes them bad architects. Tired and lonely ones, yes, but not lacking in creativity.

I'll grant you that it is more comfortable to see a movie in a plush seat at a suburban multiplex than a live performance at many theaters and opera houses, including some of the newer ones. But so what? Do we even notice what the cinema looks like when we enter and leave? Do we remember our visit to the restrooms? Comfortably or not, operagoers will get their bladders emptied. But should getting this done efficiently be more important to the architect than the integrity of the design? There are plenty of ugly or unremarkable public spaces with good bathrooms and good parking. Like Wal-mart. Who cares? Why hire a great architect to design one of those?

Finally, I had to laugh about your charge that many architects live in dense, walkable cities. Why is this? Possibly it is because they like to look at good design in their daily lives, not at strip malls. Is this so hard to understand? And yes, a lot of architects are fashion snobs and foodies. Comes from spending that semester in Rome and/or Paris, no doubt. But why does this surprise you? People who care about art also tend to care about wine and food. They don't usually attend PTA meetings or church bake sales, at least not willingly. They prefer gallery openings and lectures. These are some of the many reasons why architects are so much more fun to spend time with than, say, insurance salesmen.

And it's hardly true that they don't know how to relax. All the architects I know adore going to the sauna and turkish baths. Especially when it involves a trip to Budapest or Helsinki.

Seriously, why would anyone trade that life for suburbia?

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Anonymous said...

I have won awards, reached finalist in several international competitions; I just turned 40 and I am burned out... yet I do not know what pushes me to keep going...
Now, I am taking a much more aggressive position in my architecture...are we here to serve the desires of greed? dogmas? politicians? our own ego?
ask yourselves, truly!
why are you here?

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