Architecture: Boring Buildings

Now that the World Trade Center towers are gone,
will Tony Soprano still
glance at them in his side-view mirror as he drives home on the New Jersey
Turnpike? Or will The Sopranos' producers have him looking back at the now
denuded skyline of Manhattan--at the squat residential towers of Battery Park
City, all dressed up in frills and pink veneer?

Not likely. The twin towers were that rare entity in the American
architectural fabric: a good, perhaps even a great, work of architecture.
Everyone knows that few of the other towers on the southwestern tip of Manhattan
are any match for what was lost. The towers' destruction has brought home
something that perhaps had not been so obvious before: how critically important
buildings are not only to our aesthetic sensibilities but also to our public and
communal lives.

Minoru Yamasaki's soaring World Trade Center towers, finished in 1973, were the
indisputable icon--sometimes beloved, sometimes vilified, but always
unavoidable--of America's greatest metropolis: The glinting, thin, vertical
aluminum struts of the structural facade guided the eye seamlessly skyward, while
at ground level the towers' coupling made a noble (if imperfect) plaza. Now that
a 16-acre hole has replaced that austere plinth, we are inevitably confronted
with the question of what the built environment's public spaces could and should
be.

It is a truism to state that architecture composes the immediate physical
environment of our lives. But in this country, we too often forget that
high-quality architecture is also a social good, one that more than repays the
investment. European architecture has demonstrated this repeatedly.
Public-housing complexes in the Netherlands, where thoughtful design and good
construction are the norm, consistently help to integrate marginalized groups
(immigrants, minorities, and the elderly, among others) into their larger
communities with a combination of exciting forms and careful attention to the
scale and proportions of the buildings in relation to their surrounding context.
Innovative civic architecture such as the recent Vuotalo Cultural Center--a
hybrid library, art gallery, theater, and café in Finland designed by the
firm of Heikkinen-Komonen--serves to draw people out of their homes and into the
public realm, encouraging them to identify with their communities and become more
active in them. Dignified and stimulating public buildings such as Jean Nouvel's
Institut du Monde Arabe (a mixed-use information resource center in Paris devoted
to Arab culture) and Peter Zumthor's Kunsthaus (an art museum, café,
bookshop, and piazza in Bregenz, Austria) can help to instill respect,
commitment, and--by fostering participatory action--sometimes even a healthy
skepticism toward the institutions that they house.

It's not that Americans aren't interested in good architecture; after all,
they often head to Europe on summer vacation. Europe has a longer history, more
architectural monuments, and much denser and more richly textured cities. And it
has both the old built fabric and the new architecture--some of it designed by
American architects--that has captured the media's and the public's imagination:
the Reichstag in Berlin, the grands projets of Paris, the new Tate Gallery
in London, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. American tourists make a point of
visiting these buildings. Can anything similar be said about Europeans--or
Americans, for that matter--who travel around the United States? Europeans who
come here go to New York City, where they marvel more at the collective height of
the buildings than at their individual quality (the CitiCorp Building and a few
others notwithstanding). If they go elsewhere, it is often to revel in the
spectacle of kitsch architecture at Disney World. Or to make pilgrimages to the
Grand Canyon and Yosemite.

Among practicing architects here and abroad, it is axiomatic that there is
much more contemporary architecture of high quality to be found in Europe than in
the United States and that innovative, inspiring architecture--as well as
architecture that is well built and long lasting--is constructed less frequently
here than almost anywhere in Europe. American architecture is, as a rule,
conventional, bland, and dull. This is true almost across the board: from public
buildings sponsored by federal or state governments to commercial buildings; from
privately sponsored civic institutions, such as museums and concert halls, to
local community centers and religious sanctuaries; from public-housing projects
to private housing. Our built environment delivers a clear message: We think that
high-quality, thought-provoking, innovative buildings--whether institutional or
commercial, residential or private--are a luxury or a frivolity.

Why should this be? If Americans appreciate good
architecture abroad, why
is it so little valued at home? Why, to be blunt, is contemporary American
architecture so bad?

It is not for lack of talented American practitioners. Students from all
over the world apply to our top architecture schools and come here in ever
increasing numbers for their training. And young American firms emerge almost
yearly with important visions or novel sets of ideas about how we might live, how
we might participate in our public realm, or how our cities could be improved.
The problem is that we execute too few of these ideas.

Critics and architectural historians often trot out fuzzy cultural-historical
factors to explain why Americans live in a low-quality built environment.
Europeans, having lived in the cities and countries that they do--places where
Gothic cathedral spires share airspace with 1960s-era skyscrapers--are more
sensitive to the cultural weight of history and its built artifacts. Americans
are philistines, the theory goes, capitalists focused narrowly on their immediate
private interests. But however much truth there may be to such views--and no
doubt there is some truth to them--they only exacerbate the problem by obscuring
the fact that most of American architecture's problems stem from three
intertwined failings: regulatory schemes that do not protect the public's
interests, a poor system for selecting architects, and inadequate demand.

Regulations that shape the character of our public realm are inappropriately
permissive in some cases and overly restrictive in others. Examples abound.
Because of loopholes in federal and state legislation, approximately 90 percent
of our private housing is designed not by licensed architects but by
architecturally incompetent real-estate developers in collaboration with their
contractors. Similarly, the conceptualization and the appearance of many of our
larger privately owned buildings, such as hotels, shopping malls, and office
buildings, are often determined by engineers rather than architects. And even
those high-end projects that are designed by architects face their own, often
crippling, problems.

However democratic the public-review process in this country was in original
intent, for the last several decades it has gotten to be nearly impossible to get
a good project through the system, what with architects facing multiple reviews
of their projects by state and local preservation commissions, community groups,
planning and zoning boards, wetlands commissions, and so on. Here we have another
example of what Isaiah Berlin called a liberating idea turning into a
"suffocating straightjacket": The public-review process has become obstructionist
and conservative, if not reactionary.

In most cases, the mechanisms for selecting architects to design public
buildings in this country are deeply flawed. With the exception of the
highest-profile projects commissioned and administered by the U.S. General
Services Administration (which has had a successful Design Excellence Program in
place since 1994), when the federal government needs a new post office or a city
needs a new library the process typically goes something like this: A group of
well-meaning volunteers or bureaucrats get together and bandy about the names of
architectural firms they happen to know. A short list of candidates is drawn up.
A building committee composed of lay people who have little knowledge of how to
analyze or assess the merits of an architectural vision or a constructed building
conducts the interviews. Because the evaluators are not competent to judge the
professional expertise of the candidates, these committees are rarely willing to
take a chance on young or small firms--precisely the kind that tend to devote the
extra energy to the design and construction process that yields good buildings.
Instead, and understandably, the committee focuses overwhelmingly on how
personally compatible they are with a candidate and on the firm's perceived
capacity to complete a project on budget and on time. Because we rely on these
methods to select architects, we inhabit a built environment that, at best, feels
affable, efficient, and familiar--nothing more.

This is not how many European countries handle the public commissioning of
architecture. In Europe, contracts to design public buildings are awarded as the
result of competitions. Consultants trained in architecture, engineering, and
urban design are hired to serve as a jury. In the case of a "limited
competition," these consultants--drawing on their professional knowledge of the
range of practitioners in the field and their understanding of the needs and
character of the institution--compile a list of firms that they deem appropriate
for the job and invite them to submit proposals describing how the project might
best be approached. In an "open competition," officials issue a broad public
request for proposals; then professionals representing the public interest
(ostensibly, at least) select the winning scheme.

This process is not immune to failure and corruption, but it is far preferable
to the way most architectural contracts are awarded in this country. It gives
small, young, and innovative firms a fighting chance, since contracts are awarded
on the strength of a proponent's architecture rather than his or her social
connections. The results--in terms of the buildings that are ultimately selected,
erected, and used--are unequivocally superior.

One exception to the general inferiority of the process in the United States
lies in the realm of privately commissioned civic institutions--in particular,
museums. Important and in some cases even visionary architects and firms such as
Will Bruder, Diller and Scofidio, Zaha Hadid, Herzog and de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas,
Machado and Silvetti, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are all currently
designing or constructing major works. Museum directors better understand the
value of good architecture and line up professional architectural consultants to
help them in the selection process. But most of our built environment is not
shaped by architects at all.

Moreover, the cultural barriers that separate architects from the public
inhibit any real dialogue. In most of the leading architecture programs in this
country, students are schooled to be guardians of the public realm and are
trained to navigate between the private needs and interests of their clients and
the public good. Yet all too often today, people perceive architects as out of
touch with the public's needs--or see them as boutique designers who provide
luxury goods at enormous cost with little added benefit.

How did we get to this state of affairs? The answer is complex. Historical
factors such as the urban-planning and social-housing disasters of the 1960s,
which soured the public on architects and planning experts, are partially to
blame. (This also partly explains the thicket of local review boards through
which American architects, unlike their European counterparts, typically have to
shepherd their projects.) And American architectural schools tend to emphasize
design without providing the proper training in engineering and mechanical
systems that architectural students from Europe who attend our universities have
received at home as undergraduates; this, too, contributes to the public image of
the American architect as a delicate butterfly, capable of taking on only the
most precious of commissions.

But the single biggest factor in the diminution of architecture in this
country is the indifference of the citizenry. For who among even the culturati,
let alone the general public, knows very much about architecture? Whereas most
European schoolchildren can name the greatest architects of their country and
cite many examples of architectural masterpieces, surveys have found that
although Americans are familiar with names such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da
Vinci, Monet, Picasso, and Jackson Pollock, most cannot name even three important
architects.

Such ignorance is a direct result of our educational system,
especially the nation's secondary schools: Although art classes are a familiar
staple, architecture--arguably a far more important part of our social and civic
lives, and certainly a more insistently present part of our daily routines--is
rarely taught. An uneducated public translates into incompetent and conservative,
if well-meaning, clients. Patrons will always be largely responsible for the
shaping of our public environment. And too many of them simply don't know what
they are doing.

This problem is not insurmountable. Designing a building is such a
multifaceted challenge that teachers could target most of Howard Gardner's seven
intelligences and engage the interest of a broad spectrum of students. How do
buildings stand up and why do they fall down (logical-mathematical intelligence
and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence)? What impact did the invention of the
elevator and the flush toilet have on the American landscape
(logical-mathematical
and linguistic)? What makes a building ugly or beautiful, boring or interesting
(linguistic and visual-spatial)? How does walking into the subway, the town hall,
or the local historical society make you feel (visual-spatial,
bodily-kinesthetic, and linguistic)? If you were an architect, how would you go
about designing a building type you knew little about (interpersonal)? Why do the
homes we live in look as they do?

A nationally accessible architecture curriculum for secondary schools would
increase the demand for good architecture and go a long way toward facilitating
enlightened patronage in the United States. So would the commissioning of
architecture through well-organized competitions run and judged by professionals
in collaboration with clients--a policy, in the case of public buildings, that
could be mandated by law. And so would a revamped regulatory system that required
builders to use professional architects for a wider range of public and private
buildings; that made private developers more answerable to the needs of the
larger public good; and that mitigated the impact of often reactionary local
regulatory forces.

Ground zero in Manhattan is a test and an opportunity. When it comes time to
get down to a master plan, and then again when it is time to build an appropriate
memorial to the dead and to construct new office buildings, new transport hubs,
new residential complexes, and new retail spaces, the Port Authority of New York
and New Jersey, the site's principal owner, should announce national or, better,
global architectural competitions. It should select professional architects,
urban planners, and other experts to serve on public-spirited juries. And in
creating New York City's new downtown, it should make the process as well as the
product a model to show future generations the kind of public realm they deserve
and should demand.

Meanwhile, start educating our kids.

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