Editorial: Think Again

Architects have been on alert ever since Obama declared on December 6 that he aspired to a building plan as ambitious as any the country has ever known—or at least that is what architects wanted to believe they heard. In reality, it wasn’t actually so much about new buildings as possibly new transportation, and not even so much about new railroads or high-tech mag lev—with their attendant stations and hub development—so much as about prosaic road and bridge repairs.

The high hopes for a vast and visionary infrastructure push that would translate into a wave of architectural design have gradually faded. A January 20 article in The New York Times put it bluntly: “Big transformative building projects seem unlikely.”

And still the air of opportunity persists, bolstered by the lists of 10,000 schools to be updated, 90 ports to be secured, 75 percent of federal buildings to be weatherized, and 1,300 waste-water projects to be built. (Remember what stunning work Steven Holl and Yoshio Taniguchi did with those water and waste plants?) At some point the “private sector” is also supposed to kick in with a $100 billion investment in clean energy projects, some of which will have to be three-dimensional.

The brute fact is that—like the shot of adrenalin to Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction—the $825 billion stimulus package has to be delivered fast and straight to the heart of the problem: joblessness. Even fast-track architecture doesn’t normally operate at that speed. Some advocacy groups, namely America 2050, a national coalition of regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers focusing on innovative ways to solve infrastructure, economic development, and environmental challenges, is warning that the money must not be spent all at once, but rather in phases that allow for strategic planning, job training, construction, and engineering evaluations.

And that’s where architects can regain some ground. In a timely book about the relevance of architects, Architecture Depends (MIT, 2009), Jeremy Till, the dean of architecture and built environment at the University of Westminster in the UK, says that architects have to shelve the notion that they are in the business of solving problems where the answer is almost always new construction. 

For if architects are not part of first imaginings, he writes, they are already hopelessly out of the game: “It is normally assumed that the most creative part of design is concerned with the building as object, hence the fixation with formal innovation, but it may be argued that the most important and most creative part of the process is the formulation of the brief.”

Many architects are already aware of this and have reprogrammed their practices to address a wider spectrum of analysis—of social usage, of historical relevance, of fiscal viability or even geological context—well before design takes place. More architects, the whole profession actually, needs to become better known for what planning theorist John Forester calls “sense-making” rather than form making. Cedric Price famously said that the best solution to an architectural problem may not be a building. And never has it seemed more imperative to the welfare and survival of the profession that architects make themselves known as designers of options, instead of icons.

Julie V. Iovine