Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
News
01.15.2014
Comment> Together
It's time to acknowledge that architecture is a group effort.
Lawrence W. Speck and others get down to the collaborative business of architecture.
Courtesy PageSoutherlandPage

When the credits roll at the end of a film it frequently blows my mind that so many different people in so many wide-ranging roles are involved in making a movie. Dozens (or even hundreds) of foley artists, along with gaffers and “best boys” and dressers (whatever all those terms really mean) join the more familiar costume designers, production designers, make-up artists, musicians, composers, screenwriters, producers, directors, and cast members to accomplish these rich, complex creative acts.

I love the idea that everyone’s name and position is listed there in black and white. Even if some of the titles roll past too fast to fully absorb, it is important to the movie industry that they acknowledge that it took all of these people working together to produce this amazing feat. I am jealous. Why don’t we have some way of similarly describing to the world the enormous and complex web of capabilities that goes into making a building?

Just as a $100 million film involves hoards of professionals and workers with an incredible range of talents and skills, so a $100 million building draws on thousands of contributors whose specialized capabilities are essential to the success of the end result. A very similar breadth of blue collar, white collar, and no collar workers in building and in film making contribute their business savvy, creativity, discipline, visual sophistication, brains, brawn, gross motor skills, fine motor skill, organizational talent, wisdom, hard work, and much more to the collective enterprise.

Could we, as architects, do a better job of realistically portraying how buildings come about and what our role is in the process? Absolutely! But we often seem so self-absorbed and so obsessed with getting our due credit that we fail to even see how much our success depends on working together. I am afraid we are increasingly victims of a propensity to isolate and compartmentalize what we do—to get defensive, draw boundaries, and live in silos.

 

A colleague I respect immensely recently told a group of architecture students at UT Austin that architects do not make buildings; they make drawings. That describes a role for us that is very tidy and contained, but it seems to me the polar opposite of the way we should see ourselves. We make buildings! At our best, we do it as part of large and complex teams where we are indispensable. We make buildings with our wits, our intelligence, our passion, our creativity, our imagination, our vision, our powers of persuasion, our collaborative skills, our work ethic, (and, yes, our ability to make drawings). We are not a tidy, self-contained club with a simple, clear role. We are part of an ever changing industry that has a lot of moving parts. We are one of those parts—a very essential one.

I have never been a fan of the sub-culture of architecture that revels in its own lingo, its self-aggrandizing name dropping (like Corb and Rem were our best friends) and its pathetic sense of always being alienated and misunderstood by those outside the club. In a world that increasingly worships cross-fertilization and the kind of creativity that comes from interdisciplinary thinking and in a marketplace that has a growing hunger for design/build and P3 delivery, this clubbiness seems particularly unproductive.

Historically, a great deal of the real power of architecture (as well as a lot of the creative and intellectual stimulus) has come from working closely with people outside the club—from artists and engineers to masons and carpenters. Vitruvius, Alberti, Viollet-le-Duc, etc. all portray architecture as a team sport closely linked to both building production and art. The most innovative end of what we do today is not so different, with design tightly bound to materials science, product fabrication, and construction. But, even when that collaboration happens effectively, the reporting and discussion of the projects that result are generally purged of any presence of the other players. The architect stands alone. We have a very strange tendency to personalize what is intrinsically a collective effort even among ourselves as architects.

Except in the case of very small buildings done by the rare sole practitioner, we do architecture together. And yet we have this weird practice of referring to that “Frank Gehry building” or that “Zaha Hadid building.” The strangest of all is the fairly common reference to a “Norman Foster building” when the firm wearing Foster’s name (now appropriately called Foster + Partners) is enormous, and there is no possible way the person Norman Foster could have any meaningful role in all those buildings they produce around the world. Yet we persist in trying to attach a single architect to a building.

Did Ayn Rand do this to us? Has Howard Roark left such a deep psychological scar on our profession that we just have to see ourselves as tortured loners? Or was it Banister Fletcher, Sigfried Giedion, and all the others who professionalized architectural history as a field and realizedthat the storytelling about buildings might be stronger if populated by larger than life figures who got sole credit? (It is, of course, also much easier to remember just one name per building for those slide identification questions on an architectural history exam.)

I certainly do not mean to diminish the critical importance of leadership and outstanding achievement. Gehry, Hadid, and Foster each deserve a lot of credit for their seminal roles. It is just strange to personalize the architectural effort in such a deceptive way that diminishes the role of so many others. Can’t we write articles on and acknowledge with some detail the role of multiple players per building?

Lately there has been rightful furor over the fact that Le Corbusier is given credit for work done with (or by) his female collaborator, Charlotte Perriand; that Alvar Aalto is given credit for work done with (or by) his collaborators and wives, Aino Aalto and Elissa Aalto; and that Louis Kahn is given credit for work done with (or by) his female collaborator, Anne Tyng. Most recently and vociferously, there has been outrage at the fact that Robert Venturi has been given credit for work done with (or by) his collaborator and wife, Denise Scott Brown. All of this is patently unfair! But isn’t it also unfair that dozens of men who also collaborated with Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, and Robert Venturi also get diminished in our bizarre propensity to see the role of the architect as a highly individualized thing?

Maybe things are changing just a little. Earlier this year, the national AIA Board of Directors voted that the AIA Gold Medal could go to very close collaborators and not just individuals as has always been the case in the past. High time! The Nobel Prize has been given to groups of people for ages. If physics, chemistry, and medicine can be acknowledged as fields that rely on collective efforts, then why not architecture?

In medical schools these days there is a clear consciousness that doctors need to work together to solve patient problems, and there is a realization that the training of doctors has not encouraged that collaboration as it should have. They are focusing more on team-based learning where students constantly work in groups. They are also very keen on what they call IPE—inter-professional education. That means doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, physical therapists, etc. take classes together and learn to work as a unit rather than as isolated disciplines.

Might we imagine architecture schools that consistently emphasized team projects in studios rather than the me-focused individual projects? Might we even consider classes that had students in engineering, real estate, architecture, landscape architecture, planning, etc. all working on projects together? These kinds of educational experiences occur in small doses in architecture schools, but they are the rare exception rather than the prevailing rule.

We have recently been through a period where the visible expression of our discipline to the public has been starchitects and a worship of the myth of the individual. In that same period we have seen the power of our profession wane. Maybe it is time to drop the dramatic cape and beret and portray our field in a much more honest way that emphasizes our collective strengths—our ability to work together as strong professionals locked arm in arm with our fellow professionals in other disciplines to create extraordinary cultural artifacts.

Then we should let the credits roll!

Lawrence W. Speck

Lawrence W. Speck, is a principal at PageSoutherlandPage, a professor at University of Texas School of Architecture, and 2013 president of the Texas Society of Architects.