i don’t know what a building is

16 January 2014

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Yes, I’ve been reading again; quite a bit I might add.

As part of our design curriculum where I teach, we assigned a series of readings for our students that deal with the subject of building tectonics as well as the process of teaching architecture.

In the course of these readings I discovered in an interview with Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia School of Architecture (by Jemaine Clement, in Domus, 2009), where he discusses the nature of architectural education but parenthetically inserts what it means to be an architect. A few comments that were made in the beginning of this interview struck a chord with me and begin to capture one part of the essence of an architect in uncommon terms, especially in the public’s unschooled opinion. Beyond my response here, I have made my students write their own response. Yes, I am such the ogre.

Many people have some veiled concept of what an architect is however, most really are at a loss to what an architect does let alone thinks. Perhaps you think that way. I regret that this interview may not elucidate it to the average person, nor am I going to try. However, with an open mind, it will begin to explain how architects think and the value that type of thinking brings to the table. The latter part of the article delves deeper into Mr. Wigley’s opinion of architectural education and his mission with his school. I am focusing on the description of the architect.

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As you read in my title, I quote Mr. Wigley where he states “an architect is someone who doesn’t know what a building is. That is to say someone for whom a building is a set of questions, rather than a set of answers. Almost everybody knows what a building is, but the architect is someone for whom the building is filled with mystery.” You may find this confusing or merely too esoteric. Yet it is critical to understand that architects will look at solving problems and more specifically resolving architectural issues differently than an engineer, contractor, accountant, homeowner or a university president would do. That is a good thing.

I found it extremely curious when he writes how most people might not hire an architect if they knew what to do to move the project forward. He states “I think architects are only hired because people genuinely do not know what to do. From as simple a thing as how to renovate your house after your children have gone to college to how to put a library in a big city. If you knew what to do, you wouldn’t hire an architect, you’d hire an engineer, you’d hire somebody important and you’d pay them. Most other allied professions and/or trades are often imprisoned by their own pragmatism and want to resolve a singular problem in a linear fashion. However, that method does not begin to address any of the other issues at stake. It merely solves one particular issue in a narcissistic fashion because their method ignores the remainders.

“You hire an architect because the kinds of factors involved cannot be put in the same orbit – emotional, technical, aesthetic, legal… The architect becomes somebody who has a special skill, which is to think and combine forms of knowledge that don’t belong together and to shape some kind of organization that allows the complexity to keep going. They don’t resolve the problem; they allow a kind of ecology to continue. And that’s an amazing talent, but it’s a talent that requires you to be comfortable with doubt.”

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Now at this point (if you’re still reading), you’re wondering why I am not ignoring the man behind the curtain when the one thing the public does believe about us it that we produce order simultaneously with artistic expression. Why change that now? Mr. Wigley addresses this by stating “[i]nterestingly, architects are not allowed to share that doubt in public. In fact, architects are called on to do quite the opposite, to produce images of certainty and security, stability, and so on. So that’s an odd assignment – you take the one group in society who sees objects as full of mystery and you ask them to invest those objects with the symbolism of certainty.”

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I’ve spent three years with this blog exploring and sharing how architects think. If nothing else it causes me to question how I think. Finally I find an interview (that predates my initial post) that is more honest than I am in admitting to our vulnerabilities. I don’t perceive that to be a weakness, but quite the opposite. We have unique skills that are generally misunderstood.

To those of you who are not architects, you can only wonder what goes on in our heads. I don’t wish to upset the public’s perception if it is positive, but as Mr. Wigley confesses, “there is a big difference between the public and the private in architecture. If you look inside an architect’s head, I think it’s pretty messy and yet the work they do is very clear. If you look inside an architect’s studio, it’s a mess, but when they present to the client it’s very clear.”

We as architects may appear to have it together with our confident aura, black turtlenecks and neat drawings, but the way we work, the way we think is one of constantly exploring questions in a sea of doubt. Even once a building is built, the questions remain as we reintroduce what we’ve learned from that event back into our thought process as we develop the next project. It’s an everlasting cycle of wonder and optimism.

Now as you read this on your laptop while sitting in your favorite coffee shop with your orange glazed scone or perhaps walking down the sidewalk scanning through this on your phone or better yet, on your iPad in bed while you mute the commercials during the latest episode of Mad Men, think about your environment. We do this every day. We wonder about the world and how it just might be better if we ask the right questions.

I invite you to the conversation to agree, disagree, have a different point of view or perhaps have a question. That’s what makes this fun.

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11 Responses to “i don’t know what a building is”

  1. jameskadc Says:

    That is a great post Lee, I couldn’t agree with your post more. Even though we have that persona, we do tend to always question ourselves in a sense that is a project ever really complete?

    • leecalisti Says:

      thanks. it goes beyond questions ourselves to questioning everything. what is an entrance, what is a library, how should a building sit on the land…it’s eternal

  2. eesha4 Says:

    Wonderfully written !

  3. José Silva Says:

    True to quote Paul Valery: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned” This is the feeling I have with architectural design. As soon as the problem is resolved, no sooner do I feel that it should be revised or redone. We as architects are also taught, and this becomes part of our design conscience to disect and to critique even the so called ‘masterpieces of architecture’. So for an architect the way we look at the problem ‘is’ the problem.


  4. Reminds me of one of my professors who used to always say, “Your next project is your best project.” The questioning never stops.

  5. Karen Glass Says:

    I think what you present here is spot on and really important to discuss with students if design. It takes a long time to develop a level of comfort with the discomfort of not knowing. It is that discomfort that terrifies students and causes them to rush to a solution, ANY solution as quickly as they can. It really was a revelation to me when I learned to love the mystery. Of course, deadlines can make it a love/hate relationship with mystery at times.


  6. It is the same way with art, eventually I know the drawing is finished even as I see the flaws and turn away sometimes with regret, sometimes in acceptance. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


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