If you’ve ever seen the episode of the Twilight Zone (The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, 1960) where a small town in the USA (on Maple Street) becomes engulfed in fear and prejudicial thinking when suddenly all machines and electrical functions cease after a dark shadow and a strange flash in the sky, then you’ll know where I’m going. In the episode, the neighbors are spooked by the words on a young soothsayer boy who tells them that he read about aliens living amongst them as humans and they’d better not leave the street. No aliens are seen in the picture but over the course of the episode all of the neighbors turn on each other and begin to accuse each other of being the culprit until someone is killed. In their unplanned isolation, their fear creates a villain where none existed (other than the monitoring aliens). The closing scene (spoiler alert) is in the ship of the aliens where one explains to the other that all they had to do to defeat the humans is make them turn on each other. “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men…” (Rod Serling)
Several things (including an opinionated article by Aaron Betsky in Architect Magazine) made me think about the relationship of this TV episode and our profession today. Is it an extreme comparison, perhaps? There is so much talk, rhetoric and written discourse about the issues facing our profession and the concern of our future extinction that we, like those neighbors, are beginning to turn on each other rather than banding together. Instead of singing Kum Ba Yah and holding hands, we’re drawing lines in the sand and throwing stones. We begin to blame each other for the problems we are facing rather than looking to each other for safety and solutions.
I admit I have strong opinions about who should be a licensed architect. I’m sorry Mr. Betsky, I care “who is a licensed architect” and for good reasons. After the hard road it took me to earn it, I am also rather opinionated on the use of the title “architect” which has been hijacked and used freely and cheaply. It is not likely I will change my position on these two issues any time soon, but there is a bigger picture of what is going on here that needs to be dealt with more than titles, names and territories. Fixing it just might heal some of these other sores.
Where I agree with Mr. Betsky is how we need to teach the public about what makes good architecture and how it transforms our lives and communities. This is far more important than who gets credit for it ultimately. According to Aaron Betsky’s article, “whatever we call architecture, however, is more than all that expertise. It is also more than what licensed architects do. It is something that transforms buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living…what we need is a debate about what those qualities are, how we can recognize them, how we can teach them, how we can judge competency in them, and how we can explain to the public what they are.” I’m happy to share my opinion on architects and licensure, but I’m far more interested in making and teaching good architecture.
If we boil this down, one of the real injuries here is a lack of respect or appreciation. Perhaps we wear our hearts on our sleeves as architects and designers so we’re prone to have our egos bruised easily. Our complaints and gripes are not as much from a lack of work but a lack of respect for each other and a lack of respect from the public. Face it, we fail to deliver respect and appreciation for one another and in our offended position we throw darts as an attempt to make ourselves look better. If the public respected architecture and if they really appreciated architecture, we’d all be very busy. This goes back to Mr. Betsky’s comments where I believe he solicits a request to make architecture more important than the architect. He and I want the public to buy into the importance of good architecture more than having a “my dad can beat up your dad” mentality. Despite my opinions, I must admit that good architecture is good regardless of the credentials of the designer. I’ll save my soapbox about titles and licensure for another day.
The debate on “who cares who’s a licensed architect” will continue. If it causes us to look introspectively at our profession and make adaptations to reflect our current culture, then the debate has merit. Maybe people like me need to be less rigid. However, we must not give up ground at the risk of the public’s safety and the risk of losing good architecture. Let’s learn to show respect and appreciation for all involved in this profession and see if that doesn’t mend some of these fractures. More importantly, let’s educate the public about the value of good, enduring and sustainable architecture.
It is time the monsters left Maple Street.