something to talk about…architecture


 People are talkin’, talkin’ ‘bout buildings.

I hear them whisper, hiding on Facebook,

They think they’re experts, tweeting their two cents

I just ignore it, but they keep sayin’ we

Talk just a little too much

Care just a little too less

We write just a little too long

Maybe they’re seein’, something we don’t get yet

Let’s give ‘em somethin’ to talk about.- talkin’ about architecture…

OK, this could get silly (sorry Bonnie) – maybe we’re beyond silly. With all of the hot air lately, don’t you think we need a good laugh?


Lately in the architectural world, we’ve had Frank’s gestures, Zaha’s…you know, Calatrava’s many problems, Bingler and Pedersen’s criticism that we’re out of touch with the public, Betsky’s critical response in return and then Justin Shubow summing it all up with his bleak indictment that we’re imploding. The rest of us are just trying to make a difference in our own corner of this profession but we’re told it’s probably part of the 98% that is…not so good. I tend to disagree.

Recently I faced my own sharp criticism as I worked on a concept design that will require the removal of a “Main Street” type building built between 1905 and 1909. My client hired me to design a new building to expand their current restaurant in downtown Greensburg, PA (my hometown). It was a challenge to develop an idea that would provide a better response to this existing aging building that has sat empty with no interest, no occupants, and has been neglected for years. The storefront and upper level had unsympathetic changes ruining it years ago. My client spent over a year with another design professional studying a way to renovate it only to find that to merely address the over-stressed floor structure to comply with current codes for any commercial use would require considerable structural reinforcement rendering the basement level useless. There were other issues. The investment would never find a return. This is the reality of architecture as a profession. It’s not just art.

Greensburg has a Historic and Architectural Review Board; I also sit on this board. Could I design a building that meets my client’s needs, that is characteristic enough to capture this corner, signature enough for their investment and business image and one that addresses the key site and urban context issues that justifies the demolition of an old building? Would I vote for my own proposal? After putting in more design time than anticipated (or budgeted), a lengthy presentation, a long deliberation by the board, the HARB and later Mayor and City Council fortunately approved my design. It’s exciting…now for my client to find the funds to pay for it. That’s the reality part again.

The HARB presentation made the local newspaper of course which opened up a flurry of opinion, debate and blunt nastiness on social media. No one cared about this building until they heard it was going to come down. Fortunately, there was much praise and many good comments in favor of moving forward understanding the reality. The discussion it sparked is part of an ongoing discussion that rides on the coattails of at least two other major projects being built in lowly Greensburg, PA. Good things are happening. Beyond that many have told me and my client how much they love the design and hope it gets built. I’m giving you a quick summary, but it involved weeks of preparation, debate and working through the emotion. Nevertheless, people are talking.

Now the HARB is facing another proposal on another site, by a developer with no evident architect or sense of design with a project that falls far short of its potential (in my opinion) to address the key issues. I’ve had an ongoing email discussion with a fellow board member about it. We’ll vote on it Tuesday.


So we have talk on social media; I have talk in my own world. People are talking. I credit a good friend of mine for opening my eyes to this simple truth. It’s when no one is talking that the real problem occurs.

Next month I will get the chance to be interviewed on a monthly radio put on by our local chamber of commerce. What do I want to talk about? I am preparing questions for the chamber president that revolve around the simple question of why should we be talking about architecture. We can talk about it on a macro level as well as a micro level. Hopefully people will keep talking and they’ll see how important it is to them and to our cities, and the need to engage actively with it.

Make your voice heard. Do it in a civil intelligent fashion. Don’t throw darts hiding on Facebook. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago here.

People are talking – though no one can agree it seems. One person writes a response to the last article who will find another critic writing about theirs. Are we imploding? Are we in trouble? Is architecture in trouble? Not as long as we keep talking and keep them talking.

So let’s give them something to talk about.

photo 1 credit: Benjamin Ellis via photopin cc
photo 2 credit: DJ-Dwayne [Returning in 2015/16] via photopin cc
photo 3 credit: keyofnight via photopin cc

something to talk about…architecture

16 thoughts on “something to talk about…architecture

  1. ted rusnak says:

    “other people’s money” or in this case, “building”. It can sit for decades with everyone shaking their heads about its’ condition and/or potential and until the Owner proposes some change no one cares. Then they all put on their Architectural hats and the discussion begins.
    Yeah, done that, been there.
    I’ve always wanted to present to an Architectural Review Board what I not so lovingly call a “Beetlejuice”. (A well maintained, historically sensitive structure destroyed by some dunderhead).
    With a cooperative Owner and enough time it would be interesting and perhaps educational. No, it would not be for real! Just to get the juices flowing in the community. (I am evil that way).

    Who would pay for my time, and who has the time?

    Maybe in my next life.

  2. I have a similar situation with a park pavilion i am working on. The existing one, though, has not been abandoned. It is used quite regularly in the summer months. But without a parks department in the city for the last five years, and a less than adequate one before that, it has fallen into a state of disrepair and dilapidation. For this reason, and the fact that a donor stepped up unprovoked with some money to replace it, the newly reformed parks department manager has decided to replace it.

    I have not encountered the vileness of comments that i have seen in regard to your project, but it certainly has gotten some people talking and i am doing my best to encourage and keep the conversation going.

    Keep the conversation going…

    1. Matt, thanks and I appreciate the empathy of going through things together. I’m not insulted if people prefer a different taste. I don’t care for ignorant and rude behavior when someone doesn’t have much information yet they condemn for things not fitting within their narrow mind. Hang in there.

  3. wmello1934 says:

    This sounds like “Everytown, USA” where the villagers keep their muskets aside them as they sleep to protect their platitude crops from being attacked by those pesky “Whataretheythinkingabouters”.

  4. Wow, this is interesting, Lee. Here you have a vernacular building that was bastardized (likely in the 70’s) with the addition of a mansard roof, next to another artless mansard monstrosity (that contributes not one bit to the charm of a main street) . And people are calling your well thought out, yet contemporary building ugly?!? It illustrates how frustrating it can be practicing architecture!

    Years ago I tried to tear down two ranch homes in a historic, suburban neighborhood (with a stock of 1920’s and Victorian homes) and proposed 3 Arts & Crafts bungalows. It had to go through a hearing process and (despite neighborhood info meetings) the neighbors fought it tooth and nail; called them ugly, monstrosities, etc (even after I built models comparing them to what two large conforming houses would look like). After our hearing failed, we sold the properties to another builder who built two conforming McMansions that overwhelm the scale of the neighborhood! Who wins?

    I agree, continuing the talk is a move in the right direction. However, I wish there could be a distinction made between the public’s perception of a Starchitect designing an art museum over local architects designing buildings for developers and communities. People either perceive us as having complete artistic license or no distinct talents, hence they think they can design it better. It is a shame people do not appreciate architects, and understand, that we have studied the built environment and (in most cases) want to make a positive contribution.

    Although is may seem like a continuous futile battle, Keep up the good work!

    1. Ed, thanks for your stories too. No it’s not futile. I’m starting to see change but I think we have to be excited about small change and not global. Small victories.

  5. dwmarc2014 says:

    Years ago my firm at the time proposed a major addition to a historic building in Old Town Alexandria. We worked hard to be contextual and zoning compliant. The opposition was mostly some residents of non-historic townhouses behind the site, who as professionals of one kind or other formed a most surly football team. But the project was approved, so the citizens sued the HARB. But in due course the developer gave up and moved to FL. To this day, the building is unchanged. As silly as this all seems in retrospect, I emerged a little tougher for it. Arthur Cotton Moore FAIA, another architect who worked in the area, called Old Town the most uncivil bunch he ever worked with! Best of Luck to you, Lee.

  6. ted rusnak says:

    Lee, I’m sure you’re aware of this but it just came to me after reflecting on you comments above. The thought goes to your / our observations of our critics. (How could I not have seen this before!).

    For all the effort and time, education and work we may put into what we do we’re not nearly as observant or brilliant or sensitive to buildings as those who actually own a building, or have seen one. And their building and observations are much better than ours. And woe unto you who dares comment in any manner other than agreement with them as they cannot be criticized when they pontificate lest you be shown to be insensitive and unknowledgeable. (Don’t you love those meetings when a group of little old ladies show up to loudly protest a material proposed to be used that they don’t understand. I had one group bring a court stenographer, seriously, they did. I have no idea why but there she sat. The local paper called me the next day to get the “scoop”).

    Maybe we are becoming unnecessary. Maybe the public should get a taste of the vulgar things some people considered good architecture. Maybe we should step aside for a time and allow these cretins their chance. After all who are we to decide what looks good?


  7. I have been thinking a lot about this post, especially some of the negative comments your design received on those Facebook posts. I have come to realize that modernism (or what now is really considered Neo-Modernism) is a language taught in architecture school. It catches on quickly among most architecture students. When I taught drafting at the community college, the students would look at suburban McMansions as their inspiration. Most would be wowed the seam way as looking at the latest pick-up trucks. Yes, people do like Modern high rises. Some are even wowed by the new Freedom tower (I have to say, I don’t get it) and most of the object like buildings in Dubai (especially the one that looks like a big white sail) and such. But when it comes to houses, or small infill buildings, to many, Neo-Modernism is a language they simply cannot relate to.

    What’s an architect to do? I’m going to come back to that. More importantly why do architects insist on speaking ONLY this language? One of the comments from the articles you mention was from an architecture professor who said he and his students believe “21st century buildings should look like 21st century buildings” (saddens me that he would speak for his students) . Why the zealous dogma? And really, I had to rebut, that while I “liked” the houses his students designed, I thought they looked more like something from the mid-20th century! Do we (architects) really believe Neo-Modernism is thee language? Do we really believe we have a moral imperative to design only in this language? (because, I suspect we believe Saarinen who said something like our culture is advanced through art, therefore what we design must be current, and not imitative) I would submit that most Neo-Modernism IS imitative as many of the designs are very reminiscent of early 20th Century modernism. For instance, many of the current RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT MAG awards look very much like RM Schindler’s Kings Road House of 1922. . Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But, I see Neo-Modernism as another style. And it is a style the same as the neo-traditional styles. It can be done well or it can be done poorly. but, more importantly, I see Neo-Modernism as a stylistic PREFERENCE – something that architects (and if they are lucky, their clients) LIKE more than neo-trad,

    So, what’s an architect do do? Do we have to dumb down our designs, so that everyone gets it – or likes it? Or, to quote one of my professors, is architecture “only for those who appreciate it” – like poetry, classical music, and fine literature? Do we acquiesce to our clients, who say…”Na…I was thinking something more like this…” Or, do we stand up, because we have morals, we have principles, and we will NOT design 21st century buildings that don’t look like 21st century buildings! Of course, some of us might end up like Louis Sullivan if we take that road. Like you, Lee, I don’t have answers, but only more questions. I’d like to think that there are things that make good architecture that transcend style – and that the language is really more of a preference. . The “modern” design you proposed will still reinforce the sense of place that is viable for a healthy Main Street. Yet, this can be accomplished in a traditional language and also a transitional (Hybrid) language. If the building is well constructed, well detailed, durable, appropriately scaled and massed,, I am not sure that the language will matter much. How about the interior? What the clients spacial desires are? The things that the exterior rendering doesn’t convey? These things matter too. And perhaps a wall of glass will be very dramatic and inspiring – far more so than the punched windows of a traditional language – so there are compelling reasons to design in t contemporary language.

    I am glad your design passed it’s review. You are fortunate to have clients that want to build a quality building – and invest in a downtown. Since it is a restaurant, i hope some of the naysayers will come around, take in a meal there, and appreciate an environment that is designed. And maybe they will realize that it is the street fabric that makes for an inspiring place, and a modern building can contribute to that in a positive way.

    1. Ed, I appreciate your insight. I prefer a contemporary expression, but granted most don’t. Why is that? I imagine it’s many reasons. I prefer to look forward more than backwards, but I cannot discern what contemporary is anymore. Modern is of the past if we use our terms accurately. In all of this debate, many do not want to admit the answer is somewhere in the middle. Most people prefer scattering to the outskirts much like grade school gym class. No one wants to be in the middle for fear of getting hit by the ball.

  8. Negotiation Without Compromise

    I had to laugh though about your comment regarding the running commentary by Bingler and Pedersen, Betsky, and Justin Shubow and wondered if you had seen the latest follow-ups by David Brussat (Betsky Goes Ballistic), Matthew Johnson (Architecture Doesn’t Need Rebuilding, It Needs More Thoughtful Critics), and Blaine Brownell, (The Disruptive Nature of Architectural Innovation)? Everyone is talking now. I wish they would stop for a moment so I can finish my humble little “rant and opine” response which I began several weeks ago.

    Whenever I had the pleasure of negotiating (yes, negotiating) my way through Community Design Review Boards and Neighborhood Architectural Review Commissions, I would always say to myself, “I wonder if Richard Meier ever had to do this?” Of course I am dating myself, but nowadays it could be in reference to any of the avant garde—whether it is Mr. One-Finger Salute, Zaha, or Calatrava. Negotiation is a foul word in architecture because it usually infers the act of compromise, while the idea of compromise holds equivalent contempt because it suggests an outcome that something is less than it should be. For most celebrity architects, I regard their contributions and respect who and what they have achieved. However, I suspect none of them would admit their design is open to negotiation, while clearly it is. For example, the designs for Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial, Hadid’s Tokyo Olympic Stadium, and Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum all have clearly undergone compromise, and rightly so. I believe that negotiation and compromise are part and parcel to the practice of architecture and that they define the boundaries of the respective value sets within the design domain.

    Rather than words like negotiation and compromise, the discipline of architecture prefers to use terms like “resolve,” “harmonize,” and “modify” when talking about architecture because they avoid inference of diminishing design. This is particularly true when a design comes under fire by public review boards. Yet, reality shows that negotiation and compromise are the primary tools which most effectively resolve conflicts with the design review process.

    I will even go further and say that negotiation and compromise are the only unifying canons within the sea of pluralism which unifies the design domain. Few people will admit the fact, it is an unpopular idea, but I believe it to be true. While architecture is grandly called the art of building, honest examination shows that by its very nature, building is a negotiation in itself. At first, the forces of gravity must be negotiated—the first evidence of compromise. Then there are the forces of climatic conditions, site characteristics, program, function, performance, materials, budgets, resources, opportunity, expectations, and on and on. All of which are in competition with the values of the designer, the immediate client, the architectural community, and the public at large. That anything lovely, beautiful, or endearing comes out of this negotiation we call design is remarkable, and it is a miraculous wonder and sheer inspiration for an architect.

    As an architect, being satisfied with the outcome of negotiation depends upon finding common ground between the value sets of the designer and the primary interests having authority over the project. Borrowing from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s true test of intelligence, which he defines as “the ability to hold two-opposing ideas in mind at the same time,” the art of negotiation is the ability to resolve two or more opposing ideas by virtue of shared values. Finding common ground gets to the core of resolving complicated matters of design. For example, whenever faced with having to modify or redesign a project because of the public review process, not only has the outcome produced a better design, but I was satisfied with the undertaking because I was able to uphold the values most important to me while serving the values most important to others. When willing to reconsider other possible forms and features, compromise in the design process is entirely possible without compromising the values of the designer. This is negotiation without compromise. The most important aspect of any review process is not so much about artistic quality as it is determining whether the right questions have been asked.

    A case in point is the recently completed World Trade Center designed by SOM’s David Childs and his colleagues. The WTC tower has been labeled by many of its critics as a “shyscraper,” a “betrayal,” and a “failure.” Architecture’s very own beacon of the profession, Architectural Record, decried the “fraught icon” to be “a failed project by an excellent design firm, and a symbol of American political incompetence, private ignorance, and greed,” while concluding, “surely New York City and the public deserve better than this.”

    The New York Times architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, more or less offered similar comments but added his consternation that the tower looks the same from any perspective. Perhaps it should. That all Americans harbor a unified historic impression of the horrific impact 9/11 had upon the country, regardless of station or point of reference, is most appropriate. Considering that One WLC is a simple obelisk, expressed as an elegantly glass-cladded prismatic form achieved by a rotated square plan, the form of the tower may not be entirely novel, but it’s unclear what then New York and the public deserve. Gherkins, hour glasses, pyramids, spirals, shards, canned hams, and other “novelties” have been tried elsewhere, with equal or less success.
    Upon close inspection, the reasons cited for One WTC’s condemnation derive mostly from the opinion that as a civic icon and a public monument, it mostly represents a gross betrayal of public trust—“since in no way is it remarkable” and “because no one’s heart will soar at its prospect.” Evidence for this accusation is based upon the opinion that One WTC has a horrendous clunky base, an imposing podium perimeter, disjointed composition, oppressive interior proportions, thick walls, hefty cores, and rather than meeting the ground, the tower crashes into it. These must be the prerequisites for soaring hearts? All in all, the supposed failure of One WTC is wrought entirely by an object-building mentality sorely disappointed by a lack of image-driven iconic monumentality. I am not sure I am defending the design of One WTC, so much as I am criticizing the basis for all the criticism. Ironically, the greatest criticism might be that One WTC did not undergo a formal design review process.

    Design is the art of imagination, the masterful harmonization of opposites and contradictions. It is a battle between epic opportunity and endless possibilities, waged on a stage of conflicting needs, desires, and limitations. One WTC supports this premise. Whether its performance is ultimately seen to be inimitable—so good or unusual as to be impossible to happen elsewhere, or that it is doomed to brightly glisten in the spotlight of abysmal failure, remains to be seen. That it reflects the values of all those responsible for shaping its design is most probable. The primary goal of One WTC which is by far more important than any iconic consideration has been achieved. Its completion continues the healing process of the nation, as it fulfills the public’s desire for a meaningful landmark on sensitive ground.

    Most New Yorkers, especially those who lost their loved ones at Ground Zero, appear satisfied with One WLC, while they deeply resent its criticism. This might be a good time for the architectural profession to wrestle with its conviction that our purpose is more than offering grand visions and ideas, and that more often we are given more humble purposes to serve. Architecture is more than art. The idea that architects are a supreme authority on everything having to do with the built environment has become disenchanting. The general populace is losing interest in the bold ideas we offer, the reasons we give for our actions, and the values we claim to be priorities—mostly because at times like these we show little regard for their needs and expectations.

    The hype around iconic design, and the myth of the individual genius and the individual monument that adorns it, is a convenient decoy which distracts from our collective responsibility to make this world a better place. I believe great architecture abounds in the world, and most of it is created by 98% of the architects who struggle every day to do so —no matter how small the practice or the opportunity. How much longer some in the profession continue to make architecture for people without speaking or listening to them, all the while ignoring their dreams, hopes, and fears, will depend upon their own complicity.

    Have you ever spoken to someone and realized they were not listening to what you have to say? Usually you will react in one of two ways. Either you quit speaking about your own interests and ask questions about theirs, which inevitably opens a flood gate of information and knowledge, or you keep speaking until you find others who will listen. Eventually, if the vanguard of the profession keeps this up, we will have architects just talking to architects, and in the end, every architect will just talk to themselves. Most of us know to listen more, talk less, and work diligently to make the lives and places better for those who live outside the design domain. Good architecture speaks for itself; great architecture listens. It is during the encounters with the public about design, not with other architects, when I realize—not because of negotiation or compromise—how good or bad an architect I am. I imagine it’s the same in most places, whether it’s the Big Apple or Greensburg PA.

    1. Larry, I’m not sure how to even reply. I think you make a lot of points that you should share on a blog. With your experience, you’ve much to share. Thanks for contributing.

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