reality isn’t too real


…and then we travel and I cook up my weird thoughts.

In case you didn’t know…
…reality shows aren’t real.
…fashion model pictures – nope, not real either (Photoshop).
…appearance of happiness among the rich and famous, nope, not real.
I hope I haven’t spoiled things for you.
Architecture – real?

Do we mentally divide architecture into two categories – celebrity buildings and…well…the rest? Do we overly sanitize our mental perception of buildings from reading glossy mags? Isn’t this setting up a false dichotomy, an endless pursuit for something that cannot exist? How does this make architects feel about our own work or projects in our communities? If we see celebrity projects in person, do their shortcomings make us feel better about our own work?

The Contemporaine – Perkins and Will

With architecture, we could get caught up with the same error as believing the images are real and desiring them more than the real thing. It is possible to forget that celebrities are real people with the same issues that we have, yet the media conceals their flaws. Architectural journals might be equally guilty as the carefully cropped images are taken from very specific vantage points, thus it’s possible to falsely believe that these designers work in a different world that we do. The awards ought to be shared with the photographers. Unfortunately, television has had the same effect, as design shows often disguise the matters that we wish were discussed openly (codes, schedule, price, gravity).

NEI El Centro 08.png
NEIU El Centro Library (courtesy of Google Maps)
NEI El Centro 02.png
NEIU El Centro Library (courtesy Google Maps)

I thoroughly enjoy visiting places I admire and experiencing them in person. More than once I’ve said it’s better to experience architecture in person than merely see it in a magazine (so many innuendos here). To truly capture the space or experience the intended effect, being there in person always beats a photo. Unfortunately, architecture is often only judged by the photograph. Therefore, what is a fair reaction when we see the same blemishes on our favorite buildings? Are we relieved that the architects suffered through similar challenges? Do we leave feeling disappointed? Here are three things we must accept for any building or space – whether ours or by the stars.

poetry foundation street view 01.png
Poetry Foundation John Ronan Architects

buildings have a back door
It is self-evident that a building needs to function within its intended purpose. In commercial structures especially, there are certain elements that need to be in place for it to operate for the users. Buildings have back doors, loading docks, rooftop equipment, outdoor air conditioning units and other crass elements that are often cropped or eliminated from photographs. Are you unaware of the Northeastern Illinois University El Centro Library project in Chicago? The challenge remains to integrate functional elements, equipment and service items into what we see as less desirable elements into the building and learn from other skilled solutions. We cannot avoid these things; no one in our modern era can.


2017-07-27 07.55.13.png

buildings get dirty
If you visit your projects months or years after they are complete, sooner or later you’re going to see that it gets dirty. Dirt appears on the outside, garbage collects inside, papers are taped up on the walls, and eventually the walls scratch or something gets damaged. Yes, you might find gum on the sidewalk. Sometimes it feels like those scratches are scratches on us but some look at it as an aging process that the building is been used. We can learn from this whether it’s something we’ve designed or it’s by another. Many of us appreciate the dignified aging of a building such as the patina of metal, the rusting of Cor-Ten, or the unevenness of concrete – the controlled decay, but it’s certainly nice when they are brand-new and shiny. Photographs of buildings hide these things; however, when we visit them in person, we see that the same dirt, scuffs and scratches appear on those buildings as well. They’re just buildings, I tell myself. They’re not precious objects to sit on a shelf.


poetry foundation detail 01.jpg
john ronan’s poetry foundation – i’ll take this patina anytime
mdf and hands don’t mix
freeze thaw is an evil thug

buildings exist in context
Rarely do we design structures isolated from anything and everything with nothing around but a field or forest. Even in that case there is still a context. Generally, we design buildings in neighborhoods, we design buildings in communities, and often there are nearby elements that we find to be less desirable than our structure. We may believe those elements detract from our overall building’s image – but most would hold to the value that we ought to respond to what’s next to our site. How does that work? When we see magazine photos carefully cropped to the to the building’s edge, and the overall context or aerial images are purposely omitted, we are fooled to believe these projects exist in Utopia. In other words, one might want to visit it only to find it’s an isolated gem among a lesser developed neighborhood…now what? Now we can’t apologize or take credit for what’s around the building – we have no control over those things. Yet I must admit it does have an impact. I have traveled and stood up close to a project I’ve admired and appreciated for what it was but was simultaneously surprised that the neighbors were not as sophisticated. There have been other times where we drove for miles on a vacation only to be disappointed that the building in context fell short of our fabricated mental image falsely set up by photographs – I just got out of the car, snapped a few photos and took off.

Akron Art Museum.png
Akron Art Museum – Coop Himmelb(l)au
poetry foundation aerial 01.png
Poetry Foundation – John Ronan Architects

Why can’t we be honest? Why can’t we extend the same criticism to all architecture? If we are too hard on ourselves, do we extend that to the lovely ones that win awards? Should they win so many awards? I realize I’m spinning here with questions as usual.

Remain critical of your own work, so that you continue to become better but don’t beat yourself up thinking that stars are free from frustrating issues of aligning sprinkler heads, or mechanical duct-work in the way, or resolving code issues that tend to rob our creative freedom, even sub-standard craft happens. I believe it is just like our television design shows – when the truth comes out, we find out that the reality portrayed isn’t any more real than the reality we live in day-to-day.

Be real.

reality isn’t too real

2 thoughts on “reality isn’t too real

  1. Sean Tobin says:

    Yup. yup. yup. Buildings, age, just like people. I don’t mind seeing the patina, sometimes I feel that the cracking shows honesty and wear (just like our own wrinkles). What I don’t get is the dichotomy of the NEIU El Centro Library and the Poetry Foundation. I consider it good planning and design to hide that loading dock on the Poetry Foundation, but if I were a delivery driver I would probably hate the designers for what they did. As a passer by, I appreciate not seeing it. Then you have the ‘honesty’ of the NEIU El Centro Library with all of its HVAC equipment on the roof, all of which disappeared thanks to Photoshop when it was entered in design competitions.So people see it every day, and probably wonder ‘why is this building with its ugly equipment so celebrated’.

    I do find it odd that we, society, not only accept the ‘false narrative’ of so many things, but we celebrate it and expect it. I’d rather appreciate the building for what it is, though, personally. Flaws and all. Its what spurs us (or should spur us) to design better, work harder with the clients and contractors, and get a better product.

    But again, the reality is I have worked with well-known folks who don’t care when something is out of place, or where the sprinklers go, because ‘Oh, we’ll just have that photoshopped out and no one will know’ – except for the folks who are left working there, and the visitors who show up expecting the photograph.

    One day, I think it would be great to revisit a building, year after year, to photograph it as it ages, flaws and all, just to see the honesty in materials, use, design, construction, and, well, ‘life’.

    1. Good thoughts. I didn’t visit NEIU, but I did stop briefly at the Poetry Foundation a couple of weeks ago. I think there are carryovers between our obsession (OK, not mine) with celebrity people and celebrity anything else. We want to believe they’re what we are shown on TV/magazines. I don’t get it. Aging gracefully is fine – especially in architecture. After all, celebrities who won’t age naturally look like clown freaks with the plastic surgery.

Please leave a reply, and consider sharing this with a friend.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.