…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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.