We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen.
This is a line from a recent New York Times op-ed that has been making the rounds online today called: How to Rebuild Architecture.
The premise of the article is that architects have marginalized themselves by being pompous elitists who increasingly serve only the rich and don’t respond to public opinion about architecture.
For too long, our profession has flatly dismissed the general public’s take on our work, even as we talk about making that work more relevant with worthy ideas like sustainability, smart growth and “resilience planning.”
The author’s recommendation is that architects need to get better at listening to their clients and listening to the public.
Reconnecting architecture with its users — rediscovering the radical middle, where we meet, listen and truly collaborate with the public, speak a common language and still advance the art of architecture — is long overdue. It’s also one of the great design challenges of our time.
What’s interesting about this viewpoint is that it’s precisely the sort of thing that entrepreneurs and business people are trained to do today. The mantra is that you should never build your product or service in isolation. Get out of the building. Talk to customers. Get feedback. Adjust. And iterate.
But architects don’t like to do this. Why is that?
The answer, at least partially, comes down to taste. As the author correctly pointed out, the kinds of buildings that architects like are often not the same ones that the general public likes.
I don’t have any hard data to support this claim, but I suspect that most people out there – particularly those with money – would prefer their home to look like something that Robert Stern designed as opposed to a glass box designed by Philip Johnson.
And yet the latter is what architects and architecture students make pilgrimages to. I certainly did when I was in architecture school.
In fact, I think you’d have a difficult time getting into any architecture school right now with a portfolio of work as traditional as the work of Robert Stern. It’s simply not part of the architectural discourse at this stage.
So to many architects, it can be difficult – even painful – to listen to what the public wants. Architects are not trained in terms of market size and profit maximization. It’s about passion. It’s a labor of love. And when you’ve already fallen in love, it can be hard to change your mind.