Talk Isn’t Cheap: Using Architectural Discourse to Change the World

Ever caught yourself referring to Brunelleschi’s Dome or Gehry’s Guggenheim when you weren’t talking about design?

Ross Brady Ross Brady

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In a strange reversal of relevance, there’s a pervasive tendency in architecture to refer to high-profile buildings as if they belong to the architect or firm that designed it instead of the person or entity that actually owns it. While this practice is understandable for discussing design, it unfortunately obscures architecture’s primary role as an economic agent by foregrounding its secondary role as an object of art. If this practice were reversed, it could benefit architects by reinforcing the value of their work and benefit public perception of building projects by raising awareness of the power structures behind major spatial decisions, potentially increasing accountability between landowners, architects and the public.

The tendency to understand significant buildings as belonging to their designers starts in architecture school, because applying people’s names to otherwise unfamiliar structures helps teach architectural history to novices by imbuing it with a personal dimension. Despite a familiarity with the mechanics of the field gained over time, this initial habit tends to follow into practice as a way of characterizing contemporary happenings in the profession. On the surface, this isn’t a problem because it’s appropriate to attribute buildings to their architects when discussing design decisions, but the prevalence of this tendency pushes an unfortunate misunderstanding into colloquial speech. Ever caught yourself referring to Brunelleschi’s Dome or Gehry’s Guggenheim when you weren’t talking about design?

Via Era Rental Apartments

The effects of this innocent slip are cumulative. It fuels the world of design media because it allows esoteric, industry-specific material to become infinitely more interesting by attaching a designer’s name, potentially capturing a wider audience for whom the nuances of building projects might not be as easily understood. This tends to stress architecture’s role as an art form in the eyes of both architects and the general public, obscuring the fact that most buildings are built only because shelter has value.

Without downplaying the importance of architectural quality, it’s more important to remember that even the most design-forward buildings exist because of the economic, political or social value inherent in their uses. Nearly every structure on earth, whether it houses business or pleasure, residents or religion, wouldn’t be standing if it weren’t worth something to the person or people who commissioned it. The value of a building’s design is always secondary to its reason for being.

It follows that the emphasis our profession places on designer-oriented narratives does a disservice to architects by confusing the purposes of our work and, by extension, to the public, for whom we tend to serve as interpreters of the built environment. But what if this understanding were reversed? What if popular conception of architecture first considered the value a building gives its owner before descending into subjective debate over design qualities? What if the education, business and media of architecture were reoriented to push such an awareness?

At the very least, it would create some interesting conditions in everyday conversation. Land ownership can be complicated, and the way we refer to buildings would become complicated, as well. Instead of Brunelleschi’s Dome, we would have to specify that landmark as the Catholic Church’s Florence Cathedral, while Gehry’s Guggenheim would become the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s Bilbao branch. Neither of those is easy to say, but the widespread use of such uninspiring tongue twisters could prompt mainstream curiosity over facts that tend to be buried slightly below popular discourse, like how much land the Catholic Church controls or how vast the Guggenheim Foundation’s reach is.

Guggenheim Museums in New York, Bilbao and Venice; via Odd Cities and The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

Under such a system, it would become nearly impossible to refer to SOM’s Time Warner Center by its new name, a mishmash of condominium deeds ending in variations of “Corp.” and “LLC.” However, the anonymity behind such monikers would likely arouse suspicion that some are used as sophisticated tools for money laundering long before that notion surfaces in an influential expose. Perhaps most telling, in light of recent events, would be the significant number of buildings that lose the name “Trump” because it’s merely licensed for use to undistinguished owners willing to pay for brand recognition.

This reorienting of popular perception would likely have an outsize effect on the practice of architecture. Students would enter the profession with a greater understanding of their roles in society than they tend to have currently, and practicing architects would constantly be reminded of the value of their work relative the value of the property they’re improving. Negotiations over architect’s fees could take on a whole new dimension when a client’s perennial profits are at the front of everyone’s mind, and young architects just entering the field may think twice, or at least ask some well-informed questions, before settling for subpar pay.

Time Warner Center, New York City; via Michael Minn

Most significant among these changes would be the level of awareness raised amongst the general populace. Public-facing building names are chosen very carefully to convey various messages, from luxury or security to power and prestige, but such names often belie the story of the structure itself. Emphasizing the decision-making role played by owners behind complex building projects, this reversal of perception could lay bare the politics of spatial power structures for all to see. Under such a system, architectural actions that aren’t in the best interest of the public would be harder to conceal.

The way we speak about buildings may seem trivial, but it reflects our society’s fundamental understanding of architecture. By shaping the mechanics of the way it’s discussed, architects have the power to frame mainstream perception of architecture’s purpose in the daily lives of nearly everyone. This is an influence that should not be underestimated, and if the profession wishes to realize its fullest potential, it should wield its powers in the pursuit of transparency for the spaces it creates.

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House in Avanca // Unipessoal, LDA

Avanca, Portugal

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SV House // Rocco Borromini

Albosaggia, Italy