Most lines of work have a famous literary or on-screen hero. For lawyers there is Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, for doctors there is George Elliot’s Tertius Lydgate or perhaps Hugh Laurie’s eponymous Dr. House. When it comes to the architectural profession, undoubtedly our most famous fictional export is Howard Roark—the central figure of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Unsurprisingly for a novel by Rand he is portrayed as a proud individualist, railing against convention and mediocrity. Indeed, the culmination of the plot sees Mr Roark taking the incredible decision to dynamite his own skyscraper project after losing creative control. Justifying his decision in a famous speech to an aghast courtroom on the grounds that the client had no right to alter work that was not theirs, the architect’s defense of individual integrity has in some quarters become mythic.
The individualist philosophy he expounds has won him (and Rand) many fans on the political Right—The Fountainhead is, for example, the professed favourite book of last year’s Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. To everybody else, however, the book captures some generally held suspicions about architects. Namely that they are a bunch of arrogant artistes, out-of-touch with reality and more than a little megalomaniacal.
For architects seem to have garnered an unpopularity unmatched by any other profession bar banking. An implicit dislike of architects seems to be evident in all directions at the moment: one can find it in the ramblings of Prince Charles, the legal wrangles that accompany any major public building project or the media’s addiction to the phrase ‘concrete monstrosity.’ Even Michael Gove has got in on the action. His disparaging comments last year about those building for the Labour government’s school building-program tie into a recent history of architect-bashing that shows no signs of abatement. So why does the profession sit in such low esteem? Do architects really deserve to be the butt of jokes by Michael Gove?
It must be said that that in the last seventy odd years we have not helped ourselves very much. With the grand promises of the Modern movement generally leaving an unhappy legacy of unloveable concrete monoliths and dysfunctional urban quarters, the architectural profession has become associated with a special brand of insensitivity and
incompetence. The whoops and cheers accompanying another dynamiting – that of the American Pruitt-Igoe Estate – speak of the powerful resentment that has been sown by the architectural profession’s failed 20th century utopias.
More recently, the degeneration of the profession into an image circus, wheeling out a bizarre new novelty icon each morning on ArchDaily and Dezeen has fed into the negative perception. Kenneth Frampton has called the deluge of formally ‘radical’ but content light buildings that fill magazines nowadays as nothing more than ‘architainment’ – their architects ‘architainers.’ Though the flood has slowed somewhat since the financial crisis of 2008, the preponderance of ‘gherkins,’ ‘armadilloes’ and ‘birds nests’ undermines attempts by the architectural profession to be taken as anything more than madcap and impractical artists.
We could perhaps mount a defense of the profession by calling out some of the characteristics that make it a particularly prominent target for criticism. Architecture is an unusually public activity. Most people would never dream of assailing their doctor or lawyer on the finer details of a medical procedure or legal document. Their professional superiority (and occasional arrogance) is mostly accepted by virtue of law and medicine being so arcane. By contrast, everybody spends their lives in or around buildings, and that daily familiarity is the grounds for often tenaciously held sense of knowing better.
Something that has always struck me in this respect is the attention that public planning receives. Architectural projects face scrutiny from quarters that would be unimaginable to other professions. The outcry from local residents that surrounded the 2003 public inquiry for the Shard in London was fierce and well-organised. If only some of that critical spirit had been directed across the river at the less visible activities of the banking houses then perhaps the economy would not be in the parlous state it is today. At any rate, architecture’s simple visibility makes architects a likely target for criticism.
It would be reductive, however, to blame the fact that buildings stick out. Whichever way you look at it, architects have an unmistakeable image problem. A survey conducted by the RIBA last summer revealed remarkable ignorance about what the role of the architect actually was. An astonishing 15% didn’t even know architects designed buildings, and the rest of the statistics suggested a perception of the architect having duties not far removed from those of a decorator. Given that so many people imagine that we do so little, all that hostility starts to make sense.
Some, such as Gabrielle Omar from last year’s season of the Apprentice, have suggested this is evidence the profession needs a PR makeover. I am skeptical that such a superficial solution would be remotely convincing. Patter about brand image has already been providing the business justification for the disposable icon-builders of the last twenty years. Given the superficial architecture that has resulted in, invoking PR-spiel all over again strikes me as a bad idea.
What then to do? Must architects just content themselves with an unfriendly status quo?
For now, maybe—but there is hope. For the prominence of architecture is in one sense an opportunity. Unlike other professionals, the architect leaves behind enormous pieces of his own work all over cities. Bankers and doctors can bury their mistakes in graves or derivatives but architects bear theirs in plain view for decades. Indeed the architect’s current unpopularity might just be a function of the length of time the world has to live with his most recent errors.