IN architecture, everyone’s a critic. One of us, Steven, was recently driving down Elliott Avenue in Charlottesville, Va., his hometown, with his 88-year-old mother. They passed a house designed and built by architecture students at the University of Virginia. To Steven, an architect, this model for affordable housing — a tough pair of stacked boxes, sheathed in corrugated metal — was a bold design statement. But to his mother’s eye, the house was a blight on the landscape, an insult to its historic neighbors.
“It looks like somebody piled a couple of boxcars on top of each other, then covered them up with cheap metal and whatever else they could find at the junkyard!” she said.
It’s easy to dismiss Mrs. Bingler as an unsophisticated layperson. But that’s the problem: 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.”
We’ve confronted this problem before, with the backlash against what was seen as soulless modernism in the 1960s and ’70s. But our response, broadly speaking, was more of the same, dressed differently: postmodernism, deconstructivism and a dozen other -isms that made for vibrant debate among the professionals but pushed everyone else further away. And we’re more insulated today, with an archipelago of graduate schools, magazines and blogs that reinforce our own worldview, supported by a small number of wealthy public and private clients.
The question is, at what point does architecture’s potential to improve human life become lost because of its inability to connect with actual humans?