Architecture: Whom Do We Serve?

01.11.2015 Larisa Tsvetkova:

Once a name is associated with a star architect, it becomes a brand. Companies and cities which can afford brands like that are using them for marketing, as they bring a lot of attention. While a famous name is getting more importance, the architecture itself becomes secondary. Until it can be identified with the brand and has a certain quality standard, the actual concept does not really matter. As a result, there is a risk of having alien buildings which are not necessary integrated in their neighbourhoods or in the local culture. This star architecture is just a very tiny part of the diversity of built projects. Nevertheless, it has a strong impact on both education and praxis.

In architecture it is much discussed how we can work with and for the client, while many students and young professionals actually dream of implementing their individual ideas, often focusing not on social aspects, but rather on beauty, materials and modern technologies. These criteria are connected to the star architect’s culture, where single actors and their creations are pictured in glossy magazines as the best examples, the iconic projects. Spectacular pictures are often good enough for the public to assume a project is successful. But what is hidden behind those impressive facades and big names?

The reality in a (big) architecture office typically is working long hours on particular tasks, limited to a field or a topic. That does not leave much space for creative thinking, and definitely not for seeing the bigger picture. Even though having a small role in a big (ideally interdisciplinary) team helps develop interesting solution and gain new knowledge. In universities, on the other hand, many students try to use their time to develop their own style and present it in the portfolio. This often means searching for one’s own ideas by drawing endless sketches and producing 3d models instead of learning from other projects and real examples. Sharing ideas and exchanging critical opinions are quite rare. An individual idea is a final product which is seen as a symbol for creativity (similar to the brands in start architecture). These two extremes – limited tasks in an office and individual creation in the university- are not quite compatible and probably not very effective either.

In fact, individualistic approach to architecture does not have much to do with a general understanding of creativity: Any work that provides solutions for problems is creative. And creating intelligent and sustainable solutions usually requires different perspectives combined together. In faster fields, such as telecommunication or IT, this kind of innovative work is happening these days in labs, hubs and co-working spaces, where independent professionals work in multidisciplinary communities, networking and exchanging ideas. Even big international companies have already recognized that innovation can only be done if these young energies are integrated in their business. At the same time, the new generations are growing up with social media as well as open source, they are open for exchange of ideas and do-it-yourself approaches. Sharing inventions and solutions with the public is becoming as natural as selling developed products on the market. Innovative start-ups present their project to the public from the very start, as it helps to improve their initial idea and heightens the possibility of success. Users are rather interested in getting tools or opportunities for participation rather than in purchasing finished products. Innovation is getting faster, more decentralized and connected to a global community where everyone is working independently while contributing to and benefiting from a collective knowledge.

Simultaneously, importance of cities is increasing every year, as more and more population all over the world is moving to urban areas. This process brings a lot a challenges, but also remarkable opportunities. Growing cities are global creative labs which can produce great innovation. Architects play a significant role in cities by renovating, rebuilding and creating new structures. Very often architects also influence the city development, as urban planning as a profession is not existing in many countries. Therefore, architecture is a huge responsibility and a great opportunity at the same time. Buildings influence our life every day. A good home can make us happier and healthier. A bad home can put relationships and even lives in danger. It can create barriers or give freedom, help build communities or cause segregation.

There is no need in extending architectural profession to creating iconic structures. It is important enough, even on a small scale. As architects, we have to ask ourselves an important question: who are our clients? Is that developers, who are only interested in making as much money as possible? Or investors, who want to promote their business and improve the profit? Or our own ego, which wants to build something newer, bigger than before? Maybe our clients could be the global challenges and the need for innovation. Architecture is too influential for being another marketing tool or an art object. Perhaps it is still not too late to think about our profession in a different way.

Photo: (c) Georg Mittenecker