Mind the Gap

Coming across a rather popular Facebook movement urging people to demand a municipal referendum, in order to alter the existing prize-winning main town square of a Greek city and return it back to its 1975 non-designed form, I am left wondering: “What went so wrong to cause such a schism between architects and the general public?” Gehry replies by raising his middle finger against the public opinion; good architects know better, after all (don’t they?).

Apart from the recent Gehry gesture and his arrogant commentary, the architects’ elitist behaviour is still being cultivated at least since the Renaissance. It was then that Philibert Delorme tried to specify and define the architectural profession in his Premier Tome de lArchitecture, published in 1567. Standing out from the rest of the artisans, the architect becomes, in Philibert’s words, ‘a man schooled in books and in long experience’. This differentiation inevitably led to a certain social separation; at that moment, the architectural profession had already started fighting for its rightful place next to the other high-profile professions of doctors and lawyers. There was still no friction with the general public, though, since the architect would either remain under the patronage of some noble aristocrat, or take up various commissions by wealthy people. It was the modern movement that first attempted to deal with the majority of the masses, mapping the human body and tracking its moves (see the Frankfurt kitchen), whilst attempting to comprehend and accommodate human needs (as in the Unité d'habitation). But still the modern movement, which proudly relied on the main needs of the human being, was so opinionated that it granted itself the right to defy the ‘undereducated and callow’ user.

When Wright, Mies, and Corbu received letters of complaint from clients whose roofs were leaking, they would reply rudely and abruptly—while the roof would still be impudently leaking. That was the moment when Post-modern was ante portas, ready to challenge the modern dogma and defend popular culture. Through the pages of Casabella (December 1971), Denise Scott-Brown accused modernists of equalising immorality with bad taste, thus producing spaces that could be enjoyed only by architects. More than forty years later, as a follow-up to Gehry’s middle-finger show, a series of articles noted the supercilious attitude of architects. In a late 2014 NYTimes Op-Ed piece, S. Bingler and M. Pedersen highlighted the inability of architects to listen, calling for a reconnection of architecture with its users.

But this is no easy task. Not only because advocates of high-profile architecture severely criticised it (proving once again that the field lacks the necessary minimum of concord), but mainly because the public is gradually defying the architects back, by reclaiming the built environment. When the architects’ work varies from blotches in the landscape to weird unnecessary stuff, it can only be received as impractical and dysfunctional. Indeed, a survey published in the Architects Journal (July 2012) concluded that the public is unaware of the role of the professional architect. In other words, who needs the architect anymore? This is no longer a plea from a public that complains about the prevailing architecture without architects. The social media have now empowered the masses to voice their opinion about architects’ architecture. The majority thus seizes the opportunity to criticise, downturn and even re-propose architectural solutions for almost anything, from the new Thames Bridge to small-scale local public spaces. Civilian voluntary groups intervene in the public space, rectifying professional designs at will. Unfortunately, in most cases the intentions of the crowd comprise stereotypes and oversimplified conceptions which supposedly serve the greater good. Should architects allow these ‘engineered fantasies of mass taste’, in Frampton’s words, architecture would become less than optional, and the profession would fall.

This seems to be our final stand: As architects, we have to defend ourselves and the fruit of our labour, whilst never forgetting whom we address. The architects as consistent dialectic intermediaries, must modestly and convincingly re-approach the public. Since the world is built on social relationships, it is the user that justifies our place in society; the user is today’s patron. And, as C. Wilkinson so succinctly put it, “the distinguished patronage that every architect hoped for was [always] the guarantee of his social status.”

Image Credits: Domenico Cresti detto il Passignano (1616), Michelangelo presents the model of St. Peter's to the Pope.