inter·punct joins Aaron Betsky for an interview on the profession of architecture; its responsibilities, aspirations, and shortcomings. This interview took place after the school’s first EX-CHANGE event.
For additional information and to view Aaron’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
i•p: You spoke about architecture as a value system. Perhaps you meant that in terms of how people externally value architecture, but do you also speculate that within architecture, our own valuation of the field has changed?
Aaron Betsky: The activity of architecture is, from an economic standpoint, predicated on the notion that you're adding value to the building process. But this value is becoming more eroded as every aspect of our culture gets automated. Ultimately, that's the reason why the AIA exists, to figure out and defend what the value of architecture is. Yes, you can get a building off a shelf, in fact you don't even need an architect to get a building built in most places. Architects add value, and that value has something to do with the quality of the space, the sellability of the image, the ability to organize everything from the process of design itself to the materials, the spaces, the reception of the imagery. How do you define that value? And do you let it be defined by the economic system, or can you think of other ways? What is the value of architecture beyond this nebulous set of qualities that it's supposed to provide to buildings? Those to me are the important questions.
The High Line is one good example; it has produced billions of dollars by unlocking unprecedented developmental potential in that area of New York, but also allowed people to see New York in a different way. Has it been appropriated not just by tourists but by high-end residential? Yes, because ultimately the development of Manhattan into an enclave for the super rich seems at this point almost inevitable and the High Line turns out to have just been part of that. You might unwittingly achieve something that gets appropriated almost immediately.
i•p: It's always an interesting game of capital flows, especially as architects focus on the urban realm. But as you mentioned, a lot of the banality that we face today are not in the urban areas but outside in the suburbs. As the socio-political and economic gaps between the urban and rural areas in the country widen, how can we as architects insert ourselves productively into this conversation?
AB: That to me is also a really crucial question. Many architects in America come from the suburbs, but don’t necessarily see themselves as a part of it or as invested in it. As a result there are very few projects that really address the worsening economic landscape in those areas. That’s a big issue.
If we look at Frank Lloyd Wright, he was one of the few architects who actually took suburbia seriously. He experimented with housing proposals that could both shelter individual families and open themselves up to communities. That obviously developed into, on the one hand, the Usonian house which was an alternative mass-produced house to the Ranchburger. And on the other the Broadacre City, which was perhaps not quite right in terms of its methodology but nevertheless an idea that took suburbia seriously.
But I'm always looking for hopeful trends. Recently in this country, there have been various experiments to create nodal points within suburbia. Keith Krumwiede's An Atlas of A New America is one such example. People are working on it more, but not nearly enough.
i·p: It's definitely a conversation that's not brought up enough in schools as well. Architecture studios are typically devoted to solving urban problems. In this country, suburbia has been taken over by developers and the government, and architects don’t really have a role in shaping that.
AB: The difference between suburban and urban is also increasing as cities turn into wastelands with dots of transit-oriented development. You see construction of terrible apartments that look no different in suburbia than they do in cities, so you have to remember that sprawl is not just a question of moving out of the city into the countryside. It is also the emptying out on every social and environmental level of the traditional urban area.
i•p: You mentioned that architecture is dying as a profession. Could you elaborate on that statement?
AB: Sure. That value proposition that I mentioned earlier is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Now you can buy software programs that not only allow you to design a single-family home, but entire office buildings. The architect is no longer participating in that process. Code requirements and financial considerations have become so strict that you have to wonder what design capacity the architect has at all. Years ago, Michael Bell did an analysis of a suburban development outside of Houston, and he looked at the cost of everything that went into it. On this $20 million development, the architect's fees were like $69,000 or something. That gives you some idea of what twenty years ago the value of architecture was. And it's only getting worse. Again, the field is becoming more stratified. The differentiation between the big international practices and the lower echelon is growing more and more extreme. Theoretically, the good news is that these days you can have a two-man office and design a 40-story skyscraper. The technology should be liberating for architects but in reality it just means that instead of a bunch of architects getting paid money to design it, two people get paid drafting wages to design a 40-story skyscraper.
i•p: Does that mean architects have to insert themselves into different disciplines to stay relevant?
AB: No, architects just have to ask themselves where they can make a difference. Perhaps instead of designing entire developments architects should focus more on creating ephemeral experiences such as themed retail and dining environments or office breakout spaces; whether for social interaction, commerce or spectacle. I'm still waiting for architects to figure out how to bring their particular tools to the realms that are on your phone.
i·p: It's interesting you mentioned this ephemeral realm, because the new environmental design track at the School of Design here came to mind. They try to interface with architecture and spatial design through the lens of technology and how we as human beings operate on a daily basis. They don't necessarily propose physical structures to a site but rather organizational strategies and events.
AB: Yeah. Some of the best architectures happen in festivals or in socio-political movements. I was in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, and some people at the architecture school were trying to figure out ways to exploit that. Suddenly you have this temporary liberated space that gives you a completely different perspective on the city. How can you do something with it? They were just talking, but it was an amazing moment to think about that.
i·p: You also talked about the problem of permanence, the sense of building something so grand to leave a mark and legacy. Do you think it has to do with ego?
AB: Architects are egotistical, but so are artists and musicians. Compared with major orchestra conductors, starchitects are pipers. They don't know what it means to be a diva compared to those people. So there is the Howard Roark cult which is obviously pernicious and persistent. But it’s also part of a wider social problem. As Walter Benjamin pointed out a century ago we live in a society that, as it destroys people's freedoms and individuality and humanity, does so exactly by erecting the glorified image of the star; whether it's the politician or a movie star or a celebrity chef or anyone else of that sort. That kind of fallacy is certainly true in architecture as well.
Rem Koolhaas, whatever else you can say about him, has over the years, honestly periodically tried to break through that and say: "This is a collective." Ultimately though, everyone wants the interview with him and the system is set up so that OMA gets paid more when he's on the site. So for the firm, economically, he's a star tool. But in recent years there are certainly other partners at OMA who are beginning to get their own name. When I tell people there’s something interesting going on in this firm that has nothing to do with the lead the default response is always, "Okay, but you have to go interview the lead because that's the name that you'd recognize."
i·p: That's the system that we live with, perhaps bearing this in mind we have to try and resist it.
AB: Yeah, but the difficult thing is that there is something really successful architects do that is uncatchable, and that for me is part of the problem in this hierarchical system. Oftentimes, the system rewards people who are perhaps not necessarily great designers themselves but are really good at finding great designers to work for them, getting the right clients, or reading a situation.
The difficult part is to not get too hung up on the cult of personality and try to value the ability of architecture that opens your eyes and creates a moment of awe. And that goes back to our conversation in the beginning about getting students to be rebellious. How can we encourage students to do things differently without having them believe that the only way to be really good is to do something weird and eye-catching? I don’t have an answer for that. ·