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February 07, 2007

Elitist Architects vs. The Rest of Us

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today's Wall Street Journal's Marketplace section has a front-page article dealing with results of a recent American Institute of Architects survey of the general public's taste in architecture.

The article's "hook" was that the Bellagio hotel/casino in Las Vegas was 22nd in the favoritism ranking, astonishing some architects who are not exactly fond of it. "The Bellagio is tasteless," according to Edward Feiner of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Washington, DC office.

The Harris Interactive polling firm surveyed 2,000 Americans, presenting them with photos of "247 buildings nominated by 2,500 architects in various categories." From the results a ranked listing of the favorite 150 was unveiled, the number 150 chosen because the AIA is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

One reason for the survey was that the AIA wanted to "get a dialog going with the American people." (The AIA Web page referenced in the article is here. In the fine print is a "news" item mentioning the survey; I clicked on it but the link failed. Perhaps your luck will be better.)

The article points out that, aside from the Bellagio, no building constructed in the last 10 years made the list's top 30 and of the top 20, only two were built in the last 35 years.

The favorite was the Empire State Building, followed by the White House, the National Cathedral, the Jefferson Memorial, the Golden Gate Bridge (apparently it counted as architecture), the U.S. Capitol, the North Carolina Biltmore Estate, the Chrysler Building and the Vietnam Memorial. Feiner pointed out that sentiment and familiarity might have over-ridden aesthetic judgment. While that's likely in some cases, I don't think it negates the fact that the public doesn't seemed to have warmed to architecture of the various Modernist schools.

Another tidbit:

Some architects are more dismissive. Mark Robbins, dean of architecture at Syracuse University, says the survey "reinforces one's sense that the general public's knowledge of architecture is still limited to things that have columns or have a lot of colored lights." He says the list reminds him a the Zagat guides to restaurants, which rely on customer submissions. "It's only as good as the people who send in reviews. When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, Applebee's was in Zagat's."

Architect Richard Meier (who had five buildings on the list) said "many of these things on the list are places people go and enjoy themselves, but I wouldn't consider them works of architecture." He also wondered why buildings such as Van der Rohe's Seagram Building and Johnson's New Caanan, CT house didn't make the final cut.

Best line of the article: "Some in the architectural establishment -- whose favorite building is often said to be an ivory tower..."

My hope is that architects will finally stop dismissing the public as a bunch of yahoos (lord knows they've been doing so for as long as I can remember) and start to ponder why their buildings are disliked or even hated. Mainstream media types are starting to feel the heat, and it's high time the same should happen to architects.

And the Bellagio? It's my fave Las Vegas haunt. Applebee's? Good dining value. But then my ancestor's came from Ohio, so whadda I know?



posted by Donald at February 7, 2007


That's priceless, thanks. If the public doesn't like your work and never has, then it's the public's fault, even where "public buildings" go. But listening to your constituency/clientele/customers has never been something experts have been very good at, has it?

Experts: they're here to tell us what to do, not to listen and serve.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 7, 2007 6:53 PM

Experts: they're here to tell us what to do, not to listen and serve.

Indeed they are -- and lucky we are to have them, for without them we'd still be living and working in the aesthetic equivalent of mud hovels, and thinking them the bees knees.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas on February 7, 2007 7:54 PM

Pioneers push the envelope and the stuff that sticks is the next innovation in whatever field we're talking about. I always think it's pointless to harp on innovators for this reason, although architectrure is a special case in that the works are kind of permanent and hard to avoid.

Posted by: the patriarch on February 7, 2007 11:15 PM

I'm going to side more with the architects quoted than with the public's taste represented by some of the poll's results.

I really think the poll is of little value, because it's a popularity contest. The Golden Gate Bridge, Capitol Building and Bellagio are known more to the public as tourist locations than as architectural works.

Most people have little or no education in art or architectural history. Asking them to pick their favorite buildings based on a very narrow knowledge base defeats the purpose of such a survey or poll.

Some of my favorite architecture is by Corbusier, Lautner, Neutra and Schindler. I love Philip Johnson's glass house (his only building I like). At the same time, I love art deco and the Chrysler and Empire State.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 8, 2007 1:14 AM

The Bellagio? Tish Tosh. What about The Fontainebleau and The Eden Roc in Miami Beach? Now those were hotels! And a Charlotte Russe. And a Baked Alaska. And a...

Posted by: ricpic on February 8, 2007 6:58 AM

ricpic: what's Baked Alaska?
A salmon dish?

Posted by: Tat on February 8, 2007 10:36 AM

Patriarch -- You write "although architectrure is a special case in that the works are kind of permanent and hard to avoid." Exactly! A whacko new poem or painting and who cares? No one is stuck dealing with it. But a whacko or unpleasant (or "challenging") new building can become a lousy, unavoidable factor in the lives hundreds or thousands of people for many, many decades. Experimentation in architecture is often done at the public's expense, in many senses of the word. You've hit on the main reason why the heterodox architecture world (new trads, Pattern Language people, classicists, eco types) argue that architecture really needs to respect tradition, demonstrated preferences, established folkways, etc. It's a mark of basic respect for your fellow human beings. Architecture really is different than the other arts in that 99.9% of the time it has a public dimension. Incidentally, that's partly why architecture is fun to argue and write about -- it isn't just about personal taste and pleasure. Politics, economics, and power all kick into play. So, to some extent, gabbing about architecture is like gabbing about the morning headlines. Plus it's so much easier to do than it is to try to figure out what exactly it was about that movie or CD that you liked...

Peter L. -- But is public popularity completely irrelevant, particularly where public buildings go? And if the general public has failed for many decades to get with the modernist/po-mo/decon program, is it really their fault? It's historically an interesting thing -- not until modernism did the public have a lot of complaints about the productions of the high-end architecture class. High-end architects worked with and within traditions, and that seemed to suit everyone fine. With modernism, the high-end architecture class decided that it was imperative to break free of tradition (and act in defiance of popular taste) -- and ever since there's been a big war on between popular taste and high-end production. That strikes me as too bad. It also strikes me as anything but the public's fault.

Ricpic -- Lapidus rules!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 8, 2007 10:47 AM

The fact that people have little or no art "education", most of which is propagandizing and brainwashing people to accept the ugly, is a good thing. Many highly "educated" people I have met are simply literate fools. What's wrong with a popularity contest? Did you not ever win one yourself? Its an uglifying of the public space. The public can have some input if they want to. Maybe the public are the smart ones not to take silly theories so seriously. Did that thought ever cross your mind, Peter?

I've said this before. I've met a number of architects, and most of them can't draw worth a lick. That's where it all starts, the ability to visualize and put it down on paper. You can't create what you can't see first in your head, except by accident. Not too many pleasant accidents lately, eh?

Look at a Frank Gehry drawing--total crap. Compare it to any great architect, even Frank Lloyd Wright--it is ridiculously inferior. Most 18 year old kids grow up in suburbs and then decide to become architects, and shuffle off to the university (marxist indoctrination camp). No wonder stuff looks like it does. These goofs then spend the rest of their lives rationalizing their ugly designs because they can't draw or create something aesthetically beautiful if you put a gun to their head. Any great architect of the past would easily be able to create the stacked and sheared boxes of today. But not one of the so-called architects today could even dream up a Penn Central. Its that bad. Plus, the high cost of construction makes it almost impossible to do anything but stacked and sheared boxes. No wonder the casinos are the only ones able to build lavish, beautiful buildings. If you want to see who has the resources and the power in a society, look at the large buildings. They used to be churches and cathedrals. Then they transformed into industrial giant-funded skyscrapers. Now its apartment buildings and condos. And of course, casinos and sports stadiums. We are truly a culture in decline.

Posted by: BIOH on February 8, 2007 10:54 AM

1. Baked Alaska is a dessert---ice cream and I don't know what else. I think it's supposed to be tasty, but I've never had it.

2. I'm so with Donald on this. The Capital Building, the Jefferson Memorial, Monticello, the White House, the Biltmore---I admire them. Like him, I guess I'm a rube. It's so sad with all the challenges life has, the the "experts" (the High Priests of the Church of Too Good for the Rest of You) make people feel embarassed about the choices that give them joy.

3. Lastly, one of the best steak fajitas I've ever had is at Applebee's, along with a warm- chocolate-cake-filled-with-warm-chocolate-center dessert thing that's heavenly. The ambience is average, but the food is pretty darn good! It should also be noted that Applebee's is the most successful restaurant chain in the country---not just "Ohio."

Posted by: annette on February 8, 2007 10:57 AM

It never ceases to amaze me that people with great talents backed by years of specialized education don't understand why everyone else just doesn't "get" what they're trying to do. What I do in the IT field is unique. I'm exceedingly good at what I do because a) I've been doing it for longer than my adult life and b) I love doing it. But, I don't expect any normal person to just "get" it. Thinking that way would diminish what makes me, and what I can do, special. Similarly, if enough people had enough background and knowledge to intelligently judge architecture, it would make being an architect no more credible a profession than "Fry Guy".

Baked Alaska is yummy. :)

Posted by: Upstate Guy on February 8, 2007 12:56 PM

I wouldn't mind the desire of architects to engage their creative, artistic sides so much if they didn't so blatently ignore the functionality of their buildings. They so often seem unconstrained by a sense that their buildings should be as functional as they are artistic.

Posted by: CyndiF on February 8, 2007 1:28 PM

Merengues on top? Sounds like fun...although I'd probably just ate merengues and left the ice cream and the sponge cake for you, ricpic and Upstate Guy.

Still, don't see the connection with Mr.Lapidus hotel designs; unless he patented that widespread use of "package brand" design, as it is understood by Starwood hotels, f.i.: "W" water, "W" cookbooks and "W" umbrells sold in "W" Hotels boutiques.

I'm afraid even to ask now, who Charlotte Russe is.
Must be some pseudo-Moscowite porn star in Vegas.

Posted by: Tat on February 8, 2007 2:16 PM

Charlotte Russe: a cold dessert of bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfingers.

The point is that The Fontainebleau, The Eden Roc, Baked Alaska and Charlotte Russe were all part of a world of wonderful unselfconscious excess and vulgarity; the world of Miami Beach in the '50s, of all America really back there back then in mid-century before the horrible perfect beautiful people got ahold of everything and ruined everything forever, amen.

Posted by: ricpic on February 8, 2007 7:25 PM

Michael Blowhard: “You've hit on the main reason why the heterodox architecture world (new trads, Pattern Language people, classicists, eco types) argue that architecture really needs to respect tradition, demonstrated preferences, established folkways, etc.”

Tradition and demonstrated preferences are the enemy of change and eclecticism.

“But is public popularity completely irrelevant, particularly where public buildings go?”

With publicly funded projects, no. With buildings that are private commissions, the answer is not clear cut, because the decision making process isn’t transparent to the public nor easily influenced by them.

“And if the general public has failed for many decades to get with the modernist/po-mo/decon program, is it really their fault?”

I didn’t say or mean to suggest it’s anyone’s fault. At what point do we take the popularity poll on the most favored architectural style, fix it at that point, and then dictate that respect for tradition trumps anything new? This leads to ossification, not merely respect for tradition. Should all buildings be classical, art nouveau, art deco, or what? Let’s take the big survey and then settle on a public style.

I have nothing against popularity polls. They’re great for determining what’s popular. Do they also tell us what is good? I see an obvious parallel between this post and your posts about the NYTBR. In his heyday, Mickey Spillane outsold Raymond Chandler. Does that make Spillane the better writer? No.

Over 33 million people watched this season’s opening episode of “American Idol.” Millions of copies of Eminem’s recordings have been purchased and he won an Oscar for his lyrics. Should pop culture be yoked to this?

BIOH: “The fact that people have little or no art "education", most of which is propagandizing and brainwashing people to accept the ugly, is a good thing. Many highly "educated" people I have met are simply literate fools.”

BIOH, you're a genius! Clearly, it’s better to avoid formal education in any subject. Why clutter up one’s mind with propagandistic brainwashing when you can stick to the truisms born of ignorance and reactionary sentiments?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 9, 2007 2:01 AM

Peter, you would have been a perfect candidate for the medievel monastery. Back then, you and your fellow ugly-art acolytes would have been debating transubstantiation and how many angels could dance on a pinhead--circular arguments that go nowhere, which you seem to be fond of.

See, you only define education as the pushing of the ugly modern garbage. If people don't fall for it, and stay away from it, because they are normal, you then accuse them of being ignoramuses. This of course hinges on the idea that the religion you are selling has some sort of intellectual value. It doesn't. Its horse manure. And people who avoid horse manure because it stinks are intelligent and rational. What you label as education is not really education, it is miseducation. And anyone who avoids such miseducation is, in the final analysis, smarter than those who could not. Finally, the circle is broken!

Posted by: BIOH on February 9, 2007 6:12 PM

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