What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!

Funny that this is the first image that came up when I Googled “What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Now!” “Funny,” because I’m writing about the AIA’s response to the common-sense proposal by Steve Bingler and Martin Pedersen in the New York Times Op-Ed “How to Rebuild Architecture,” and the only response I’ve seen so far is Aaron Betsky’s in Architect magazine, in which he writes in the first paragraph “With an ‘architecture critic‘ who has basically given up on reviewing the designed environment in favor of bizarre forays into fields such as so-called ‘evidence-based design,’ the Times has now for the second time in several months given its editorial page over to a piece on architecture that is so pointless and riddled with clichés as to beggar comprehension.”

I’ll get back to that, but first I’d like to talk about the lack of response so far from the AIA, and even the lack of comment from the magazine’s editor on this petulant attack in the magazine on the New York Times and its critic. Architect is the official magazine of the American Institute of Architects, and Betsky is a Contributing Editor of the magazine whose monthly columns come with a footer that says, “His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.”

As I’ve said, I thought the op-ed in the Times was both excellent and insightful, and I believe even the majority of architects might agree. Since the AIA is our leading professional organization, why has it published this extreme attack (“ballistic” and “incoherent” were how the former architecture critic of the Providence Journal characterized it) without even a short editor’s comment? If I were the President of the AIA, I would worry that the organization’s reputation would be tainted by it.

As for Betsky’s piece, it baffles me. Anyone who’s read him over the years knows that he’s intelligent. I even used him as an example of change in the profession recently, when I said on this blog “Things like the New York article or one in the magazine of the American Institute of Architects by Aaron Betsky in which Betsky calls the traditional work of former Stern employee Tom Kligerman “breathtaking in its sophistication and beauty” [suggest that change is happening.] I added that Architect “has probably never published Kligerman’s work, and has certainly never praised it before.” Betsky also wrote a well-reviewed book about James Gamble Rogers, the architect who designed the superb Gothic and Georgian style colleges at Yale, along with a number of other Yale buildings and many hospitals and houses.

My goal here is not to critique Betsky’s article. There are a number of points, however, that seem so wrongheaded that they need no rejoinder. The following are verbatim quotes (including the parentheses) presented as though everyone agrees. In fact, many disagree, and there is plenty of evidence to support their disagreement.

  • in favor of bizarre forays into fields such as so-called “evidence-based design
  • They claim that architects once designed for the people because they designed for our genetic make-up (I am not making this up)
  • All I can say is: Wow. I do not know what fantasyland these authors live in that they imagine that for “millieniums” (“millennia?”) architects collaborated on making buildings that “resonated deeply.”
  • In fact, the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today
  • I did not know you could design in a way that is “tied to our own DNA.” About the only architect trying to make that claim is Patrik Schumacher, and I doubt his parametricism would fit Bingler’s and Pedersen’s definition of something “profoundly human.”
  • The truth is that architecture is not made by or for “a wide spectrum of the population.”
  • Architecture, in other words, is either the dull affirmation of what we have, or it is an attempt to make our world better.
  • It succeeds not by DNA-based forms or mystical appeals to the tastes of the public, but through hard work in the real world.

Twice Betsky says buildings are not designed for “the public” or “the general population,” yet somehow he would argue that Bingler and Pedersen are elitist while the architecture he argues for is “progressive.” Architecture “is made for those who have the means to commission it, and reflects their values and priorities,” he says. This is the twisted argument that leads architecture students to tell you with a straight face that the towers being built on Fifty-Seventh Street so that non-resident plutocrats can park capital in New York “bullion pots in the sky” are also progressive.

But that’s a topic for another day.

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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