Who will be the Dr. Do Little of the Architectural profession?
This was an introduction to a book about Architects, the environment and society at Sinead Bourke's Introduction to Tracings 2
This volume is a forum for discussion and the overall impression is one of seeking. This volume does not profess to provide answers and none are provided. What it does give the reader however are fresh viewpoints and insights. No doubt, the aim of this series is to expand our sense of awareness of the built environment to hopefully inform and bring about a better quality environment. This series has started a much needed process, one which needs to be extended however to make its presence more felt outside the realm of architecture. Should contributions be included from sectors of the community actually building the built environment, as well as from those affected by it, a more palpable and no doubt valid discussion would ensue.
I like that Eddie Murphy movie, â€˜Doctor Do Littleâ€™, where he suddenly began to hear all the animals speak, and re-discovered the trill of being in medical practice for himself. This buzz, which had eluded him for so long, did somehow return. He started treating the animals and found himself giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the rats! Dr. Do Little re-discovered clients in the most unusual places. The Medical industry became really client/public oriented from the beginning. The Architecture profession can treat even its well off clients very poorly in my view.
I have even witnessed the company execs and rich house wives being practically shoved around by the Architects â€“ not to mind the common rats. I mean the doctor is a professional, but that doesn't prevent him showing courtesy to good clients. The doctor develops a real relationship to his/her client I think, and that helps him to diagnose the problems, notice mood changes etc. On another level, the medical profession can study the changes and swings generally in health care and the community over a longer period of generations.
Architecture might change some time in the future, and become more of a fully-grown service to society, the public, the client rather than a contract supervisory sort of thing. Louis Kahn was an architect who showed us how to become deeply related to the client, rather than the building contractor. Without allowing the client to diagnose the illnesses for you that is. He managed to show us, how Modernism with a little help from Beaux Arts times could in fact be more than what Mies had shown us. An Architect worth looking at from this particular viewpoint is Malaysian Ken Yeang, who holds dual qualifications in marketing and in Architect. Ken believes strongly in Architects educating their market, and does a lot of this himself to the well off Asian clients. There is a good chapter about Ken Yeang, in the Bryan Lawson book 'How Designers Think'.
In the â€˜How Designers Thinkâ€™ book by Bryan Lawson, Michael Wilford who was a partner with James Stirling explains how difficult it is sometimes to deal with clients on larger master planning projects. Because sometimes the client is a large council or board, which can often change many times over the course of a longer design process. Indeed sometimes the Architect is the only remaining individual who began the process at the start. Indeed, learning to hear these clients say anything, or offer you any suggestions is really a job cut out for a Dr. Do Little. For a students final thesis here in Ireland, students are asked to develop a real relationship to a client. I remember one young man who wanted to design an Airport and took his motor bicycle out to Aer Lingus, to get a brochure from a receptionist! (Crash helmet under his arm) But at least he made an effort! Most students bypass that stage of the ordeal completely and draw, draw, draw.
I am really tired of people describing architects like Louis Kahn, as late bloomers. That Kahn never built anything in his life, and then suddenly started building all of these buildings. Perhaps Kahn had just gotten to know him self and others better at that stage? I think that Louis Kahn was sort of like the Dr. Do Little or the Architectural profession, who suddenly experienced super sonic hearing abilities. At the very moment, the Architect is like a very big hired piece of artillery, a bit more like the Panzer Four division of the German army. Something the client uses to go to war with on many different fronts.
This temperament doesn't quite suit the client, public, user relationship thing as well though. I honestly do wonder, how much of the client/Architect relationship has indeed become watered down â€“ through this insistence upon directing the builderâ€™s operations from an office/contract. The reason I am just curious, is mainly owing to the fact, that my architectural education has been so dogmatic about the building technology side of things.
I am just looking at analogies for Architecture as a service industry. Things like exclusive clinics where professionals pander to the clients every need. I mean there is no point in turning over millions, if you still are insolvent at the end of the day. How â€˜serviceableâ€™ can the Architecture profession actually become, before you are putting too much of what you earn back into the service to your client. Considering that a good 3DS VIZ-ualists salary might be more than what some Architects make. On the other hand, I have seen Architect saying to clients basically, you are important up to a point, but basically you will have to take whatever I give you. Or what the builder can build, and I can stand over.
Were Architects like Kahn unable to delegate, was that model of professional practice a bit like â€˜in an era of tall cuisine, it was the tallest cuisine aroundâ€™? Certainly Kahn did go to great pains, compared to other professionals to care about his clients/users. I just feel the debate as to how an Architect handles a client, has received altogether much less attention, than other aspects like Building Construction. Is that a mistake, or a limitation of the profession? Your guess is about as good as mine, since I have never built anything. It's easy to draw a dark shadow line on the buildings cornice, it can cost so much more to actually create it. The "Builders" very quickly reduce the cornice dimensions to typical lumber sizes or less costly profiles. In an effort to minimize costs and maximize profits, usually on the clientâ€™s behalf.
I think that the Chicago school, from what I understand of Werner Blaserâ€™s books on the subject anyhow, was all about learning to feel the building through the weight of your pencil. To distinguish between a heavy line, or a light line and what have you. Even in the 1:20 detail profile, showing the steel sections for the builder to actually use. Mies van der Rohe, sat down one day with a young student at MIT and just looked at a drawing for an hour without saying anything. Then went out of the room, and none of the students said anything either. But they knew exactly what he meant â€“ to look at what you are drawing! I like this quote from Cathal Oâ€™Neill, a description similar in fact to the practice of reading.
The purpose of the exercise was clear; it is, after all, the basis of every architect's work process to propose, observe, refine. But the lesson was clear: architects spend too much time proposing and rarely enough time observing and refining.
But there is another kind of Architect too, the one who develops the client relationship a lot more. Even when that client happens to be a whole entire city or suburb. I talked a lot about how VIZ or drawing can teach you to see the world around you. Louis Kahn was very aware of how people experience and use his buildings. From all points of view, like how we use a room, a corridor (or sneak passages as he called the modern equivalent in high-schools etc), how natural daylight is the giver of all presences. His many models and sketches are all excellent vehicles of his understanding about clients/sites/briefs etc. Of his attempt to understand the relationship of people with the built environment.
Someone said to me the other day, not everything in life comes to you on a plate. It is funny I didnâ€™t actually know what that person meant by that statement and I casually brushed it off initially. That is, until I was chatting to a very knowledgeable music type of individual. He asked me to explain Architecture to him, as best as I could. I proceeded into my normal long effort of what I think Architecture is/is not. But suddenly I drew back and said, lets wait a minute here â€“ perhaps things donâ€™t always come handed to you on a plate. So I suggested that I e-mail him a few hyperlinks, to some of my deeper discussions about the topic.
I mean, isnâ€™t there something in the effort of reading? Isnâ€™t there some sense of achievement when you have finished that page, and worked yourself to understand something relevant or important? I mean if I give it straight up on a plate in a pub/cafe, to some guy who thinks he knows everything (and possibly does too) about music, did that person have to work for that? No. So my question is precisely this, why isnâ€™t Architecture about learning how to read, to observe and to refine, AS WELL as learning how to propose?
Is information just tasty bite sized chunks now? A seudo, pre-processed version of the real thing, and are we all like puppies? Until the Architecture profession does learn to be a thinking, a probing, a questioning profession, it will perhaps never ask the right questions about itself. Not to mind find any of the right answers. And I go back to my friend Louis Kahn once more: â€œA good question is always much better than the best answersâ€.
Louis Kahn died in a toilet cubicle in some foreign airport, on the way back from Pakistan to the United States. It just explains what a great affection the man really did have for his clients, his site and the whole rich process of designing Architecture. I imagine more young architects nowadays would just say to hell with that. E-mail me over some digital photos of the site, and a schedule of accommodation â€“ I will have something for you by Friday. That is I suppose the biggest criticism I have of projects like the Egyptian Museum one in Cairo. At least the winning entrants actually flew over and drove around the dusty roads, in some Egyptian guys Taxi!
Another person said to me recently, â€œGo and build something and then you might know what Architecture is all aboutâ€. I wonder is that the problem, that Architects are in a mad rush to build something? I think that Louis Kahn has left behind him, as many UNBUILT great projects as REALISED great projects. And what he actually built seems to have this timeless quality about it. It does not look like something built in the 20th century often, and I believe he intended that to be the case too.
Yet in the current profession a design, which is un-realised is deemed to be inferior. As if most Architects actually got on planes and taxis to visit that much Architecture anyhow. As if looking at the real photography of a new building in a magazine, was any different from looking at a VIZualisation. You see the blatant hypocrisy? The traditional well-trodden path taken by Architect after Architect over the past 100 years has been this.
1. Architect meets with a client willing to build.
2. Architect builds a building for that client.
3. Architect then draws concept sketch for the building and proceeds to talk to other Architects and to post-rationalise what (s)he has done.
4. Architect then publishes their words, opinions and photographs of their work in a magazine. They expend more effort after the design has been completed attempting to imbue something rather lifeless with life and to inject it with some class.
5. Architect then becomes famous and a household name amongst circles of rich clients and other Architects.
6. Architect then perpetuates the myth of their very own celebrity.
Notice how ready-made, easy to consume, like watching a TV programme as oposed to reading a book, this whole process is? All the talking and looking normally happens when the cheques have all cleared and the Architect has some spare time to waffle and debate. Everything looks rather different in hindsight. The Architect doesnâ€™t really discuss his/her work with the client, but with other Architects. Notice how very easy it is to summarise things now, and package them into nice tasty bite sized chunks? I find it very intriguing the way that Louis Kahn in fact, by-passed a lot of the Architecture of today, and went right back to the sourse to identify what the Architect really is, in relation to the people of this little world.
Brian O' Hanlon. 14th September 2003.