By Zach Mortice
So far in this election year, political discussions that directly involve architecture have centered on our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, from the still-rotting Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, to the rapidly deflating housing market. Taken together, that puts a lot of responsibility on architects, but it does put the profession in the position to save the day for everyone involved. These current problems remind us of the ways that we are all patrons of architecture, neighborhoods we choose to move in or out of, the homes we live in, and streets and bridges we drive through. It seems like a concerted move towards populist-oriented architecture would go over quite well now.
The politicians stumping for the land’s highest office (from the left and the right) sense this populist fervor as well. When was the last time a serious candidate for the GOP nomination won primary after primary, caucus after caucus with anti-corporate greed vitriol?
Has architecture been living up to this populist spirit? From his perch in Times Square, New York Times Architecture Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff sees architecture capturing people’s imagination more and more without meeting their needs. From a Dec. 23 column: “The slow death of the urban middle class, the rise of architecture as a marketing tool, the overweening influence of developers — all have helped to narrow architecture’s social reach just as it begins to recapture the public imagination. From this perspective the wave of gorgeous new buildings can be read as a mere cultural diversion.”
Architecture is again celebrating novelty, and the results are often stunning and triumphant, if not democratic. (In a column last April, Ouroussoff pre-emptively hedged his bets by praising two New York residential condominiums by Jean Nouvel that “raise the possibility that hedonistic materialism is good for the soul.”) . It’s not just a New York problem. The poor are being priced out of the cities and into the suburbs everywhere.
But what or who else is it good for? Probably not for the people stung by further widening income gaps that have been pushing high voter turnout rates seen this primary season—the people that won’t get to see the inside of Nouvel’s towers unless they work there or are delivering a package.
It’s about more than affordable housing. Sustainability and access to public services like schools and hospitals and are all ways architecture can serve the people’s needs. And a lot of them are. Bill Roschen, AIA, of Roschen Van Cleave Architects’ deep synthesis of sustainability and affordability has been watering another affordability-parched landscape—Los Angeles. Populism can be aesthetically driven as well. Roschen’s LA neighbor Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, has built his reputation on rehabilitating disused industrial movie back lots into bold Modernist conversation starters. Though developers often make such succinct villains in these situations, a few New York developers, like Full Spectrum and Kings Harbor View Associates are operating with the public interest in mind, too.
And it’s no coincidence that the AIA’s 2008 convention theme is “We the People. . .” What’s your obligation to the masses?