Is Architecture as Fractured as Our Politics?

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Is Architecture as Fractured as Our Politics?

It’s a New Year: 2017 arrives after an exhausting political firestorm. Our sense of economic uncertainty turned the last eight years into a crock pot that boiled over resulting in a divisive election, symbolized by a singular image: The Map.

We have all seen it: those fringes of urban blue, representing the candidate who won the popular vote by 3,000,000 and received the highest vote total in U.S. history; small edges and islands of blue swimming in a sea of sparsely populated red, representing the winner—as chosen, ironically, by the tiny Electoral College.

Symbolism is a tricky thing, but I will go there. In The Map, one person can see a Blue Elite holding back a Red Tide of populist fervor, while another person sees the cutting edge future being held back by the dead weight of a fading past. As an architect, the symbolism for me has morphed into metaphor, where a symbol of political polarization seems an apt analogy for my profession. It’s now a cliché to decry architecture’s cutting edge of academia and starchitects (the Blue Fringe) as tone deaf to popular sentiments and humane values. It’s also a convenient dismissal by the mainstream academic and media institutions of the typical building architecture office (the Red Sea) as hacks pandering to trite bourgeois vernaculars.

For more than a generation the profession has grappled with this version of a Red/Blue map. Boomer architects remember a long gone tolerance for aesthetic diversity—when there were more colors in the mapping of architectural aesthetics. We remember when competing perspectives made for interesting interactions: “Solar,” “Brutalism” and, of course, the now officially loathed “Postmodern,” could offer competing ways of thinking about and designing buildings (versus the present generation’s modernist “my way or the highway” filter for the majority of lauded, published and taught work).

But at the dawn of a new year, am I wrong to think there are green shoots of aesthetic diversity splitting through the predictable monolith? Maybe the resentments of “Style Wars” have become luxuries in this turbulent time. Maybe the last decade’s battle fatigue has made such concerns irrelevant. Getting and sustaining work is still tough in most building markets, especially when the technological revolution offers more alternatives to traditional architectural services. It’s exhausting to maintain extreme animosities, and perhaps architecture’s collective boredom with thirty years of balkanization may be making our map take on a purple-ish hue.

New attitudes can be seen in MASS Design Group, out of Boston, who offer the kind of style-neutral social focus that cuts through the archispeak gobbledygook in their mission statement: “Architecture is not neutral; it either helps or hurts. Architecture is a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building’s walls and into the lives of communities and people.” […]