Response to:
The Implosion of Architecture

 

The other day, Future Mother-In-Law sent me a Forbes article titled: Architecture Continues To Implode: More Insiders Admit The Profession Is Failing.  

I was unclear of her sentiments regarding the article; however, I was fairly perturbed by the author’s viewpoint and emailed her the following response:

Thanks Future Mother-In-Law,1

I am glad the public thinks architects are irrelevant and are a key culprit for the degradation of society;)

 
I thought this was a fair response, and regardless of her attitude over the article, I thought I made my feelings clear, yet lighthearted. I mean, I did include a winky-face emoticon!2

However, Future Wife did not think a winky-face emoticon portrayed a lighthearted candor, and made ME apologize for my rude remarks directed towards Future Mother-In-Law!

Future Mother-In-Law is a tax accountant and probably is a frequent Forbes reader. Thus, my outrage over the article is not directed toward Justin Shubow’s belittling comments; but rather towards the misguided inaccuracies and misperceptions (that this article further perpetuates) of architects that is projected upon well-informed individuals, like many Forbes readers.

Moreover, I hate issuing apologies to Future Mother-In-Law; thus, the following is an open letter in response to Justin Shubow’s scathing editorial.




 

Your bio shows your long history of critiquing architects and their profession and you describe yourself of having strong opinions about public art and architecture. 

I too have strong opinions about public art and architecture and while I do not consider myself an “insider” suitable of a counter response, as a baby architect3 I often have to battle this public perception that architects are irrelevant and a key culprit for the degradation of society – of which you exacerbate.

Previously, you wrote an (actually) encouraging article titled: Frank Gehry Is Right: 98% Of Architecture Today ‘Has No Respect For Humanity’

You had some great points throughout the article, and actually made the definitive argument in defense of Frank and architects everywhere when you wrote, “…many if not most buildings are the work of contractors, not architects, and that this has been and will likely always be the case.”

Because, only 5% of the built environment is actually designed by architects; 95% is “designed” by contractors and developers seeking higher profit margins instead of a better built environment. However, you could not help yourself, and just as you were on the cusp of arguing in defense of architects, you had to resort to your disparaging tactics and conclude the article with the following passage, “At best, (architects) offer esoteric theories articulated in gobbledygook “comprehensible” only to initiates who attended the right design schools. And the would-be architectural rule-makers have nothing to say to mere builders, whose common sense makes them immune to the bullsh*t that 98% of architects subscribe to today.”

Perhaps your autocorrect titled the article incorrectly, changing 98% Of Architects Today ‘Have No Respect For Humanity’ to the emboldening phrase 98% Of Architecture Today ‘Has No Respect For Humanity’

I have to wonder why you hate architects so much. Did you suffer a traumatic childhood moment? Did an architect proclaim that your spectacles were neither round enough nor black enough?


As a sophisticated journalist, you have a plethora of excerpts linking to other referenced articles that took me spinning down a rabbit hole into the depths of the interwebs never to breathe again.

However, I am not a trained journalist, and I do not have the time to provide 58 linked references within this rebuttal letter. 

I also want to state that I have never been to New Orleans and do not feel educated enough to comment on the culture and beliefs of the citizens. However, there are several errors and inconsistencies within your article that need to be corrected.4

You provided a link that supposedly “recognized the general public’s low opinion of architects.” Whereas the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the trade organization for the profession, launched an effort last year to “reposition” the industry.

Your referenced links show that 53% of the public does not fully grasp the value that an architect provides. However, many architecture professionals themselves are disgruntled with the AIA. This reorganization has just as much to do with the general public’s inherit lack of knowledge regarding architects as it does architects feeling underserved by the their OWN trade organization.

Indeed, there is a difference between “low opinion of architects” and indeterminate awareness of value.


Bingler and Pedersen’s New York Times Op-Ed, titled: How to Rebuild Architecture, reveals that Bingler’s 88-year-old mother thinks all bold architectural design looks like trash. Thus, they argue, architecture needs to be more responsive to the aesthetic predilections of octogenarians.

However, 88 year-olds inherently despise new ideas and do not want change. 88 year-olds crave stability; change involves risk and even if change equates to progress, the proposition of risk is too heavy of a burden.

88 year-olds convert the majority of stock holdings into safer bonds.

88 year-olds have a weekly pillbox subdivided into daily assortments.

To state that architects do not design for what the public wants is a misguided interpretation of a better built environment mistaken for unwelcome risk. 88 year-olds do not want new and interesting architectural solutions, because the survival of an 88 year-old is intrinsically tied to maintaining the status quo.


Furthermore, throughout the article, you paint Aaron Betsky as the last bastion of architectural thought, and refer to him as“an architectural priest and patrician, he is to the profession what The New York Times is to the chattering classes: a voice of the high-status quo.”

You also reference him as “one of the 21st century’s architectural power brokers.” Contrary to your portrayal of Betsky, most architects are unaware of his opinions, and if they have even heard of him, it is most notably for falling in a canal at the 2008 Venice International Architecture Biennale.


These are all flawed arguments; however, your main argument for the irrelevance of architects regards the “charming” aesthetic of the “Katrina Cottages” developed by Marianne Cusato under the tutelage of New Urbanist architect Andrés Duany.

Andrés Duany advocates many relevant urban planning principles. For instance, he often advises the zoning method to front houses in close proximity to their neighbor and the street forming a “wall.”

However, these “cottages” do not support his advocated zoning standards, and are situated back in the same haphazardly zoned lots within the Lower 9th Ward.

ninthward cottage2

Cottage homes are not site specific. Even the sidewalk between the properties does not extend to make a singular pathway.

Regrettably, the one letdown of the Make It Right initiative is the lack of a uniform masterplan for the Lower 9th Ward. Make It Right could not purchase swaths of land, and instead had to work with the existing property owners to infill within the existing zoning conditions. However, Make It Right responded to many New Urbanist principles by locating their new homes (with a patio) closer to the streetfront. They chose to work with the city to create an improved 10-foot zoning standard.

tennessee-2007(1)

Tennessee Street 2007

tennessee-2013(1)

Tennessee Street 2013

 

Moreover, the “ Katrina cottages” were developed to be a refined FEMA Trailer that “looked nicer.” If you remove the wheels, and call it a “cottage”, it is progress toward a residential house; however, it is not the path that Make It Right chose. Make It Right chose to make high quality homes that inspire progress, advance the cultural dialogue, and are sustainable. Thereby creating a homogeneous relationship the environment.5

Nevertheless, these quaint cottages themselves suffered significant cost overruns as well. While the government set aside $400 million dollars to implement thousands of these houses in Mississippi, the handful of cottages constructed in New Orleans arrived damaged, and improperly managed. An enhanced FEMA trailer originally estimated to cost $110,000 incurred increased costs of $40,000.

You also indicated the designs of the Make It Right houses are a foreign aesthetic in comparison to the historical houses of the area. However, the Make It Right homes are located outside an architecturally historic neighborhood, and it is uneducated to state that the “Katrina cottage” is the only solution to implement. Perhaps, 2,800 “cottages” are appropriate for parts of Mississippi, but they do not necessarily conform to all pre-existing conditions within the Lower 9th Ward.

A study of the existing homes within New Orleans further revealed an amalgamation of over 30 distinct architectural styles, whereas, the Lower 9th Ward was not even built in the classic Creole “cottage” style. It was predominantly composed of post-World War II slab-on-grade houses that could not withstand hurricane winds and succumbed to flooding.

Therefore, a new aesthetic precedent should be set (and is being set by Make It Right) to embolden the area to create a new encompassing design of high quality architecture, in addition to previously established recovery efforts such as the “Katrina Cottages.”

Sadly, a vast majority of the residents of New Orleans who lost their property due to Katrina do not want anything new or different to inhabit. They are revisionist historians; they want their old house, the one that housed all their bric-a-brac and supplied them with their recent memories. Just like Bingler’s 88 year-old mother, the chance of risk creates instability in an environment where they yearn for their former (pre-Katrina) stability. However, this yearning for the past only preserves the pre-existing problems for perpetuity.

There is a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that says:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

-Henry Ford

  
If you were to have asked the majority of the Katrina victims whose houses succumbed to the devastation, what they wanted, they would have said a faster house.6

However, the small, quaint “cottage” house is Henry Ford’s “faster horse.” It does not improve society. It does not progress the cultural dialogue. It does not attempt to identify with its place. It does not strive to achieve a synergistic relationship with its environment. It does not strive for a cradle-to-grave relationship with the earth. It does not progress mankind and most significantly, it is not an improvement over the previous slab-on-grade ranch house.

ninthward cottage1

Unlike Make It Right homes. The quaint “cottage” does not accommodate parking. (Unless you count the front yard.)

The improved FEMA “cottage” is a profit-driven solution pushed upon the Katrina victims by the developers. The developers do not care about improving the built environment of New Orleans, thereby forcing desperate homeowners back into their neighborhoods via the cheapest model.

You argue that the Make It Right houses are alien and “weird.” However, a tour through the remaining neighborhood today is startling when realizing that this was once a populated portion of New Orleans. Specifically, the street with the highest quantity of new “cottage” houses looks relatively unchanged since Katrina.

ninthward-2007

Benton Street 2007

ninthward-2014

Benton Street 2014

Many residents are not impressed with the Make It Right houses, and supposedly asked “perfectly logical” questions such as:

What’s with the flat roofs — you know it rains a lot here, right?”

-Unimpressed Lady

 

Dear Unimpressed:

New Orleans gets over 60″ of rain annually,7 and would be an ideal location for implementing rainwater harvesting techniques and building rooftop gardens.


You blame architects for being horrible designers and creating leaking roofs and rotting walls. It is true; many past architects’ design prowess has been touted while designing houses with leaky roofs, but the formative works by these past architects should not be depicted as similar to the Make It Right structures.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater with large cantilevered concrete overhangs. While engineering standards allowed this concrete to be constructed, the presence of an unknown factor (creep) caused the concrete to bend overtime. This subsequently led to advancements in construction techniques and engineering breakthroughs, by changing the reinforcement within the concrete to act in compression as well as tension.

Le Corbusier designed Villa Savoye with a terraced garden rooftop. While this roof leaked, it helped spur innovative technologies in membrane roofing (beyond the prototypical tar roof).

Seminal projects such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye were inimitable projects deemed experimental at the time. However, Make It Right utilizes readily available products with proven building standards, and should not be regarded as using experimental products.

Flat roof technology has advanced since Le Corbusier’s heyday. However, most contractors do not have the proper education, tools, and skills to apply a membrane roof in a residential environment. Furthermore, membrane roofing contractors who mostly work on large commercial projects do not typically want to work on small residential scale projects with numerous roof penetrations. After realizing these things, Make It Right ceased constructing flat roofs.

Architects could be blamed for designing flat roofs, but contractors are more at fault for being rooted in archaic building practices and not leveraging existing technologies.

Predominantly, the main culprit of the criticism is the use of TimberSIL products in many of the Make It Right houses. TimberSIL is a lumber product manufactured in South Carolina without the use of toxic chemicals (contrary to many lumber products). TimberSIL has been used in many projects throughout the country and has a 40-year guarantee. Unfortunately, the moisture content in New Orleans caused the TimberSIL to decay. Make It Right vetted the product, and with a 40-year guarantee, the problems are not the result of irresponsible architects, but rather the manufacturers and marketers of TimberSIL who took advantage of responsible builders by promoting a sustainable product within an untested environment.

For you to state that these houses are not what the public wants is misguided. Many Lower 9th Ward families were returning to the neighborhood, living in toxic FEMA trailers, and desired to rebuild. These families lacked the resources to rebuild in a sustainable manner, and thus pursued Make It Right. The homeowners chose the design and architect that was most suitable. Make It Right decided not to try to build as many houses as possible, but to design and build the best houses possible for this community.

In order to build high-quality sustainable houses, Make It Right chose to implement industry established green building products. They then take the knowledge that they learn, educate the community, and lower the cost of subsequent houses. 

I actually agree with you that the GRAFT house looks a little out of place in its current environment. Its solid walls project at odd angles in response to the neighboring houses. If it was not as solid, and had lightweight translucent projections, it would be fitting within the context. However, this is a prototype, and if it encouraged development of an entire street development of all GRAFT houses, it would actually make a fun, eclectic street environment.8

graft

Unrealized development of GRAFT houses, instead of a singularity.

Make It Right is setting a precedent for improved building standards in America. Critics, such as yourself, who advocate constructing antiquated houses built for the masses, and stifling cultural progress, are the actual perpetrators of deploying Communist rhetoric. 

bradyernst

1 No this is not her given birth name.
2 Which is the universal symbol for: no offense, but…
3 A baby architect is a work-around to avoid the lengthy conversations regarding the explanation of the term: “intern” architect.
4 Or at least openly discussed.
5 I think we can all agree that Katrina caused enough devastation already. Why harm our natural resources even more.
6 OK. Perhaps not a faster house, but a similar house.
7 Yes Seattle. That is double your annual rainfall!
8 Isn’t fun, colorful, and eclectic what we all imagine as “genuine” New Orleans.

5 Comments

  1. Malcolm Millais

    Do you really mean this?

    ‘Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater with large cantilevered concrete overhangs. While engineering standards allowed this concrete to be constructed, the presence of an unknown factor (creep) caused the concrete to bend overtime. This subsequently led to advancements in construction techniques and engineering breakthroughs, by changing the reinforcement within the concrete to act in compression as well as tension.’

    I which case you have no idea what you are talking about.

    Check out STRUCTURE magazine July/August 2001 and September 2005.

    • brady ernst

      Thanks Malcolm. I should probably put a disclosure on all of my posts that my complimentary advice is based on the minimal facts known to me. I do not do exhaustive research, talk to structural engineers, nor cite sources for my weekly diatribes. And yes I apparently did mean this… While cantilevered concrete beams were fairly simple calculations in the 1930’s, due to several unknown factors, and even after the contractor doubled the reinforcing, the cantilevered concrete extensively “creeped” over time. Sure, Fallingwater was grossly under-reinforced when originally constructed, but exterior post-tensioning techniques utilized to save Fallingwater in 1999 were not even introduced into North America until the 1950’s.

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