Is the next generation of architects really ready to build?
On the first night of lectures by recipients of the 2011 Architectural League Emerging Voices award, nobody was really talking about building new buildings.
Principals of one firm, Interboro Partners, which is based in Brooklyn, presented several projects, one of which was a plan to find other uses for an abandoned mall until it could be redeveloped, and the other, resulting from a research project on the city of Detroit, explored the concept of “blots,” a term they assigned to multi-tract plots of land cobbled together by residents who acquired the land that lots of neighbors left behind.
Lateral Office, of Toronto, presented an inexpensive, economically revitalizing, environmentally redeeming plan for Southern California’s ecologically unfortunate Salton Sea; they also spoke about the research collective they co-founded to probe “the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics,” which in a broad interpretation translates as infrastructure.
Technology has a lot to do with what's happening in architecture: what can be done by architects efficiently, and what problems—engineering problems, environmental problems, infrastructural problems—have come up for cities that architecture might have practical solutions for.
Much of the city-building taking place these days is subject to and generated from a new ethos about what belongs in the civic sphere. Significant building of architectural importance is dominated by the idea of public-private partnerships, and has arguably had its foremost expression in the U.S. in the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg and his deputies, who are rewriting the rules of how the city functions, and how it's built.
These problems and technologies, though, aren't just creating jobs for the new generation of architects—they are shaping the aesthetic these architects are bringing forward. The city of the future will look very different, and these are the people whose vision will shape it.
So now that the jobs are coming back—and they are—the question is, is this generation ready to build? And what will the city look like when they're done?
I interviewed principals from seven of the eight firms getting this Emerging Voices award, to get a sense of who these people are and what they think; Marcelo Spina, from P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, was in Europe and despite enormous efforts on his part we were never able to speak.
WE WERE ALL SITTING IN THE WHITE BASEMENT OF THE NEW MUSEUM, in a white-walled lecture space with blond-wood floors and cream-colored plastic chairs and pulled-back grey curtains that matched the color of the podium on the left side of the stage, for the first installment of the series that will allow eight firms to show their work in several nights of lectures. Reflecting the stages of development of most architectural firms, the Emerging Voices competition follows the League’s well-known award to very new practices, the Architectural League Prize, which was until relatively recently known as the Young Architects forum (several of the eight, including both Interboro and Lateral Office, have won that competition in previous years). It’s supposed to go to young firms with a “significant body of realized work.”
"Realized," broadly interpreted, would translate as "actually built."
Jamie Maslyn Larson, a pleasant-looking new member of the selection committee wearing a striped blouse, read from prepared marks after a very brief tribute to the sponsors from the League’s program director, Anne Rieselbach.
Larson admired these first two firms in particular, she said, from her perspective as a landscape architect, for studying the “overlap of systems, of geography, nature and the complexity of really, sort of, seeking the right voice and vision for those systems.”
She also said: "I think what I was drawn to most was that they seem to pick apart and grapple with, issues for which there appears to be no clear client. Messy, complicated problems that they just know should be tackled by someone, but no one has asked them to do."
The prizewinners belong to a generation of architects that has inherited a wariness from their baby-boomer antecedents who, themselves, watched several boom and bust cycles go by, while the generation before them—the Gehrys (pictured left) and the Meiers and the Fosters—seemed to win by default whatever small number of major commissions there were. So they did what non-building architects do: they taught, and thought, and wrote, and passed time broadening the purpose and meaning of architecture to epic and sometimes not entirely realistic proportions, while what was going up was becoming increasingly big and increasingly expensive and therefore increasingly distant and boring. Risk-averse clients attracted to established firms are not commissioning or encouraging risky architecture, after all. Architecture got old.
Meanwhile the less expensive, less ambitious jobs became increasingly mundane. It became possible, in the last decade, to make such enormous amounts of money from middling building jobs—most notoriously condominiums, but also hotels and office buildings and that sort of thing—that quantity became much more popular than quality. The sort of "masstige" feel that dominates places like Whole Foods and the home-furnishing chainstores and waterfront condominium buildings in Seattle alike.
This is an old story, but it's worth considering the relationship between the old story and the youngest architects, who watched that particularly feverish boom from classrooms or very young practices; architecture, as a profession, tends old, such that professionals in their mid-to-late 30s are still "emerging," per the Architectural League. (More than one architect I spoke to for this piece referred to the timeline of a career in the field as inverse to that of professional sports.)
The large number of architects in the Emerging Voices generation, even if they had wished to, did not have enough experience to be able to guarantee quantity in a short time to be any significant contributor to what was being built before 2008.
And for the most part, they didn't want to; the lessons of that period in building were evident before it ended, and once the field contracted (jobs in architecture in New York City reportedly, between roughly July 2008 and March 2009 fell by 13 percent, and that's one of many grim statistics) the ones that were more excited about quantity, about profit, left. Generally speaking, the ones that remain active in the field are more idealistic—they would have to be—and thinking on a much smaller, more thoughtful, more altruistic scale. It is the teachers and the writers and the thinkers that are still here and available to build.
Most of the architects that today are awarded the most expensive, highest-profile commissions in North America were born in the 1930s. That includes Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Robert A.M. Stern, and Renzo Piano. Frank Gehry was born in 1929, I.M. Pei in 1917, and David Childs in 1941. With the exception of Childs, whose firm is the august Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm names are beside the point; when Norman Foster builds something, it's said that Norman Foster built it.
Buildings will still need to be built when these men no longer wish to or no longer can take commissions. (In Philip Johnson's case, he was drawing things on napkins that became renderings at his firm, like a Jean Nouvel building planned for the Meatpacking District, almost to the day of his death; in some ways it was hard to watch.)
The 1930s gang grew up during World War II, and, roughly, went to school in the 1950s and started practicing in the late 1960s and 70s. A group commonly referred to as The New York 5—Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey (right), Richard Meier and John Hejduk—famously exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 as the "next generation" of architects, and the book Five Architects was published in 1972. There has really been no "next generation" contemplated on such a scale since.
Assuming 20 to 25 years between a generation, who are the architects born in the 50s, educated in the 70s and practicing in the 90s? There's Steven Holl, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien. There are of course Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid and Bernard Tschumi, to name a few. Most of them are just now getting out of paper and building. They've become famous through books, lectures and ideas more than anything else, frequently ideas that are broad enough (as in Koolhaas) to take in much larger themes than what you'd traditionally call "architecture."
It's a lost generation, if the built environment is to be the measure. Recessions in the early 80s and early 90s meant there were fewer opportunities for baby boomer architects during the years in which they could have been gaining experience in larger projects and building a name for themselves. So much so that in the last 15 years or so, since the now-old men were still active, it has been much easier and perhaps advantageous to public relations for developers and other clients to look to those now-old men for major projects, as opposed to actively looking for younger talent and taking a risk. At least until Atlantic Yards, Frank Gehry was a pretty good, and frequent, bet.
Alex Miller, a principal at Taylor and Miller, said it’s more or less understandable. “It’s safer, it’s safer. I mean I think it’s just like a number of other industries, you’re going with something—especially when the money’s tight, especially when every bit of marketing counts, it just makes sense, that you would defer to that and say, ‘OK, I’m going to maximize that part of this marketing effort; I’m going to maximize this project. And, you know, I can see why they’re doing it.”
Which leaves the next generation in an odd spot; there’s something of a vacuum, but they don’t have enough experience to fill it. Most of the Emerging Voices firms were founded roughly 10 years ago and their principals are mostly under, say, 45. They're still a way off from being offered truly large projects, as a rule. The gerund "emerging" would seem to be a permanent state of affairs for this generation; always emerging, never emerged.
The Emerging Voices people talk about lack of opportunity, which in some sense is the burden of many professions, but the echo of the moment could last a long time. Because of the economy, the number of jobs in architecture has plummeted. When that happens, people leave the profession, which is what has happened before and part of the reason for the disparity between generations.
“I’m going to turn 34 in June,” Miller said. “My partner’s a few years older, but the way that I always explain it to people, at least the recent recession specifically: where Jeff and I saw ourselves in—I don’t know, five or six years—the firms that we looked at, that we projected where we’d be or thought we might be. If those firms had work that was developer-centric those were the ones that we felt got tagged the hardest. Because you know that work dried up immediately, right? And so, there were a lot of those firms, you know I won’t call them out by name, but there were a lot of firms that were younger, older than us, but younger, that were, you know, in academia, that we had either had as professors or whatever. And they had gone from five-person firms up to 25-person firms and then they hit the reset button back down to five–, seven–, ten-person firms.”
Ruy has been a professor for almost 15 years, and talks like one (albeit an especially good one), though he's an Emerging Voice who's starting to get commissions.
“One of the things I thought was a great irony of contemporary work was [that] a lot of the curvilinear and spectacular buildings that have been built recently comes out a research that really can be located in the late ‘60s," he said. "And a lot of it came out of, kind of, a challenge of modernism, and it had a real counterculture or leftist bent to it. And so it’s very ironic, actually, relative to that history, that the formal research that came out of that counterculture ended up becoming the calling card of great capitalist projects.”
A number of those great capitalist projects have been delayed, or scaled-down, or canceled, enough to seriously affect the profession, at least for now. That may mean a temporary lag in big, expensive projects (the financial sector seems to being doing just fine recently), a relatively long-term shift towards smaller projects, or a change in the culture entirely. A number of the architects I spoke to for this piece seemed sort of relieved; among other things, there’s some sense that there has been enough of a sea change that there is the chance to revise the profession. The inflation of architecture, a function of the inflation of commercial building, that created that 1967 MoMA show, is not likely to happen again anywhere in the near future, and that gives room for architecture to become its best, as defined by the Emerging Voices.
"WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ARCHITECT TODAY VERSUS 30 years ago is different,” Benjamin Ball, pictured left with his partner Gaston Nogues, said over the phone from the Ball-Nogues office in Los Angeles. “The role is more. We do a very diverse set of things that wouldn't have. You can be called an architect, and you’re working completely within the virtual domain; you can be called an architect working within the domain of public art; you can be called an architect and you can be doing, you know, Habitat for Humanity; you can be called an architect and you’re making icons for the most powerful institutions in the world. You can be doing research on, like, pervasive sensing.
“It’s just, like, all over the map, and so in some ways I think it might be kind of a problem. It really almost kind of dilutes the … We don’t know what it means to be an architect anymore. It means all these different things.”
I asked him how it came to be that a job that was once to, essentially, make buildings, had spread so wide.
“I think it’s about the training,” Ball said. “What we think of as space, and as the environment, has expanded quite a bit. And the people that are interested in architecture or design, in school they fold these new interests into the work, and then it becomes kind of part of the definition of what an architect is. And, you know, I just think the notion of what we think of as space—what a architect can do—it just has blown up; It’s huge now. It’s much bigger.”
For a sense of what's different about the Emerging Voices firms, compared to the New York 5, you only need to look at their names.
Both of the firms that presented last night—Interboro Partners and Lateral Office—have brand names, rather than the now stodgy-seeming list of names with commas in between that was once common among architecture firms and law firms and investment banks.
In an interview, Lateral Office partner Mason White (pictured at right with partner Lola Sheppard) attributed the proliferation of this sort of naming—which started in the 60s but has become increasingly common recently—to the growth of firms that have a collaborative work ethic rather than being built around a singular genius.
“There’s so many collaborative opportunities, and I think genuinely the days of the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-era, kind of, ‘master builders,’ as they were called, are gone a little bit," he said. "You see so many collaborations between architects and developers, between architects and landscape architects, between architects and engineers, and sometimes architects and business people. And I think that it’s just so much more commonplace now.
“Also, there might be a little bit of a zeitgeist in the fact that young architects want to be a bit like rock bands, too. I mean like, the band isn’t called Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen, right? They’re called U2. Because that’s a great name. So I think there’s some possibilities there to argue that rock-band envy.”
White was actually one of three architects I interviewed who brought up rock bands.
Partners at traditionally named firms tend to have certain views in common, in my rough survey, and they're different from the views of firms with names like Lateral Office. It’s about authorship, and the culture of a firm, and how collaboration works, and how the partners see the firm’s future.
“We chose not to do it because we thought that that—let’s call it, identifying ourselves by some title—that would become more grounded in a particular era and a particular moment,” said Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio. “So we chose just to do it in a very traditional way." Here he paused. "Like you name a band something at one point in history, and then it just sounds really stupid later on.” (U2?)
“This is a really funny question,” Robert de Leon, of de leon & primmer architecture workshop, wrote in an email. “We talk about this all the time within the office. The acronyms of earlier firms (eg. SOM, HOK) have been replaced with predominantly one-word firm names that recall contemporary rock bands (Bent, Oasis, Blur, etc.) I suspect there's a subconscious nod to the marketability of that, but also it's just playful & irreverent (how can it not be with a name like 'Super Potato'?) In graduate school, there was such an emphasis on 'criticality' and theory; today, this has been replaced with a focus on fabrication and the simple joy of 'making'. In our particular case, our firm name was chosen to reflect how we operate—it's a workshop to research, test & critique.”
In an interview over the phone Alex Miller, of the minimally named firm Taylor and Miller, said: “In all the projects that Jeff [Taylor] and I have, you know, worked with people on, they’re hiring us for us, right?”
“I guess if you have an office of 100 people and you’re the master—quote-unquote—in the master-apprentice relationship, then maybe a firm name that’s abstract is, maybe, a little bit more team-centric.
“If I was not being cynical about it that’s what I would say.”
But he was.
"Of course it’s a collaborative effort—but I think there is an editing that goes on that, you know… I sometimes have a hard time thinking that that editing can happen at such a group level. In other words, there’s a …” He thought a minute before continuing. “Their teams collaborate and I’m sure that people recognize that collaboration but it’s still somebody else’s direction, or vision.”
David Ruy of Ruy Klein (pictured left) had a similar take on the idea of authorship.
“We felt very strongly about not doing that,” he said. “As you say, it may seem like a trivial fact, but it says something very important about how the younger generation is thinking about practice. And the reason why we saw some of our colleagues do that is [that] they were starting to think that personal authorship was less of an important issue than a collaborative infrastructure for producing architecture. And there were high-minded things about it, too, that they wanted it to be less about the individual signature of the architect and more about the content. And I think there was also some frustration about the stodgy old architectural profession, with guys in bow-ties and suspenders, and, you know, named like law firms. They wanted to be something fresher, something more contemporary, more like dotcoms and companies and things like that. They wanted to be corporate but in a more clever, young, fresh way. That kind of a professional firm, right? And we thought that was pretty interesting, and I think a lot of people did. But the reason why we did not want to do that was, I feel, both myself and my partner, we feel very strongly that the only reason to hire an architect in today’s building economy, I think, is that you need an individual to really provide a sensibility and responsibility relative to that sensibility. And if there’s an event I could point to to prove that point, it would be the 9/11 competition. If you remember, in the first go-round they hired, I believe it was Beyer, Blinder, Belle to do a planning study. And it was very generic and bureaucratic, and there was that public outcry that this was intolerable—that after all that it’s this generic thing. So they then sponsored a competition, but a very specific competition, where they invited the most famous architects in the world. And at first glance it might seem like it’s more related to spectacle, and branding, you know, but in the end I think it was—it says something very important about the peculiarities of our culture that for the largest projects with the largest expenditure of capital, we still don’t trust bureaucracy for such a thing, that we don’t see the generation of meaning or significance emerge from processes like that, so we still rely upon, you know, individuals. So there still is a kind of myth of creativity that’s still very important to us. And I don’t know if it's really a myth either.
“You can see that we’ve been thinking about this a lot, and, you know when clients call us, they want to know who they’re talking to.”
That’s the practical side, he said, that you have one person to deal with and it’s clear who it is.
“The more poetic side is: one day when somebody, for example, is giving up their life savings to build a house, they don’t want the result coming from some methodology. They really want somebody’s creativity.”
WXY architecture + urban design, which employs graphic designers and engineers as well as architects, was founded in 1998 as Weisz + Yoes, after Claire Weisz and Mark Yoes, but renamed itself in 2006 when a third partner, Layng Pew, joined.
"The first three letters sort of roughly mean 'Weisz times Yoes,' which really says a lot about both our work, and what inspires us,” Claire Weisz told me, citing the firm’s extensive collaboration with others in the field. “I call it the ‘creative barter system,’” she said. “I think it’s fun to think that it’s kind of about how architecture is also interested in the idea of brand, and when you’re naming yourself it’s a chance to explore that."
WHITE THINKS THAT THERE IS A NATURAL relationship between this generation of architecture's interest in using the built environment to address social goals, and cities' increasing interest in doing the same.
"There was a kind of drug-induced state in the last 15 years," he said, with "architecture being iconic and architecture being primarily visual." There may be an opportunity now to look at what architecture can do for the environment, and for people, but White thinks it will be a difficult sell, specifically in the U.S. Projects that are less visible and whose benefits may not manifest immediately are less likely to appeal where the dominant culture strongly values immediacy.
"I’m envious of some of the thinking in Europe on that front, from Copenhagen to Barcelona; I think there’s a lot of lessons there."
As does New York City.
Back in 2007, Danish architect Jan Gehl (right) was hired to consult on PlaNYC, the mayor's long-term plan for transforming the city with new traffic patterns and public spaces and everything else, pretty much. City Planning chief Amanda Burden introduced Gehl, a legend in his field, at a lecture last in September by saying, "We used to say we plan at the scale of Robert Moses, but we judge ourselves by the standard of Jane Jacobs,” she said. “That’s not really true anymore. We judge ourselves now by Jan Gehl’s standard.”
And that standard places a high premium on a lot of the work these architects are doing.
"Design is not an isolated activity," de Leon wrote to me in an email. "It involves and impacts a community. This comes in different end results and methodologies, but the design effort is ultimately embedded within a community or group of end-users. There is a sense that architecture (and landscape architecture, urbanism, etc.) allows for 'ownership' by the public on many levels; the design product is a kind of framework that provides this opportunity."
If de Leon's reference to "end-users" seems to sound like the talk of software developers, that's because this generation of architects has been raised in a software environment. The analogy between computers and architecture has, in many ways, replaced the analogy between nature and architecture that was the province of their forebears. Architects would chafe at the simplicity of this, but for our purposes: If the buildings are the hardware, the activities and uses they suggest are the software, and architects are eager to design that, too. Sometimes it sounds a little creepy—just as some of the ideas that come from the Bloomberg administration can sound creepy and Big Brotherish. But like a lot of utopian thinking, it's also idealistic.
“I hate to say it but it think it’s probably, A, it’s an interest in technology and belief that technology changes everything. In an attempt to deal with that and an attempt to assimilate that, the pace of change. And that’s not just about, 'oh, hey, we can use computers to draw something.' It's more about, its' a very broad statement, 'what I'm making,' just an acknowledgement that the way that technology, communications, communication and information flow, the information that affects cities, affects our notions of time, affects our notions of travel, affects our notions; affects identity. All those things."
In that sense, the new generation is approaching a totalizing sort of architecture: There is nothing that is outside its purview. And that would look, to our friends from the New York 5, very undisciplined and frightening, and, in a strange sort of way, perverted.
"Will our colleague firms be calling themselves planners two years from now?" Weisz asked rhetorically. "In addition to architects,” she said, refining the point. “I mean, I think one could have a couple of theories. And i think one of them may be that between quicker communication and the tools you have, all of these fields are easier to think about together. And then I think kind of a design approach is actually being applied to many fields, including business and law and other things, and that architects are starting to realize again that they’re sot of needed, in terms of critical thinking."
The most obvious change in the profession is so obvious that more or less anything I could think to ask seemed not worth asking--as if I were the only one who didn’t already know, and I found some of the architects I talked to thought what they had to say was also obvious, though it wasn’t really. Technology has changed everything so quickly and to such a degree that we can’t talk about it long enough to run out of obvious points to make.
David Ruy asked me if I knew of a Santa Barbara ecologist named Daniel Botkin, which I did not, and he later said: “The reason why I mentioned Botkin earlier is that, what he mentioned, is that there’s been great metaphors for nature in civilization, the first having been nature as a great deity, or great intelligence, something powerful, something outside our understanding.”
"Which then got supplanted by nature as a great machine, or a grand calibrated clock during the Newtonian era. And the thing that really sparked my interest was he ends by saying that we may be witnessing the emergence of a third metaphor of nature, which is nature as computer. And that fascinated us. And around that time I was also thinking a lot about the very notion of genetics, which is saying our very own bodies have a computational basis. So we thought it was pretty interesting that architecture would start to use computers to manipulate matter.
“And so at that point we concluded—and it was just a hypothesis—that the ecological and the computational are actually intertwined. So our design work is really re-exploring a lot of notions of the sublime, and aesthetics of nature, and buildings—not as a frame to view this nature that’s somewhere over there—but for buildings themselves to become expressive in the same kind of beautiful way that nature is. And so that’s why we’ve been doing a long series of experiments in digital fabrication.
“So we didn’t want to develop all these theories about, you know, a new expressive architecture resonant with nature and then end up still building things out of drywall, which would have been kind of silly, so we became very focused on new ways to think about materials and new ways we could use computers to construct architecture in a completely new way.”
The firm is just now in the process of designing a house on a private lake near Bedford, New York. (A model for it is pictured at the top of this article.)
“It’s a nice time for us,” he said. “I think we’ve learned enough where we can build a house now, and approach it in a very different way. Because this house is going to be highly experimental in the relationship between the house and the landscape and the materials it's using and the type of machines we’re using to build it.
“And this other thing we’re doing is a collaboration with an [artificial intelligence] company in New Mexico, and what they’re doing is, they’re trying to—they’re developing the next generation of A.I. engines for game design. And they wanted to see if they can work with us to put together a—basically a robotic wall that would be driven by this A.I. And we normally don’t mess around with electronic stuff, but we told him we would be interested if we could explore, not as a kind of artificial intelligence that would be there to be applied to a problem, to solve a problem like heat gain or something like that. But we would be very interested if we could try it out as kind of artificial emotion, or A.E. rather than A.I. That is, if the wall could be built out of an array of servomotors that control a surface, like a continuous surface, so that—they wouldn’t really have a face, necessarily, but that it would have facial gestures that would—the wall would be manipulated and responding to you. That it’s frowning at you, or smiling at you, but not exactly a smile or frown, but the wrinkles in the wall would almost feel like a haunted house. Mostly we were thinking of a haunted house.”
Advanced technology has been around long enough that it’s worth being wary of. Technology is “not the driving force behind our work,” Ball said. “We are very aware that it has a shelf life with respect to design and art and a lot of creative endeavors. Consequently, we try not to make works which—we try to do things which transcend the tool, because—the work has to have more.” A fair amount of the work Ball-Nogues does is temporary, so it isn’t always a huge risk, but he said they are always aware of it. There’s keeping up with technology, and getting ahead of technology, but there’s also making extra-technological elements of the work be more important.
And so, the hardware and software analogy is not enough, for some. It's not because keeping up with technology is hard; it's because technology isn't moving fast enough.
"We look for things, we look to the gaps in technology, we look to the places where it doesn’t get, where off-the-shelf solutions won’t suffice. We look to find the—to do the things that the software doesn’t yet do; to do the things that the fabrication techniques don’t yet, there is no tool to produce them or to do them. And we develop the fabrication technique in combination with the software. "Technology is more than just digital tools. There’s a social technology, there’s an organizational technology to producing the kind of work we do," he said. Also: "We try not to geek out on that stuff too much though."
"As architects try to outdo themselves in terms of the production of form, I think the rethinking of architecture's relationship to the environment is really rich," White said. "Right now it’s technologically driven. Everything’s about like new building skins and, you know, new ideas about roofs, you know green roofs, and I think some of that’s interesting, but I also think there are other possibilities that are not technologically determined that can be equally powerful."
But the baseline here—the way technology has transformed the practice of architecture on a day-to-day basis, though obvious to the architects I talked to, often remained unexplored in terms of its effects on the architecture that actually gets produced. I induced White to talk about it.
"Architecture students, they’re all over Google Earth and searching thorough various journals that are free online, that normally you wouldn't have access to. So that part’s immense. and then certainly software and the ability to do real-time conversation and real time visualization and to run it through various per formative criteria based upon sun angle and view and light, it’s just amazing."
MUCH OF THE WORK NOW BEING DONE—OR NOW BEING thought about at least—addresses infrastructure and municipal concerns. This generation of architects, with its social and technological biases, is also becoming a generation whose signature works, aside from individual houses and small buildings and "infill" jobs, are to be found in the public sector and public spaces. It's a slow movement though.
"The majority of architecture, Capital-A Architecture, has been mostly cultural and private developments specifically in North America," White said. "With any kind of public commission, often in order to do a school, you have to have done 10 schools previously. So it’s this kind of chicken-and-egg problem.
"And so very rarely in North American contexts are architects sought out for innovating in those kinds of projects, usually, it’s a ‘just get it done’ kind of approach.’ I’m generalizing but I think that holds somewhat true and so you end up with either mega-firms or boutique firms, and those are really the only two types. And the mega-firms sometimes become stars, as you say, and go on to do a range of projects and stay in their kind of corporate form and then the boutique practices do all the kitchen renos and house projects and occasionally get a small public commission."
"One area that there’s a kind of obvious place that the government could focus a little more funding for better design, is infrastructure," Ruy said. "Like for example if they are to build these gigantic solar arrays in the desert, it seems like an incredible lost opportunity if it's treated just as a giant machine. Like a giant air conditioner that they’re putting somewhere, but because its a massive thing and they're actually quite beautiful but it seems like a perfect opportunity to think of it almost like you're building another Hoover Dam, which is a tourist attraction now, that they invite architects to think about how it could be thought of as a public building, as a public space. And why let something like that be different from—a park, for example.”
“So I think, if they’re remediating bridges, we’ve seen things in New York like how they put the Food Emporium in the anchorage of the Queensboro Bridge. Things like that I think could be a really great opportunity to improve the built environment."
"I think that design architecture is uniquely positioned to solve a lot of problems, or not to solve problems but to attempt to make the world a better place, and there in a way that it's never been positioned before," Ball said. "Because of the visibility of the profession, its valued more today than it's probably been valued at least in recent times. The technology provides new ways of solving problems and addressing problems within the world, that this wasn’t available to us 30 years ago."
And so the "thinking" part of architecture starts not to resemble the work of, say, Rem Koolhaas at all.
"If you look at the kind of discourse that was happening on architecture, it was philosophy, it was about history; it just didn't address, you know, housing a lot of people. You’re looking at issues of sustainability, you’re looking at the relationship of how technology figures into it, it seems like the possibilities—there’s far more than there’s ever been."
And that's part of why the era of Frank Gehry seems, finally, to be coming to an end.
“There was an era where it was just a kind of exuberance," White said. "Everything was about exuberance and culture expression and, you know, there was a lot of money behind some of these projects. Like in Toronto we had something called the Superbuild projects and it’s these huge 70—, 80-million-dollar cultural projects that were built and they were always done by a notable signature designer. And so I don’t know if this generation is reacting against that or if they’re just saying, ‘alright, well we can't top that, and that money’s been spent.’ We have to think of other things.’”