Saturday, October 31, 2009

Who Killed Modern Architecture?

While I would like to believe that there are Modernists a plenty out there, all the evidence unfortunately speaks to the contrary. The latest evidence of this is how many Modern shelter magazines are either folding or getting noticeably thinner, while Architectural Digest seems to hold steady amid the rough economic seas. My latest issue of Residential Architect (which focuses mostly on progressive Residential buildings) tops out at a whopping 59 pages. While I don't fully understand most people's bias towards "traditional" styles, I have to wonder what it is about Modern Design and Architecture that turns people off? People don't seem to mind trading in their old car for the latest model or going down to Best Buy for the most technologically advanced Audio Visual experience. So why is it that in the year 2009, people still want to build houses in styles that were fashionable 200 years ago? After all, we weren't building Medieval Castles in the 1800's? So the question remains, Who Killed Modern Architecture?

When you look at the history of what we call Modern Architecture, it is hard to divorce its origins from the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Machines gave us the technology and the ability to grow buildings faster and stronger. Most people will cite structures such as Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, the Eiffel Tower, and the Brooklyn Bridge as being some of the first truly Modern accomplishments. Those gave way to breakthroughs such as modern glazing, the elevator, and prefabrication technologies (the Crystal Palace was a pre-fab building in 1851). From there, the founding fathers of Modernism enter through the likes of LeCorbusier, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and finally Mies Van der Rohe. In the early 20th Century, Modernism was in full swing, also commonly referred to as "The International Style". The Museum of Modern Art (under the lead of Phillip Johnson) organized a pivotal exhibition that changed the face of Architecture forever. By the late 1940's Modernism had arrived and permeated every publication and merchant builder throughout the country. Have you ever seen an issue of Better Homes and Gardens from the 1950's? How about Fortune Magazine? Google them sometime and you will be shocked. They're all progressive and modern. The prevailing style of that day is now known as Mid-Century Modern and objects from that era are highly sought after due to their originality and quality. What happens after the 50's is a product of two different phenomenon that was like a 1-2 punch to all things Modern.
First, you have the Depression era children growing up and reaching the age where they want to buy a home. Growing up during a depression leaves you with some pretty lasting memories. (I have a friend who still ties together broken rubber bands instead of throwing them away, but we'll save that for another day.) Since homes were (and still are) the largest single investment that the average person is likely to make in their lifetime, this group had no interest in risking their hard earned savings on the latest and greatest trendy home. They wanted security and comfort and chose older homes with time tested styling. The second part of the double whammy has to do with all of the wars which were being fought in the 40's and 50's. The world was not as small as it is today and resources were rare. Modern Architecture often relies on the latest materials to execute the greatest gestures with the least effort. Steel, Glass, and Wood were considered too valuable to be cladding houses with, so the era of vinyl began. And then all of these soldiers came home and needed somewhere to live. The Government was giving them cheap loans to go buy a house and everyone wanted to settle down and make babies. Builders saw the opportunity and started cranking out tract homes. Cities like Levittown in Long Island grew up overnight. And as you can guess, there were not many tract home developments where each home was designed by an Architect. Builders made alot of money building the fastest and cheapest house they could and they couldn't keep up with demand. And the rest, as they say, is history. The era of the tract home began and the media now had to change focus on how to decorate and style your brand new tract home. 50 years later, the major publications such as Better Homes and Gardens are still doing the same thing, except now they are decorating McMansions and faux bungalows.
Of course, there are still those who want Modern housing thanks in part to magazines like Dwell (my latest issue was REALLY skinny). But now that the latest recession has all but wiped out traditional funding for new and innovative companies, will the Moderns just give up or regroup? If only Ayn Rand were here...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why all the fuss about e-readers??

Architects LOVE books. I have talked about this before. In fact, pretty much every creative I know loves books. As an admitted bibliophile, I have personally spend hundreds if not thousands of hours combing through used book stores to find rare and out of print titles on my favorite subjects. There is something very comforting and romantic about curling up with a great book and cracking it open to discover what lies within. For me, it is something that started when I was very young and it has been a romance that has lasted my entire life.

I have also talked before about great companies and how great companies embrace great Design to change our world. Last week, Barnes and Noble announced that it had developed a new e-reader called "the Nook" to take on Amazon's Kindle head to head in a battle for the e-consumer. Amazon is also fighting Walmart over prices of digital book downloads. You would think that a person who loves books AND design would be excited about the potential of bringing a new distribution network to book lovers. Unfortunately, I don't see what the big deal is.

First and foremost, I believe that e-readers are a fad. The reason being is that book publishing (when done properly) is an Art. How many times have I been attracted to a book simply because of the cover design or the font on the spine? Choosing a good book is like choosing a good friend, even if the relationship is only temporary. When a great narrative is married with a great layout and produced on a high quality medium the results are extraordinary. I have built a collection of books that I hope to pass on after I have gone and I revisit most volumes fairly often. (I will say that many of my books are non-fiction and are not read in the traditional sense. I use many of them on a regular basis for their imagery and inspiration.) As a great book is a work of art, the classics constantly appreciate in value. A vintage first edition of any major work accompanied by its dust jacket is always a prized possession. How can an e-book compare to this?

The e-book is the 'McMansion' of the literary world. Just another way to try and deliver more for less. The problem is that the consumer ends up with no tangible product for the money. Why would I pay $10 for a new digital novel when I could buy a hard copy in a used book store for $5 a month after it comes out? The argument for e-books is that you can carry hundreds of books in your pocket. I don't know about you, but I only tend to read one novel at a time, maybe two. If I have ever brought a book with me on a train or to the beach, it has often been a conversation starter with a random stranger asking if the book was any good or sharing a story about a part that they liked. What is the new alternative? A nation full of people staring down at a screen all reading the same book?

We live in the most technologically advanced society the world has ever known. We have conveniences that our parents could never have dreamed of. With all these gifts however, we are losing our ability to feel and communicate as humans are meant to do. School age children learn to type before they know how to write in script (Do kids even learn script anymore? Or is called cursive?). We have taken experiences that are meant to be emotional and we make them mechanical. For this reason, I don't believe the traditional book will ever go away. Like everything else of quality, they may increase in price, but hopefully this will make it such that only the great books get published. One can only hope.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What is a "Traditional" Home?

Have you ever seen the show "House Hunters" on HGTV? It is definitely one of my favorites. I love to see which houses people are attracted to and what they do to them after closing. I have to admit though, I am often baffled at what people are looking for in a house and what they consider their tastes to be. I would say that most people, young and old, seem to gravitate to more "traditional" style homes and this greatly disturbs me. Today I wanted to examine what makes a home "traditional" in an effort to figure out why most people seem to prefer it.

First and foremost, the word "traditional" to me means something that has not changed over time. Traditional food would be dishes that have been made the same way for generations. Traditional houses are ones that emulate historical styles such as Colonial, Tudor, Victorian, Queen Anne, or Mediterranean to name a few. People seem to feel connected to these styles as they have seen many examples of each and they are familiar to them. Perhaps it is this familiarity which breeds comfort and contentment with these styles.

Inside our "traditional" homes, we typically find "traditional" interiors. From wrought iron dining tables to poofy sofas, to wing chairs with gold damask upholstery, it's all there. With swags on the windows and Oriental rugs on the floor, the "traditional" home owner can pretty much go into any store and find plenty of inexpensive furniture to suit their tastes. It is also worthy to note that most of the interior offerings in the "big box" stores also cater to those furnishing their "traditional" homes. I guess you could say that this makes Traditional homes easier to furnish.

Lastly, we should talk about maintenance. Colonial builders used things like wood clapboard siding and divided light windows to construct their homes. These represented the best marriage of technology and craftsmanship that they could come up with. Today we have used our innovation to engineer products that are virtually maintenance free and offer comparable appearances to "traditional" designs without the cost or headaches that an older home offers. If you in fact wanted to build a historically accurate "traditional" home complete with extensive millwork, wood windows and siding, slate roofing, hand laid masonry foundations and plaster interiors, you would be looking at a hefty sum indeed. I would think most people would choose cheap and easy.

So there we have it: comfort, availability and affordability. When you look at it like that, it's easy to see why most people are biased towards "traditional" homes. Unfortunately, there is a problem. The problem as I see it is that "cheap and easy" is not usually associated with quality and desirability. As a society, we have spent the last few decades building houses that have no long term value and will likely be torn down rather than fixed up. What people consider to be "traditional" or "American" in terms of style are mostly poor copies of something that was once a genuine reflection of our ability and craftsmanship. Your cabinets may be honey colored with paneled doors, but if you look closely you will find no real joinery on the drawer fronts and no solid wood to be found anywhere. Your "hardwood" floors probably came pre-finished with only a few layers on the top that are real wood and the rest is something else. But as long as there are stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, everything will be alright ("Where did the settlers put their Kitchen Aid Mixer?")

The sad reality of all this is that I really can't be upset about how uneducated people are about Design. We did it to ourselves. Architects got fat and lazy and gave away so much of our profession that it's no wonder every home owner believes that they know how to Design an Interior. So instead, I suggest that we get off of our high horses and take back our right to work for regular people who would love to live in great spaces. Let's create some great examples of Modern Design that are warm and inviting instead of stark and cold. Let's empower people to go on a housing diet and design more efficient homes that do the work of much larger ones so that the average person can afford the best of what the 21st century has to offer. Finally, let's volunteer our time to those who could actually use it instead of complaining how much work has slowed down. If you are looking to do some pro-bono work, there are hundreds of potential clients in your local home improvement store just asking for someone to help them. They are the ones staring up at the ceramic tile displays with the blank looks on their faces. Simply introduce yourself and ask them if they need any help making a selection. It's really that easy. Almost as easy as picking out those new Venetian Blinds for your Tuscan Inspired Kitchen in your Tudor Style home. Love me some of that Traditional Design.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Some suggestions for the AIA on saving the profession of Architecture

In 1857, 13 Architects got together and founded what is now known as the American Institute of Architects, or the AIA. The group had two main goals which were to educate their members in the science and art of Architecture and to elevate the status of the profession. Fast forward 152 years, the AIA has become an organization that has over 200 employees and 83,000 members. And while it is no longer a grass roots movement, many would argue that the organization is irrelevant and out of touch. Having worked among AIA members for the last fifteen years, I would constantly inquire about the advantages of membership. The conversations would go something like this:

Me: Do you get special privileges that Registered Architects can't get?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Is it affordable
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do you get better deals on books and stuff?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do the other members help you out if you're in a bind?
AIA-Member: No.
Me: Do they get you work?
AIA-Member: They have a section on their web site where my name is listed, but other than that, not really.
Me: Do you go to any local meetings?
AIA-Member: No. They're too boring and nothing ever happens.
Me: Can you charge more for your time because you are in the AIA?
AIA-Member: No. In fact, I just lost a job to another AIA Architect who undercut my fee by 25%.
Me: Wow. So what are the advantages of being in the AIA?
AIA-Member: I get to put the letters "AIA" after my name. Basically that's it.

Now I should say that the people that I know in the AIA are small practitioners. This is their experience. It may be different if you go higher up the AIA food chain. Maybe those Architects actually help each other get work or maybe they have the power to get things done. If they do, I haven't heard about it. What I have heard is how disgruntled Architects are about the AIA and how most people I know wouldn't even be members if their company didn't pay the registration fees for them. Those fees by the way, include membership at the National, State, and Local levels. Every branch gets a piece and it gets expensive. They do give you a $37 annual subscription to Architectural Record, so I guess that's something.

In 2006, I attended a conference sponsored by Residential Architect Magazine in San Diego. The conference attracted alot of attendees and was generally very successful. At a portion of the conference, we broke up into groups and got to have lunch with different groups of people for lunch. In our group were some national AIA officers who confessed that they had come to the conference to try and attract smaller firms to the AIA. In their research, they had found that small firms (under 10 people) and sole practitioners represented a very small percentage of their membership. They asked us if anyone at the table was a member. Not one person was. They asked us how they could make it more attractive for people like us to join? Needless to say, the lunch wasn't long enough to give everyone a chance to speak. Almost three years later, I see that they have taken none of the suggestions to heart. That being that case, I wanted to put the ideas out there again in the hopes that maybe someone will find these suggestions and bring them up at a meeting. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Your web site, your marketing, and all of your promotional campaigns are terrible. You people are supposed to be representing Great Design. Your web site looks like a Pharmaceutical company's web site. You can't even find how much it costs to join. On the application, it says "please call for local and state rates". When you try to search for an Architect on your web site, it does it by zip code alphabetically. I'd hate to have a name that started with a W or a Z. How about filters for type of work and size of firm? Lastly, your print ads depict Architects as family psychologists instead of Great Designers. Whoever came up with that campaign should be fired. I did hear an ad recently on AM radio though. Way to elevate the profession.

2. Stop trying to keep people OUT of the profession. In recent years, the AIA has spent alot of time and money lobbying for tighter regulations on who can officially call themselves an "Architect". Apparently, they now own the word and can sue anyone who tries to call themselves an Architect without the proper credentials. I think you have all forgotten who does the 'heavy lifting'. You know those recent graduates who work 90 hours a week when all of the "Architects" have gone home? Instead of trying to prevent them from putting "Project Architect" on their resume, why don't you try to give people more incentive to become an Architect? Better pay for Registered Architects would be a good start.

3. Lobby for Laws that make sense and help Architects. Almost everyone I know has renovated their house in some way. HGTV and big box stores have empowered homeowners to bust apart their houses and get dirty. If you are building a home from the ground up, most states don't even require an Architect's involvement which is evident by cookie cutter developments cropping up all over our country. Perhaps if there was legislation to require that Architects be involved at a Residential scale, there would be more work available for Architects and the overall quality of Residential Design in this country would improve.

4. Don't let EVERYONE join. I'm sure there was a time when being a member carried some exclusivity along with it. Not any more. Every time a new EIFS clad drug store or bank gets built in my neighborhood, it usually bears the seal of an AIA member. Shouldn't the AIA be endorsing great design? For all of your 83,000 members, how many actually build buildings that adhere to the principles of true Architecture? If you want good architects to join (the ones who will really be a credit to the AIA and attract new members) you have to understand that they don't want to be lumped in with bad architects. Recently, an Architect that I admire (who is actually FAIA- very high up on the AIA food chain) told me that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't even join. How's that for an endorsement.

5. If you can't do any of the above, can you at least get a deal on some books? Architects love books (as do non Architects, and pretty much every Designer I know). With 83,000 members and millions more interested in Architecture books, you would think maybe the largest professional Architecture organization in the US could at least help bring down the cost of publications to its members, right? Wrong. I went to the AIA website to check out some deals on 'Publications'. Even those which are published by the AIA are still 10-20% cheaper on Amazon. How is that possible? If I were spending $1,000 on membership, couldn't you at least give me some deals on a book that you publish? It's just absurd to think that in a world where you can compare prices of everything from your phone, the AIA can't find a way to deliver educational materials to their members at a reasonable cost. And don't even get me started on the AIA Documents.

In conclusion, I hope that there is someone out there who can talk some sense into the AIA. I would recommend starting with a frank conversation with the current members to determine what value (if any) membership still has. From what I have seen in the last year, the profession has taken a serious hit from the economy and shows no signs of a quick recovery. I think people and companies will be taking a long hard look at what those three letters are worth on a business card.