We would like our work to be well regarded by our peers. Their opinions matter to us and they influence how we think. Other architects’ work influences our work and we would hope ours theirs. This is different from thinking our work is meant for our peers. The buildings we design are meant for those who will occupy and experience them. Do we care that these people like what we do? Do we care that what we do engages them, that they feel a connection to it or through it to each other? Do we care that a building feels true to where it is in the world—the time and the place? We do. Are these aspirations—the respect of our peers and the satisfaction of those who live with our buildings-- mutually exclusive? They are not.
The modernist project led by the self-proclaimed insurgent militias of the avant-garde to obliterate from the face of the earth architectures that were considered merely traditional or vernacular—anything that smacked of old habits, tired ideas, out dated looks, regional naivete—worked. There are few in America today who have any kind of visceral memory or personal experience of architecture that pre-dates 1945. Those who do only really know it as “historic,” something other.
And yet in the worlds of fine art and architecture we still traffic in such terms as “avant-garde” (that’s French for “front lines”). But who or what are we still fighting? We speak of “metropolitan” or “global” architecture as if this were not itself a tired re-tread of an old idea from the 1920’s, the so-called “international style.” When Los Angeles, or any city in America, wants not to feel provincial it hires a “world-class” architect. An architect who wants respect (or fame) wants an international practice, not a regional one. Does this fixation on world domination or what the world thinks of us deliver better architecture? We don’t think so. It is instead insecurity pretending to be confidence.
In the age of social media we celebrate one thing and worry about another. We believe we have created a global community on the one hand—a community of 7.6 billion people acting together to create positive change (“making the world a better place”); and on the other hand we have created echo chambers where individuals select their own “communities”, see and hear only what confirms what they already know, communicate only with those who share the same interests and views of the world. These are related. We now can potentially communicate with any of the 7.6 billion people across the planet, we may even be able to influence a good number of them. But it is impossible to have a community of 7.6 billion and so we choose to create manageable (albeit cyber) communities instead. And, given the choice we select those most like us. We like the validation.
The population of Florence in the year 1500 was probably around 50,000, the republic of which it was the center maybe 750,000. That same Florence produced Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Da Vinci who are to this day among the most influential architects who have lived. Andrea Palladio probably the most influential architect in the western world came from the tiny town of Padua and worked entirely with the region in and around Padua and Venice in the 16th century. These people worked within communities they thoroughly knew – the values, culture, geography and climate. They competed, grew their skills and knowledge, got better because of each other and the demands of their community.
It takes time to know a place and to know its people. It takes living here to know that palm trees are not native to Los Angeles and the weather is not Mediterranean (it comes from across the Pacific Ocean, the water is often from Alaska and its very cold). We’re not one great big freeway (most people don’t use the freeways all that much) and we live in neighborhoods with distinct identities. We have a historically sophisticated literary community, mainly because of Hollywood, but only a small fraction of us work in or care that much about Hollywood. We are: intellectuals, environmentalists, engineers, scientists, artists, artisans and working people. Few of us are blonde or surf, we are majority minority.
A first principle of writing is “write what you know”, in theater it’s “use your feelings” and in music “own your voice”. These are one principle: that by seeking truth in the personal, in your own experiences and those you share in real life with real people you will find the universal. The values of a building that’s true to its place and the people of that place are universal. Everyone can learn from authenticity no matter where you’re from or how different you are. Now accessible to everyone (in pictures if not in person) architecture that knows its place—so-called “local” or “regional” architecture is no longer exotic or naïve. It’s the only real thing going on out there.