Students of architecture learn an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright. He had designed a house for a wealthy client who later called him to say “Mr. Wright the roof is leaking on the piano in my living room,” to which Wright responded “Move the piano” (Sometimes the story involves a dining room table). Even by the standards of modern architecture’s so-called “Heroic Age” (first half of the 20th century), Frank Lloyd Wright most flamboyantly relished the role of the visionary, the creative genius.
Why that attitude? Michelangelo was known as il divino (the divine) and yet we find no indication of such behavior in the record (irascible, stubborn, apparently yes). Wright’s behavior (other than Wright just being himself) had something to do with his and other modern architects’ relationship with the academies of fine arts at the time who were slow to adapt and even resistant to the brave new world of the future that was supposedly soon arriving. It took courageous visionaries, the story goes, to take on the academies.
Ideology embedded in modernism partly had its roots in the romantic movement of the 19th century — especially in Germany, England, and the United States. Romanticism was a challenge to the rationalism of the Age of Reason. It celebrated the individual imagination and personal intuition in the search for individual rights and personal liberty. It was a reaction to industrialization emphasizing our connection to nature and an idealized Arcadian past (Wright was all about this stuff). Its ideals of the creative, subjective powers of the artist fueled avant-garde movements well into the last and this century. To this day there are architects who still talk about the building of buildings as a form of self-expression. This would not have occurred to an architect before the 20th century.
Over the course of the 20th century things changed. The rapid expansion of populations in America (wonders of modern medicine) created a huge demand for lots of buildings. This demand coincided with a revolution in building technology (steel replacing stone) that made the building of buildings a fast and (relatively) easy enterprise. This in turn created a market for the building of buildings as a profit- making enterprise with (relatively) short term returns on investment. And, through the lobbying efforts of trade organizations (the American Institute of Architects among others) governments came to require that no building except a single-family residence could be built without the stamp of a “licensed” architect.
When the building of a building became a profit seeking venture the financial models, relationships with banks, marketing the product, and the five-year return-on-investment (ROI) became the product (not so much the building itself). The (pretend) rationalism of business schools and the (relatively) new profession of “real estate development” prevailed in the popular imagination. In the aftermath of the Age of Reason, business (banking and law) increasingly came to be seen as what rational (adult) people do, art and architecture what intuitive (romantic and childish)
Despite the law, when buildings are built for the ROI architects are hardly necessary. These buildings are simply engineered for safety and performance with perhaps some veneer applied by the (now required) architect. High quality, enduring architecture is certainly not a priority. Instead, we get junk building, the equivalent of junk food: fast, cheap, generally bad for our health. The architect’s station in the context of so much bad building cannot have fared well.
Artists’ and architects’ attempt to abandon tradition complicated matters. Too much knowledge of the past, too much learning, the thinking went, became an impediment to authenticity. Artists like Chagall (then Basquiat) embraced their naïve and primitive selves to create art that was supposed to transcend skills and knowledge. This had unintended consequences for modern art of which the most egregious might be “My child can do this!” People throw up their hands (“I don’t get it”) and soon art’s relegated to snobs and people with too much time (or money) on their hands. To exaggerate just a little: art’s now for rich people to collect, intellectuals to parse and the retired, challenged, or troubled to make (for therapy). Or is it? How many times do we still hear about genius artists and genius architects? Which is it, genius or dummy?
And therefore, while in many quarters in many schools across our nation art is still justified mostly for how it contributes to students’ performance in supposedly more serious subjects like math and science it is with some gratification that we witness the rise of the so-called maker movement. At the top of every school’s wish list now are “maker spaces” and “innovation labs”. This, some educators believe, is the most revolutionary change in education in at least a half century. What’s behind it?
It is perhaps the realization that what we the practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession have known forever: making something teaches us something about the world and ourselves, making something engenders a kind of intelligence as human as any other kind of intelligence, we are minds with bodies and bodies with minds, we can (and must) think with our hands, our eyes, our whole bodies to establish true understanding of the world around us, to create the space in which truly meaningful innovation blooms. And it is, therefore, in this context that we submit with confidence how self-defeating it is as a society when we mythologize or minimize the intelligence of the architect.