horizontal line

Does Architecture Matter? Thoughts on Buildings, Design, and the Quality of Life

Fixed Income Forum, Chicago, IL
March 25th, 2004

Good evening. I recall Philip Johnson beginning a speech in Chicago some years ago by saying how grateful he was to have been invited to America’s first city of architecture – coming, that is to say, as a representative of American’s second city, which in so many ways is what New York has always been architecturally vis-ˆ-vis Chicago. Architecture is one area in which we in New York truly do have a second city complex toward Chicago – not the other way around, as it is in so many other realms. And for all that has happened over the years, little has changed in the sense that those of us in New York, as well as the rest of the country, still have of Chicago as being the essential city of American architecture. Chicago still looks like the city in which the ethos of architecture remains potent, the city in which the presence of a powerful architectural tradition combines with the coherence of a living architectural community.

Now I say this not to flatter Chicago, or to suggest that all is perfect here. It is not, and I’m prepared to be a less than perfect guest and say something in a minute or two about what isn’t as good as it might be in this city. But first let me say something about the importance of the past in Chicago, since it is everywhere present – here in the Michigan Avenue area, down in the Loop, but also all through the North Side, down on the South Side, out at Oak Park and River Forest and Highland Park and Evanston. You cannot escape Chicago’s architectural history – Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, John Welborn Root, Mies van der Rohe, Myron Goldsmith, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Helmut Jahn – the names go on and on, and they are the city’s glory, and yet the greatness of Chicago’s architectural heritage is, rather paradoxically, sometimes also the city’s problem today. For it leads many people – architectural historians most of all, but also local boosters of every stripe – to romanticize the city, to discuss it as the apex of American architecture, the way art historians of the Renaissance might discuss Florence – as the location of the ultimate flowering, as the place in which absolutely everything came together to create something as close to perfection as the history of that time was ever going to permit. Well, Chicago is not Florence, any more than the Chicago River is the Arno, or Soldier Field the Duomo. Actually, the way Soldier Field has just been redone, maybe it is a little more like a high-tech cathedral than ever before; it is certainly cutting-edge, as new in the realm of stadiums as the Duomo once was in the realm of cathedrals. Maybe the analogy to Florence is not be entirely off the mark, not only because the level of quality in the art that flourished in both cities is so extraordinary, but also since some of the problems of these two cities are not so very different. The very tightness of Chicago, the way in which this city functions as a mostly unified architectural community, is something like what once existed in Florence, and while it is in many ways a strength, it also has its downside. As Florence once was, Chicago can be insular, it can look inward more than outward, and it can be preoccupied, sometimes even obsessive, about its past. Chicago, at the end of the twentieth century, is not a city on the cutting edge. Chicago, for all its greatness, is not the city in which the direction American architecture is now taking is being set, in just the way that Florence, for all its greatness, is not where Italian art and architecture and culture flourish now. The two cities look back at very different pasts – that of Florence is ancient, and the past that we so admire in Chicago comes largely from this century, and the very end of the last one. Chicago’s past is so recent that some of its most powerful aspects – its Miesian heritage – come almost up to our own time. You cannot walk the streets of Florence and meet the people who made it what it is, unless you know how to conjure up spirits. But you can walk the streets of Chicago and meet some of the people who created the powerful past, or the people who worked alongside of them – many are still alive, or their colleagues and immediate successors are.

Somehow that has not helped to make Chicago as much a center of innovation over the last twenty or thirty years as it was in the late nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth. There is no question that the most important American architecture being created now is coming out of Los Angeles, or New York, or from elsewhere in the world altogether. Now, there are still notable works of architecture being produced in Chicago, and in fact I can think of three that have been finished relatively recently that might even be said to be important enough to attract international attention, something that new buildings in Chicago haven’t generally done for a couple of decades. But of these three new projects – Rem Koolhaas’s new student center at Illinois Institute of Technology, Helmut Jahn’s new building on the same campus, and Carlos Zapata’s addition to Soldier Field – only one, Jahn’s, is by a Chicago architect. The other is from an international celebrity architect based in Rotterdam, and the third, the stadium, is by a Boston architect.

The biggest news made by a Chicago architect lately involves, as it so often does, a dead architect – in this case Mies van der Rohe, and the dramatic story by which Mies’s extraordinary Farnsworth House, one of the greatest houses of the twentieth century – truly, a near equal to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in my view – was purchased for roughly seven million dollars in an auction at Sotheby’s last December by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust rescued the house, which other potential buyers wanted to dismantle and move away, and it plans to open it as a public museum beginning this May. It is a triumphant story, and an absolutely wonderful one – but, as I said, it is history again, not about Chicago’s future, but only its past. Now, it’s true that the rescue of the Farnsworth House by the National Trust serves as a welcome reminder that modern architecture is now itself history, which is why it is so important that the Trust is doing right by Chicago’s heritage. I hope that the Farnsworth House will end up being as visited as Frank Lloyd Wright’s great Home and Studio in Oak Park, even though, being in a funny little town sixty miles away from the Loop, it is not as easy to get to. It is every bit as great a piece of the American architectural legacy. But it does not have too much to do with the question of architecture in our own time, and what potential it holds.

Not that many years ago, Chicago was one of the only places in the United States, and surely the only major city, in which the names of architects were as well known to the average intelligent citizen as the names of novelists or pianists or painters – which is to say not as well known as athletes, surely, but celebrated figures nonetheless. Now, however, what was once true only of Chicago is true of almost our entire country, as we have more and more architecture of note, in more and more places, produced to serve an increasingly visually literate public. Last year I visited a new museum in Cincinnati by Zaha Hadid, who just won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor; Los Angeles recently dedicated an extraordinary new orchestra hall by Frank Gehry; Daniel Libeskind has designed the master plan for Ground Zero; there are new buildings going up in this country by Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, Santiago Calatrava, Fumihiko Maki, Richard Rogers, Toshiko Mori, Rem Koolhaas – and on and on. I am most astonished at the extent to which the fascination for name-brand architecture has even moved beyond its traditional realm of cultural institutions, universities and houses for the rich, and into the sphere of commercial buildings. Real-estate developers now want apartment towers by Calatrava, office buildings by Robert A.M. Stern, hotels by Jean Nouvel and shopping centers by Daniel Libeskind. They have come to realize that architecture is a marketing tool in itself – that the name of the architect can have as much impact on the price of apartments as the number of closets.

This is partly a function of a strong economy, but it is much more than that. We live in an age in which we have come to expect a much more sophisticated and visually and emotionally engaging public realm, and even a downturn in the economy is not going to stop that. It may slow the pace, but it will not turn us back from what I believe is a profound cultural shift – the shift toward a visual culture.

We are in the age of architecture, and that is not going to change in the short term, whatever the Dow Jones is doing. Since not long after Frank Gehry’s extraordinary Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened in 1997, people have talked, at least implicitly, about the Bilbao effect – about the way his great museum led to a rebirth of excitement about great buildings and their potential to awaken people to the experience of architecture in a broader way. Of course Gehry’s building, transforming event though it was, did not emerge all by itself, with no connection to the culture. It represented a kind of culmination of years of moving toward an increased willingness to see architecture as the basis for emotional experience, an increased willingness to celebrate expression and invention, not to mention the creative power and possibility inherent in new technologies. Gehry summed up all of these forces and put them together into a great work that, in and of itself, had the ability to push things even farther, and as with all great art, we could truly say that the world was somewhat different after it was created from the way it had been before.

But Bilbao, and the buildings that preceded it and followed it in what we might call the category of New High-Visibility Architecture With Emotional Impact – not a very catchy name for a style, but that’s all right, because I’m not trying to name a style but discuss a social attitude – anyway, Bilbao and so many of the buildings that have captured the public imagination came about, at least in part, not only because of their architects, and not only because for a while we were living in some lush economic times. We also had, and still have, a generation of clients who were better-educated and more visually literate than the previous generation. They have eyes, they look, and they care about what they see, and that leads them to demand architecture that will excite them. And the more of it that gets built, the more the constituency for architecture grows. The age of architecture, if we can call it that, comes about in part because of architecture itself; the more it is a presence, the more there is a demand for it.

And thus we have not only Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles, an even greater building than Bilbao, but Tadao Ando’s Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth and Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, as I mentioned a moment ago; and also Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art Museum in New York and Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Center in New York and Norman Foster’s Swiss Re Tower in London and Bernard Tschumi’s architecture school at the University of Miami and Richard Meier’s apartment towers on the Hudson River in New York – and that is only the beginning. In an age in which the board of Lincoln Center hires Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio to redesign the center’s public plazas, when MIT decides that it wants the calling card of its campus to be a series of conspicuous works of architecture by the likes of Frank Gehry and Steven Holl, and when the Port Authority of New York commissions Santiago Calatrava to design a new transit station for Lower Manhattan, there seems to be a certain inevitability of architecture as the preferred means for institutions to put themselves on the map today. Organizations that were once resistant to architecture now seem to consider having a notable building (a "signature building," to use that somewhat cloying phrase) to be an essential part of their public identity.

And it is not just architecture, but every aspect of design that is benefiting from this new visual literacy, from this new prevalence of design quality. Look right down Michigan Avenue from this hotel at Crate & Barrel, or at Ikea or Pottery Barn or the Gap or Target and you will see a level of design quality being offered in the mass market that is beyond anything that has ever existed. Once, if you cared about high-quality design, you had to shop at Design Research or the Museum of Modern Art store or even more rarefied places, and the goods to be had were special, hard to find, and generally expensive. Now, it is altogether different, and I continue to believe that this is the great design story of our time – the democratization of design, the migration of quality design from an elite segment of the market to the mass market, or almost to it.

We are now at a moment when a dream that has existed since the early part of the 20th-century is actually being fulfilled. This is the dream of seeing modern design become accessible to the masses, and even sought by them – the dream that energized the Bauhaus, that drove the creators of that great German institution whose name is synonymous with modern design to create what they did, even though their own work was largely labor-intensive, much more craft-dependent than truly industrial, and rarely available to or even sought by the great masses of people. But they believed that there was a good to be served by the presence of quality modern design in the household environment, not to mention of course in the design of the house itself, and they dreamed of the moment when good modern design would be available to everyone at a decent price. Well, that moment has now come. It’s here. It’s in the stores that I mentioned, and plenty of others. And we have seen a remarkable shift in the level of taste in general in this period, too – think, for a moment, about the last time you saw a television for sale that had a fake-wood formica cabinet. Think about the last "Mediterranean" console "entertainment center" you saw in the same store. Think about how long it’s been since you saw dark wood "Mediterranean" kitchen cabinets, or avocado kitchen appliances. Look at the design of stoves, microwaves, stereo systems, computers. They vary in quality, but there is a floor, a level below which none of them sink, and it is higher than the average for design of consumer objects was just a generation ago.

We don’t tolerate schlock in quite the level we once did. I think there are several reasons for this, all of which probably had to occur together. One is the rise in visual literacy I have mentioned, a generation that is better-educated and more inclined to look than its parents were, even though this is also a generation more inclined toward symbols of status than its parents were, too. If I am going to be completely honest I have to admit that the guy who drives a BMW or an Audi whose parents drove an Oldmobile is not doing that only because he knows the Audi looks better – he is also doing it because of the status that ascribes to that name, and now that status is available to, and sought by, a far broader segment of the population than it once was.

But let’s put that factor aside for the moment, and add another one, which is the incredible rise of technology which has put a whole new generation of objects in front of all of us to a degree never imagined a generation ago; it is hard to design a new kind of object to look like an old one, even though they tried that for years with televisions, I admit. But it seemed harder somehow to get away with that with computers; you’ll notice that IBM never tried to pass off a rosewood Formica PC on all of us. Look at Apple products, for example, and how cutting edge they have all been.

If the democratization of design is something that modern design has always wanted – or at least has said it has always wanted – it is not without its drawbacks. Like the old Chinese curse, "may your wish be granted," design’s wish has been granted, and now let me tell you of the problems that come along with this. First, along with democratization comes homogenization; along with the quality of The Gap comes a sameness, a pushing of everything toward a common denominator. Yes, that common denominator is a lot better than the average we saw 25 or 30 years ago – but in its relentless sameness, in the way in which all of this fine stuff is now mass-produced everywhere, we run the risk in design, as we do in so many other areas of our culture, of squeezing out individual voices. Eccentric design, individual design, innovative design – these are harder things to spot right now, they are harder things to create, they are harder things to establish in the marketplace. It continues to exist somewhat at the high end, but only the very high end, as any one of you who have ever designed a custom home or apartment know. The minute you move away from the very highest economic bracket, you are safer at Crate & Barrel. Everything pushes toward the middle – a middle that is better than it once was, but at a price to the design diversity of our culture.

What does all of this have to do, in the end, with architecture, and with the making of civilized cities? The loss of specialness of place, individuality and distinction of place, has a lot to do with this, and I worry, even as I recognize how much better the average place we build now is than the ones we built even a few years ago, about the homogenization of places, the pushing toward the middle, as I said. But there is another danger, too, in the ubiquitousness of design now, and that is that we can all become, in a sense, numbed by too much design around us, by the sense that it is all too familiar, and that we need what are, in effect, higher and higher levels of design intensity to respond. We become, in a sense, increasingly eager for the stimulation of a quick visual fix; wanting architecture to be noticed at all costs means that we may find ourselves falling for the architectural equivalent of the tarted-up blonde rather than the brunette whose charms are more subtle, but more sustaining.

Sometimes, as in Gehry’s best work, instant allure does not preclude deeper, more long-lasting pleasures, but that is not always the case, and there are times when I suspect we will fall prey to the heady turn-on of a glamourous building and pass up something that may be a more profound work of architecture but is not nearly as exciting at first glance. And as we become more and more accustomed to the idea that architecture is supposed to give us a kind of emotional high, are we not at risk of needing more and more of it, all the time, upping the ante as buildings that once would have excited us now become routine? In the end, this may turn out to be the real way we pay a price for our new fixation – that we need each piece of architecture to be more and more different, to make a louder and louder statement, to attract our interest. (When every building is extraordinary, as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown once said, then haven’t they all become ordinary?)

To say this is to risk spoiling the party, and a wonderful party it has been. I don’t mean to do this, since I believe, as I said, that the age of architecture is more good than not – if I didn’t believe that, I think I should probably find another line of work. But I want only to put architecture in its proper place, and not ask of it things that it cannot deliver. Of course architecture is not life and death. It is not as important as enlightened public policy, or as a healthy economy. It doesn’t solve AIDS, or cure cancer. It is not bread on the table, and it is not justice in the courtroom. It is always important to remember that a great court does not guarantee just and fair laws, just as a great school building does not in and of itself teach people, though it may provide a better environment for teaching people. And we have all known for a very long time that a great religious edifice does assure the purity of the soul.

But does that mean that great architecture cannot, in its own way, have a profound and subtle effect on the quality of life? The truth is that there is no way to tangibly measure the effect of architecture on our lives, and there is no way even to be certain that it can make a demonstrable impact on the nature of a community. Don’t think I’m going to follow up on what I’ve just said with some platitudes and homilies about how wonderfully architecture improves the quality of life, because the fact of the matter is that I am not sure how much it always does. I will leave the certainty on that subject to Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m afraid we can’t necessarily count on architecture to do all this wonderful stuff, however much we may want it to, and even if we have experienced it ourselves, as so many of us in this room surely have. We know that sometimes architecture really does deliver in the way we want it to, to change lives for the better, but at the same time we have to recognize that a lot of the time it doesn’t change lives, and it doesn’t even provide for everyone the transcendent lift of brilliance that a great aesthetic experience can bring.

But the point I want to make right now is a little bit different. I don’t want to think of architecture as only a luxury that we fight to protect – as an aesthetic experience that we cherish like art and music, but a thing that we cannot afford in times of stress and difficulty. I think that architecture is more essential, not less essential, in times of difficulty, that it can rise to its greatest potential and give us the most in times of national difficulty, since it can be a symbol of what we want and what we aspire to, as so few other things can. It is not for nothing that Abraham Lincoln insisted that the building of the great dome of the Capitol continue during the Civil War, even though manpower was scarce and money scarcer still; he knew that the rising dome was a symbol of the nation coming together, and that no words could have the same effect on the psyche of the country that the physical reality of this building could. Lincoln knew, I suspect, that even the most eloquent words would not be present and in front of us all the time, the way the building would be. And Lincoln knew also that there was value in making new symbols as well as preserving older ones, and that building new was a way of affirming a belief in the future.

We build, in the end, because we believe in a future – nothing shows commitment to the future like architecture. And we build well, because we believe in a better future, because we believe that there are few greater gifts we can give the generations that will follow us than great works of architecture, both as a symbol of our aspirations of community and as a symbol of our belief in the power of imagination, and in the ability of society to continue to create anew. The case for architecture, if we are going to call it that, doesn’t rest solely on the experience of being in remarkable and wonderful buildings – those places that, as the great architectural critic Lewis Mumford once put it, "take your breath away with the experience of seeing form and space joyfully mastered." But those are the great moments of architecture, those moments that take the breath away, and they are the most important ones, the ones that make civilization. They are our cathedrals, both literally and figuratively, the works of architecture that add to our culture the way that Beethoven or Picasso adds to our culture. To strive to make more of them is the highest goal, because it is a sign that we believe our greatest places are still to be made, and our greatest times are still to come.

horizontal line