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Does Architecture Matter? Thoughts on Social Responsibility, Buildings, and the World After September 11th

Baltimore AIA, Baltimore, MD
October 8th, 2002

Thank you and good evening. I’m delighted to be here, and to be in front of an architectural audience in Baltimore and to have a chance to be thinking about something other than the implications of Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. I don’t say that to disparage these places – I’m happy to say that I was here in April of 1992 for the opening game at Camden Yards, and I think it is one of the more influential pieces of urban design in this country in the last couple of decades. It is no insult to other things that have been built in Baltimore to say that Camden Yards is probably the piece of architecture built in this city in the last quarter-century that has had the greatest influence in rest of the country. But we are here tonight to think about something else, something that goes far beyond Baltimore, though it of course includes this city as it includes every place, and that is the question of social responsibility in architecture, and what it might mean right now, at a time when we it seems impossible to think of buildings only as aesthetic objects – when it seems almost irreponsible, and self-indulgent, to think of them solely in those terms.
When Chris Parts first wrote to ask me to come, he mentioned an article I had written in Architecture magazine about Samuel Mockbee, the gifted and unusual architect who died at the very end of last year, and to use his career as a way of looking at this issue, and trying to figure out what social responsibility ought to mean in our time. I’m not going to speak about Mockbee in detail, but let me say a word about him and his career, since it brings to the fore a whole set of issues. Mockbee, who was only 57 when he died, was best known for something called the Rural Studio at Auburn University, which he created as an architectural equivalent of one of those pro-bono law clinics that provides legal services for the poor. Mockbee provided architectural services for the poor. But in doing so, he was determined to be profoundly, absolutely, rigorously creative, and to make no compromises. This is important – it is essential to knowing and understanding him, because for the last couple of decades, you could pretty safely presume that any architect who focused his or her talents on helping the poor did so at the expense of design. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered if social consciousness and aesthetics weren’t linked in a zero-sum game: if you cared passionately about one, it was almost a given that you didn’t care as much about the other. Strong, creative, powerful and inventive modern design has generally been the province of the rich, or of rich and sophisticated institutions, like museums and universities. Subsidized housing, when we build it at all, has generally been banal, dreary, unimaginative and hopelessly conservative – either because we haven’t believed that poor people deserved the best, or because we haven’t wanted to challenge their taste, and we have embraced banality in the guise of "respecting" their wishes. I don’t doubt that most people who haven’t been exposed to architecture are hesitant to accept the unfamiliar. People will always go first to what they know, not to what challenges them, since there is great comfort in the familiar. But Mockbee understood, I think, that people deserve to be challenged and to have their sights raised every bit as much as they deserve to have a roof over their heads, and he set up the Rural Studio to do both. He did not accept the premise that clients of little sophistication and little money could not respond to the promise and the exhileration of modern architecture. To fail to give them the chance, Mockbee believed, would be to condescend to them.

Mockbee did not apologize for being a modernist, then, and he did not expect his students who worked with him in the Rural Studio to design traditional log cabins. He led them toward an architecture that was respectful of southern traditions, but was in no way literal. An unspoken part of the agenda at the Rural Studio was the challenge of persuading poor rural families of the merits of architecture that must surely have appeared unconventional to them. Under Mockbee’s guidance, crisp angles, sharp diagonals, lots of glass and winged roofs that slanted rather than peaked became, if not quite common, a rather familiar part of the landscape in rural Hale County, Alabama.

Mockbee was a great educator, in part because he taught his students that they had to find a way to integrate the aspirations of their clients with their own aspirations as architects – that these things had to go together, they couldn’t be in opposition. There is no greater lesson a teacher of architecture can offer, and it is astonishing to me to realize how rarely this lesson is taught. Most of the time, architecture students are taught to look at the building as a pure, Platonic object, and there is nothing to negotiate, because the client is all a figment of the imagination. Mockbee’s students dealt with real clients, in real situations, and the aesthetics of a design could not simply be decreed. And yet at the same time, Mockbee’s students also knew that it was not simply a matter of doing whatever the client wanted, that they had to do more than repeat the way things had always been, because if you do that, then there is no point to your being there, there is no point to being an architect.

I don’t want to suggest that Sam Mockbee’s contribution was mainly a matter of getting modernism into the realm of rural housing for the poor. But neither is it mainly a matter of getting roofs over the heads of some people who wouldn’t otherwise have had them. Both of these are extraordinary achievements, and it is the combination of the two that is the most extraordinary of all. Architects tend mainly to think of themselves as responsive to clients, which they are and should always be, but all too often this is used as an excuse for doing the wrong thing, or for doing very little, or for not being active in the civic realm. It’s true that no architect can, alone, fix what is wrong with Baltimore, or build a thousand units of housing, and neither, unfortunately, can the whole AIA. But the inability to change the world is not a reason to retreat from the civic realm, and to step aside from continually trying to use your expertise to make life better.

Social responsibility in architecture is, at least in part, a matter of believing, passionately and absolutely, in the potential of architecture to improve the quality of life. Obviously Sam Mockbee believed this, and never saw what he was doing as just a job. But is there really any point to this today? We are much more inclined to wonder what effect architecture can have on society at all, and whether it makes sense to create serious works of architecture, to devote resources to creating them in this day and age. After all, we ask ourselves, how can we bother with such things in a time of joblessness, in a time of homelessness, a time of AIDS, a time of so much anxiety and despair? What possible good can architecture do us? Does architecture, even good architecture, matter?

What is the point of architecture? Is it naive to believe, as Samuel Mockbee did, that it can play any role in making a place civilized – in giving a family focus and strength, in making a community, in rendering a city livable? Let’s lay the cards on the table. Architecture is not as important as enlightened public policy, perhaps, 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. A great court does not guarantee just laws; a great school building does not in and of itself teach people, though it may provide a better environment for teaching people. A great house does not protect you from the rain any better than an ordinary house – indeed, if the history of architecture in the twentieth century is any indication, a great house often protects you less well from the rain than an ordinary house. But does that mean that a special work of architecture cannot, in its own way, have a profound and subtle effect on the quality of life?

These are not easy questions, in part because they can invite such easy and glib responses. 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, who was very good at dismissing his leaky roofs because he was so certain that a life spent under them, however wet it may have gotten you, was an enobling and life-changing experience. Well, I would like to believe that is so, but I don’t know that we can necessarily count on architecture to do all this wonderful stuff, whatever Wright may have thought. Architecture is an effect of culture as much as a cause; it reflects our values at least as much as it creates them.

Yet we cannot leave it all at that, as if there were no connection between what we build and what kind of society we are or can be. We can’t let architecture totally off the hook by saying it is nothing but an effect and not a cause of our cultural condition. Winston Churchill’s line – "We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us" – may be shopworn, but it is not so far from the truth, and it remains the most cogent summary of the complex and dynamic relationship between architecture and society I have ever read, for it acknowledges that the relationship works both ways. Architecture is both an effect of social condition and a cause.

If there could be any doubt that architecture is a public issue – that it can affect the public sensibility and the public spirit almost as much as political and economic matters do – it came home to me in two letters I received not that long ago, which I would like to share with you. The letters were both long and exceptionally thoughtful – I’ll only read you some brief excerpts – and they both came from people who were trying earnestly to come to terms with the way in which architecture and social and political forces seemed to be working – or not working – to define our cities and our landscape. Neither writer was comfortable with the way in which political and economic and cultural factors now come together to create the modern city – but the things that bothered them, the things that motivated them to write to an architecture critic, were completely and entirely opposite from each other.

What made these letters still more intriguing is that both writers felt that their perceptions were somewhat out of character for people of their backgrounds. The first was from a man who described himself as "a Republican, a commuter, all in favor of Progress . . . I’m against rent control, believe in profit, and would be the last to stand in the way of needed development." Yet, he was writing to bemoan the physical condition of New York, a city he loves but finds is now looking more and more like "a big, anonymous concrete vault. Soon it will look like East Berlin – but because of capitalist economics, not socialist planning."

If the march of skyscrapers, shutting out the sun and sky, led this man, in his words, "to feel rather hopeless about the esthetic future of the city," the other writer took a different tack. His categorization of himself, it would seem, would be as more of a liberal than the first writer. Yet, his concern was not that the free market of real estate had too much power, but that liberal Government regulation, in the form of landmarks protection, had stifled the rights of property owners and set social values awry.

In the course of his letter, he looked back to an event some years ago, still a defining event in the history of landmarks preservation in New York, which was the situation surrounding St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue which, in the widely publicized case many of you may remember, petitioned the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for permission to tear down the community house of its Bertram Goodhue-designed church to erect a skyscraper. A portion of the income from this real estate venture would have been devoted to aiding the poor, the church claimed in an attempt to make the project seem socially desirable. But the Landmarks Commission said no to the church’s initial proposal, citing the damage the skyscraper would do to the landmark church complex.

"One might even go so far as to suggest that it is unforgivably arrogant to dictate to the owners of buldings and properties what should be done with their resources, especially when the owners have such unarguably fine things in mind" as aiding the poor, that second letter stated. "The idea that esthetics and taste and appearances — notwithstanding their inherent benefits and qualities – come first and subordinate a variety of other factors, such as Ôshelter beds and soup kitchens,’ is hard to swallow."

The letter concluded by asking whether liberals, by promoting landmark preservation, had not painted themselves into something of a corner so far as social values are concerned. "I am struck by what might have been a conflict for the New York liberals, who on the one hand want to preserve the Ô quality of life esthetically,’ while on the other are faced with the price to be paid for this preservation in terms of a sacrifice of Ôshelter beds and soup kitchens,’ which are traditionally part of the liberal’s turf," the writer said.

The question is well posed here. But is it, in fact, the right question? Before answering it, let me go back to the question I raised at the outset. How much does architecture really matter? Can it affect the quality of life? For the first writer, the answer is clearly yes. He bemoans the loss of fine older buildings, the loss of sunlight, the loss of the kind of casual encounters that make urban life easy, the loss of small scale, the tendency of virtually everything to turn into an interior mall. "I’ve begun to get this chilling feeling that things have gone wrong, that as a city — as a society? — we’ve lost some essential perspective," he writes, to quote another phrase from his letter.

The other letter writer is also observing a loss of perspective, but from a very different vantage point. He does not so much deny the value of architecture as place it, clearly and unquestionably, below other values in a hierarchy. And he believes that the emphasis our society is placing on architectural values in the form of landmark preservation is, in and of itself, elevating the value of architecture to an unnatural point.

Now, it is not the case that one of these letter writers is right and the other wrong. Life is not so simple as that. Lurking behind both letters is a more fundamental issue, and that is whether there really is any meaning in trying to evaluate the social benefit of architecture in the way that the second writer does.

To position architecture up against bread is to guarantee that it will lose; there is nothing very profound in that observation. Sentimental notions of the meaning of art aside, even Beethoven cannot take the place of food in the mouths of the poor. Art is a luxury – not a physical luxury but a luxury of thought; it begins to make sense to us when the basics of living are accounted for.

To think of art and food as a tradeoff, then, is a fallacy. Food is a necessity. Art, and architecture, for all we value them, are not. They do not sustain life; they give the already sustained life meaning. The suggestion that esthetics and survival constitute a simple tradeoff in the minds of landmark preservationists is not only unsubtle, it is intellectually crude, for it presupposes an either-or situation where none really exists. Resources are available for both art and survival — they are not unlimited, of course, but as a society we are constantly called upon to make decisions as to where our resources will go, and how they will do the most social good.

All decisions involving social priorities entail a kind of balancing act. After all, as individuals, there are few of us who choose to live like Mother Teresa, giving up all personal property to help the poor. And we do not sell off the pictures at the Walters or the National Gallery and devote the profits to feeding the poor, for example, though that would certainly provide one kind of social benefit. You could feed a lot of people with the proceeds from disposing of a few Rembrandts. We do not do that, of course, because the pictures are a public trust — in the case of the National Gallery, quite literally a public trust, but in the case of all museums, part of our shared culture in the larger sense.

But is that not what can be said of great architecture? Or, indeed, what should be said of almost all serious architecture, great or not, of buildings that aspire to some significance in the public realm — that they are part of a larger whole, and in that sense also part of a public trust?

For here we get back to the very issues the first of those two letters I mentioned a moment ago raises. It is true that there is such a thing as "quality of life," hackneyed phrase that it is, and architecture plays a real role in determining what that quality of life is. The things that disturbed the writer, the things that made him wonder about our social priorities, are all very real. Light, a sense of space, quiet, visual variety, modest scale – we may not be able to quantify the effects of these things, but we can know that we can have no civilized city without them. I’ve posed an example that falls into the area of landmark preservation, only because I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two letters I received, the two opinions each coming from people who thought they were speaking in opposition to their standard, obvious political position.

But we could as well speak of new architecture on its own when we raise the question of how much does it matter, the question of how much of society’s resources should go into architecture – the question of necessity versus luxury. I’m not speaking of architecture in terms of elaborate buildings, but in terms of works that exist as making some kind of statement about a public realm, about their role as something other than pure pieces of private property. Once, the city was seen as a kind of public trust – even private property was developed with a sense of responsibility to the urban whole. Much of that attitude has disappeared in our time, pushed away by the values of a time in which the city is seen far more as a set of real estate opportunities, as a blank slate on which can be written ever bigger buildings, than as a community.

If you permit me to return to New York for another moment, we certainly see those issues writ large today in what must be the biggest arena of urban planning and architectural discussion in our lifetimes: the future of Ground Zero, the question of what should happen where the World Trade Center once stood. Questions of social responsibility hover over all of this, of course, and however depressing a lot of things are here in terms of some of the plans being proposed and some of the politicking that is going on, what I find encouraging is the sense on the part of nearly everyone that the city is being seen as a public realm, and not solely as a set of real estate opportunities. Indeed, in some ways this issue has been framed as a debate between those who would see Ground Zero as representing a public realm, and those who would see it as a real-estate opportunity. And this past summer, when the initial six schemes for the site were announced and then deservedly given the boot by an offended public, the message the public was trying to send was that cash flow was not supposed to dominate – that this was a public place with great symbolic import, and that the authorities had a responsibility to treat it as such.

It goes without saying that we could spend an entire evening talking about this situation, and this is not the place to tell the whole story, which of course is unfolding as we speak anyway, and has no ending. I am not even sure it has a middle chapter yet, let alone an end. But there are some important points to make about the relationship of the notion of social responsibility and architecture to the future of Ground Zero, and let me try, in the remaining few minutes, to say something about them.

Everything here, of course, connects to the notion of social responsibility, because this is not an ordinary piece of land, and whatever happens, all of us feel, correctly, that we have some stake in its future. There are people who have been calling for the rebuilding of the towers as they were, which I happen to think is the most inconceivable and indefensible idea imaginable, and there are people who have been calling for the preservation of all the sixteen acres as a memorial, as sacred ground, which I do not think is the correct thing to do but is at least understandable and defensible, even if it is ultimately not right. The most important thing to say now, I think, has nothing directly to do with design, although in another sense it has everything to do with design, and that is the importance of time. The slower we go, the better off we will be. Only now, more than a year later, can we begin to grasp what we are dealing with here.

If the original architecture of the World Trade Center demonstrated the great fallacy of America in the nineteen-sixties – the fallacy of size, the belief that bigger was always better, that American might and power could solve any problem – what we have been seeing for much of the last year, I think, demonstrates the fallacy of America in the nineteen-nineties and beyond, which is the fallacy of speed, the belief that faster is always better. Faster is not better when you are trying to get beyond tragedy, because it denies the reality of mourning, and of human nature, which is that psychological wounds take as much, if not more, time to heal than physical wounds. The only part of this process in which speed is important is in getting help to people directly afflicted – families, affected businesses, and so forth. I am not talking about going slowly so far as these needs are concerned. I am talking about going slowly so far as building is concerned.

After all, almost everything that was said in the immediate aftermath of September 11th was wrong. Certainly the statement made by the developer who leased the towers, Larry Silverstein, that he wanted to rebuild them in the form of four fifty-story towers was utterly wrong, just as were the cries to rebuild the World Trade Center as it was. And in time, I suspect, we will also come to feel that the opposite demand – that we build nothing there, ever, and preserve the entire site as a memorial – is also shortsighted, however respectful its intentions. The reason is simply that it looks only backwards, only to the lives of the thousands of people lost and to their families, and it would leave us with a permanent void in the center of the city.

For a while, a void is exactly right. It is what we need. That is another reason I am making so much of the idea of time – because what is right for now is not necessarily right for three or four or ten years from now. For as long as we look downtown and feel a sense of shock, of surprise, at the absence of the towers, we will know it is not yet time to build again. I do not believe that this feeling will last forever, nor should it. There will come a time when we are no longer shocked at the void, when we are not surprised that the towers aren’t there, when we expect to see nothing there except a hole – and then it will be the time to build again, when the site everyone calls Ground Zero will feel less like a place of death, and more like a construction site. For those whose families died there, this time may never come, though we cannot be sure. But I know that the power of the site to suggest death will fade over time, at least somewhat – sort of like a uranium half-life, it will lose its potency, in stages, though it will never disappear completely. But as that happens, we will move gradually toward thinking that the ways in which we can respect the lives of those who died there, and the ways in which we can respect the future of the city and build toward it, need not be entirely incompatible.

The terrorists wanted to destroy our civilization, which they believed represented evil, and if we believe they are wrong, then it is our duty to rebuild that civilization right here, on this piece of land. To do otherwise is to allow the site of the World Trade Center to belong forever to the terrorists, even if we think by leaving it unbuilt upon we are sanctifying it for our own lost souls. I believe we can build anew here in a way that acknowledges not only the lives lost, but the pain and rupture that survivors feel. There is nothing to be gained from smoothing over the rough and cruel edges of history here. We can try to make this site a place in which the ongoing life of the city is confirmed, but that does not mean that we need to make it cute and pretty. A great memorial is uplifting, but it does not deny pain, and this site must, first and foremost, have a great memorial that will find some form of metaphor to express the horror of what happened not just to us, but to future generations who did not live through September 11th.

Those of us here in this room, and others who experienced September 11th, represent less of a challenge to the designer of a memorial, since we have our own memories to guarantee that we will have a powerful emotional response. The test of a great memorial is not its ability to evoke meaning from those who lived through what is being memorialized, but for those who did not. Shards and pieces of steel, the remnants of the World Trade Center, should be re-erected as a part of a memorial, since it is important to acknowledge the power of ruins – but they are only a part, and I suspect they may be more meaningful to us, with memories of September 11th, than they will be for future generations.

I hope that we build ambitiously, and daringly. If we respond with the conventional, then we have failed to grasp the meaning of this moment, and the depth and resonance of its challenges. By ambitiously and daringly I don’t mean that we need to build spectacular architecture, though I would very much hope that we can. I’m not talking about architecture so much as I am talking about thinking. It is too soon, really, for architectural specifics; this is a fallacy behind so many of the plans we have seen lately, including the ones published, I have to say, in my former newspaper. One of the things that defines social responsibility on the part of the architect is knowing when not to make architecture, when to hold back. I am not sure that a festival of famous architects’ favorite shapes is the most responsible thing for the profession to do. In some ways it looks more like a high-school science fair than a mature response to a problem.

Architects, understandably, have been as full of passion as anybody else about this. But the reality is that we need time, we need to grieve, we need to work out the issues as a society – and, first and foremost, we need to figure out what we want to do with this piece of land. This may seem like a heretical thing for an architecture critic to say, but I am not convinced that you start with architecture. I think you start with a program. There is still no real final program for the World Trade Center site. There was an initial program, the awful program of the Port Authority, which was to put back all the office space and add even more retail space and treat the whole thing like a cash cow into which you add a token memorial. Well, as I said, we know what the public’s response to that was, and I’m glad of it. But we do not yet have a revised program. It is just beginning to be figured out. And I am not sure that figuring out this program is what architects are best suited for. Sometimes, as I said, the way you exercise social responsibility is by knowing what not to do.

That does not mean that we do not need to imagine – we do, desperately. It is just that I don’t think that you imagine well with a gun at your head, and I don’t think you imagine well by starting with physical form. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, goes the old adage, and architects lately have been looking like guys with hammers. I would hope that they could wait, and join in the dialogue as citizens, talking about what would be best in terms of program, not starting with buildings.

People are always asking me what I think should happen there, and I do have some thoughts, but they are only the beginning. They focus mainly on the skyline, since on September 11th something was taken away from New York, and from the world, that turns out to have been beloved by all kinds of people, more than most of us may have thought, beloved even by those who did not admire the World Trade Center as a piece of architecture – and that is the entirety of the skyline itself, the skyline as an aesthetic object. Nothing means more than the loss of human life on September 11th. But for many people, particularly those who are lucky enough to have been spared loss in their own families, the destruction of the skyline was itself a painful, even a devastating, thing. We are shaken by the way the skyline has been violated, devastated by its loss, all the more since without the World Trade Center, we do not have the romantic skyline of slender towers that we had before the trade center was built, the great classic skyline of old, but instead, only a kind of boxy blur. We need to restore the sky to lower Manhattan. We need to have a skyline again.

This, perhaps, is where the bold gesture can be made – not in another skyscraper, which we do not need and cannot pay for, but in a great tower, perhaps a broadcast tower or an observation tower that can push up once again into the sky. It can be in itself a memorial, or a part of the memorial, and if we call it the memorial tower, that will be a far greater way to show that those people whose lives were lost will be remembered than if we leave the land vacant. We need, I believe, a twenty-first century Eiffel Tower for New York, a tower that will use the technology of our time as aggressively and inventively as Eiffel used the technology of the nineteenth century, and use it to produce a tower that I hope will be as beautiful. Programmatically it will not replace the World Trade Center, but it will, in its own way, repair the broken skyline, and reclaim the sky.

Whatever we build, will be there for a very long time. This is the first great urban design challenge of the twenty-first century, and it is an opportunity to show social responsibility, in part, by showing commitment to a place. Architecture is about the conservation and extension of culture, and about the making of place, and about the way the generations work together over time to give places deeper meaning. If we believe in a place, then architecture follows from that belief. And now, of course, almost everyone believes in Ground Zero, whatever they feel should happen there. But we also believe in New York, and we want whatever is built, however much it may have other social goals, also to have a stake in the preservation and strengthening of this place, the city itself. And here it is important to say that the value of the culture, in New York if not to some extent everywhere, lies in newness and creativity as much as in preservation. We do not conserve the culture only be preserving – that is the crucial paradox here, that we conserve best, sometimes, by being new.

Lewis Mumford once wrote that "In a city, time becomes visible." It is a wonderful and profound comment, for it embraces the whole possibility of time, time past, time present and time future. When time is not visible, a city is not real — it is Williamsburg, it is Disneyland. When we only preserve, or when we build new only to look old, we deny a sense of time. It’s essential, I think, that we always think of preservation not as denying a sense of time, but as being done to enhance a sense of time, to enhance a sense of time’s visibility.

Architecture is about the long term. Maybe that’s what it comes down to, in the end: architecture is about the long haul. It’s here to say that something that mattered yesterday still matters today, and more important, will still matter tomorrow. It can matter in different ways, and mean different things, from one generation to the next, but it is still a way in which the generations speak to each other.

And the way we have to speak, the way we have to continue speaking, is by creating, by nurturing the new and giving it room to breathe. Creativity is a form of social responsibility, then: creativity and social responsibility are not different things at all, but parts of the same mission. Creativity is how architecture makes itself matter, and how the generations take up the tradition of using architecture as a means of speaking to one another. The generations have spoken passionately to each other for two centuries here in Baltimore as well as in New York, and if there is any essential architectural goal today, it is not to make one kind of building or another, but to make sure that the dialogue continues into the next generation and the generations after that, and to remember that the highest form of social responsibility architecture can aspire to is creativity. Yes, architecture matters – and the way it matters is by creating resonance over time.

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