On Architecture's Public/s

"The public," writes Michael Warner, "is a kind of social totality. Its most common sense is that of people in general."Michael Warner (2002), "Publics and Counter-publics (abbreviated version)," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 88:4, 413-425. If this is so, then American architecture today has no public, no large, general audience generating critical conversation among its members and always ready for more.

Is it more accurate to say, then, that architecture has (or serves) a public, or several different publics, called "public" because they are composed of people who are not in the business of making buildings, but who pay attention to them nonetheless? I mean fans, cognoscenti, clubs, or associations united in following some genre of architecture perhaps, or period, or place, or firm.

Such publics exist, I will say, but few are of much influence.An important exception is the city of Chicago, where Blair Kamin ran an architecture column in the Chicago Tribune for 28 years and Chicago Architecture Center runs popular tours of the city's iconic buildings, both historic and contemporary. Several older cities in the U.S.—Charleston, San Francisco, New York—also offer architecture tours to the general public.Shall we count among architecture's effective publics all the neighborhood groups currently mobilizing to save an historic structure, or to reign in an aggressive developer? Shall we count among them all the would-be patrons of the art—newly-rich or recently-elected to directorships—interested in the "whole subject" because they will soon need to select an architect? These groups do not coalesce, however. Nor do they form an addressable, always-there public the way sci-fi readers do, or sports fans do: a ready audience, a constituency that repeatedly votes with its approvals and money.

Who, then, is architecture's enduring public in this active sense? Set aside the AIA, marooned in DC and taking "stands" on "issues" for public consumption. Architecture's public today is composed largely of architecture students and their teachers. This public (some 50,000 strong in North America) congregates in studios and classrooms and lecture rooms, there to learn of grand if unfair pasts, there to dream of generous and more just futures...futures that just happen to require the construction of wonderful new buildings. This homegrown public maintains hundreds of Instagram galleries and dozens of Reddit threads.Can TikTok be far behind? Two examples, drawn more or less at random (1): everyverything.net and everyverything on Instagram, and (2) r/architecture, r/ArchitecturePorn, and their subreddits. The global audience for these sites runs into the millions.It scans the profession's what's-new registries and marketplaces like ArchDaily, Archinect, Architizer, and Dezeen; it hears the discipline and its practice "examined" in podcasts like 99% Invisible, Night White Skies, and Design(ed). And, it watches lectures by charismatic designers on TED and YouTube.


New Mediums of Discourse

This public does not read, however. It cannot be reached by books, and it does not unite around books the way it once did around Venturi's 1964 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture or, to a lesser extent, Koolhaas's 1995 S,M,L,XL.In Europe, many would add Aldo Rossi's 1982 Architecture of the City. Today, most architecture books are either compendia or single-firm monographs with commissioned essays. The first are destined for libraries and coffee tables, the second the shelves (or desk-piles) of old clients, prospective clients, and members of the firm and their families. Almost without exception, new theory books, history books, and criticism books, have insufficient audiences to earn back their printing costs (much less the time cost of writing them). All are financially subsidized by their authors and/or their institutions, and "sell" in low hundreds at best. Lucky, one supposes, are the authors interviewed on podcasts like Architecture Talk and New Books Network (NBn): Architecture or the ones mentioned in the text. The yield in sales after appearing on such podcasts is undetectable however.For moderated forums, it has remnants of the print culture that thrived from 1950 through 2000 in magazines like Architecture Review, AD, AAQ, A+U, Progressive Architecture, Lotus, Casabella, Daidalos, and Domus. What remains of such fora has gone online with sites like Common Edge, Failed Architecture, Metropolis, and Places,Several such journals are screeds against architecture leveled by landscape architects, environmentalists, geographers, urbanists, and social justice warriors. This is not true of more popular sites like Dwell or magazines like Metropolis or Architectural Digest. There, all is well with the architectural world, "concerns" notwithstanding. Striking a balance are the field's ever-unread academic journals like the Journal of Architectural Education, Journal of Architectural Research, The Plan Journal, and Architecture Philosophy. For the mathematically inclined, there is Environment & Planning B and Nexus Network Journal: Architecture and Mathematics. At the other extreme, for the hands-on, lies the politics- and theory-free JLC, Journal of Light Construction. The shoots of a new-sensibility in architectural journalism growing in school-based publications like Offramp, and like Yale's Paprika, MIT'S Thresholds, and UT Austin's Platform. The readerships of these publications are tiny, however, and entirely academic. It's telling that the "public architecture" reading list offered by Places (https://placesjournal.org/reading-list/public-architecture/) focuses on urban design, urban planning, and landscape architecture: creators, all, of "public space." Indeed, it is among the followers of these three disciplines, rather than architecture, that the question of "public/s'' has its most common sense application. Much writing about architecture aims to contextualize it, but actually dissolves it, into urbanism, art, media studies, philosophy... Prime example: Archis's venerable, all-caps-and-sans-serif journal, Volume. and survives in print serial form in a few recurring, university-based publications like Perspecta, Log, and CENTER.

Microsoft Teams-image

Architecture Vs. Ford (Google Search Data 2020-2021)

That the public at large, that "people in general" are not interested in architecture is hardly news. Take as evidence the almost complete lack of reportage about new buildings in the mass media, much less mention their architects' names, or what they were thinking, or what it's like to live and work in those buildings. Neither HGTV nor its parent channel, Discovery, begins to explore this territory. Newspaper readers in the U.S. owe a great deal to Ada Louise Huxtable, Michael Kimmelman, Blair Kamin, Alexandra Lang, Paul Goldberger, Martin Filler, Robert Campbell, and Sarah Williams Goldhagen for their decades of periodic, public-facing articles about architectural developments. Most have also written relatively broad-audience books. One looks forward to the day when there are fans-of-architecture conventions and book fairs.

Then too, observe how with every year they spend in architecture school, students leave their families' tastes further behind. What kind of brainwashing is it (their parents wonder) that causes the family home to become a source of embarrassment? Why, now, is no perfectly nice building good enough? Whence the certainty, now, about esthetic choices, even moral choices, and about how the future should look? Years later, in practice and into old age, architects have daily to make a case for architecture itself to bankers, city officials, user groups, review boards, and contractors, even to the clients that hired them. Very, very few of these "publics," it turns out, get architecture, or want it, or want to pay for it.Exempt from this indifference, even hostility, are the new works of designers like Thomas Heatherwick, Frank Gehry, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, and Elizabeth Diller of Diller + Scofidio...all of whom are skilled at making buildings that strike not only the public eye but the public mind with cleverly-named metaphors and remarkable sculptural effects (bonus points if they can be clambered on). It's no wonder that architecture students world-wide dream of their own success in these terms. And why not? Only a cur would dismiss the energy and determination, the time and complexity, the intelligence and engineering...required to make such buildings a reality.

Has something gone wrong? Has it always been this way?

Let us not fall back on blaming Theory. For some time now, we have been "post-Theory" comfortably devoted, as a profession, to functioning smoothly in a neoliberal system. "Greed is good" might overstate the neoliberal position, but buildings are capital, architects have to admit. And they have to perform. Value is determined by the marketplace, which is competitive, and this applies as much to houses as it does to museums as it does to architectural services. Money is oxygen; money is speech, begetting money. Add to that the fortunate-for-architects side-fact that no marker of social class—and no bestower of social class—is as solid and long-lived as architecture.

Voices of dissent to this plutocratic, neoliberal view are being raised mainly from the Foucauldian left and mainly from academia.Books like Douglas Spencer's The Architecture of Neoliberalism (Bloomsbury, 2016) is essential reading after Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015). Justin Pemberton's film, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Netflix, 2019), is an accessible condensation of Thomas Piketty's landmark Capital. The unsung pioneer, poet, and hero of the "public interest" approach to architecture is surely Christopher Alexander, still a star non grata in the architectural firmament, while the archetype of the opposite is surely Rem Koolhaas. Contrast youtu.be/hbwnDdPWjig with youtu.be/ui_6BAHfUUI.What role does architecture play—and therefore, what-architects-do and what-architects-think play—in perpetuating colonialism, racial injustice, economic inequity, and environmental exhaustion? This is where today's Theory has gone: not to questions of form and material (which has kept schools occupied for decades), but to the biosocial workings of the profession, economy, and body politic. Who or what is architecture's "public," indeed? Why not our rivers? Why not our children? Shall we accept border detention facilities as a new building type? What would it mean to declare homelessness as an architectural problem?

Enter activist organizations like the Open Architecture Collaborative (previously Architecture For Humanity), which works with "communities" (that code-word for impoverished publics) around the world in a largely Theory-free environment. This mode of practice meets needs that are large and basic: for shelter, hygiene, affordability, permanence, locality, dignity. The low-rise, low-tech buildings that result are often refreshingly ugly-beautiful, "beginner's mind" ugly-beautiful. Legibly constructed, they are labors of love wrapped in stories of fortitude. If "design for good"—which is what John Cary calls this mode of practice John Cary, Design For Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone (Island Press, 2017). Cary's TED talk, before a live audience of circa 500, has been viewed over a million times online. If I were a student today—and especially if I were a "hot designer"—I would take that as A Sign.—creates public gratitude to the art of high-social-impact, low-environmental-impact architecture, we need to ask: "What's not to like? Why is 'design for good' not a model for the profession as a whole?"

We need only follow the money. Without charity, philanthropy, socialist local governments, global NGOs, volunteer labor, and widespread commitment to pro-bono work by idealistic and skilled architects, "design for good" in this neoliberal era will remain a marginal activity, its esthetic lessons as unlearned as its moral ones.

Perhaps thematizing "public/s" in connection with architecture rather than use older terms like "community-" is a sign that decades of anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist thought are finally making their way "up" into American high-design culture, a culture whose habits have long precluded sharing the pencil with the public, a culture whose real ambition is to make science-fiction worlds real sooner rather than later. Actually, ever since the Bauhaus, modern architects have asserted that "good design is for everyone." Perhaps this generation will commit to that ideal again and so truly increase the size of architecture's public. Can it be done without theory, without philosophy, without discourse or formal sophistication, just good-heartedness and an accompanying toolbelt? I think not.

Michael Warner helps us understand why. Publics, he notes, are made by being addressed.

A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows are broadcast, websites are posted, speeches are delivered, opinions are produced (and works of architecture are built). It exists by virtue of being addressed. Warner, op. cit., p. 413 My parenthetical addition and emphasis.

Now consider this: buildings don't just "perform" at the materio-energic level. They speak, they undertake, they "perform" themselves into being in the first place, and then into being actors in an ongoing drama that is only partially human. More than being stages for our human plays, and more than being the complementary props (shabby and thin on inspection), rooms, buildings, and groups of buildings that are architecture enact a drama entire, a drama of their own, parallel to, reflective of, and reflective upon ours. Rooms and buildings have character, are characters, with fronts, backs, sides, tops, bottoms, skins, object-ness, sensitivities, tendencies, desires, and attitudes of their own. These characteristics are simple compared to ours of course, but they are deep and insistently human. Rooms, buildings, and groups of buildings associate; they relate and communicate; but most importantly, they address each other and us, and they can do so in exemplary ways.

If, as Warner notes, publics only exist "by virtue of being addressed," then architects will make presentations and the AIA will address "issues" and give out awards all they want...to no effect. Until works of architecture themselves address the public so that people learn to follow them, read them, listen to them, and interpret them—preferring and dis-preferring them, ranking them, and leaving many empty—architecture will have no public other than its own future producers. How to design buildings that address a, any, or even the public in an ethical, I-You way is a nut that contemporary designers have yet to crack.I mean 'crack' with genuine theory rather than management tools (e.g. https://www.ideo.org/), and rather, too, than the high-minded paragraphs large architecture firms offer in description of what they already do. Visit the landing pages of firms like HKS, Gensler, or Perkins + Will and you feel assured that their multi-talented, multi-disciplinary, multi-armed organization can deliver every good thing design can deliver, like "engage people," "bring joy," "build community" and "transform reality." The miracle is these firms can do this everywhere on earth with buildings as clean and exciting as a Gillette razor...utterly familiar and without soul. "I-You" is a pointer to the thought of Martin Buber, which I cannot go into here. But see Note 13 below.

But here's the good news. Once publics are established, demands are made on both sides. Challenges are issued. From the audience's side: "more and better, please, and don't waste my time;" from the producers' side, "watch this!" If architecture had a public, anything like say, basketball’s, there would quickly be a demand for better and more affordable architecture everywhere, stylish or funky, minimal or baroque, but good. Conversely, there would be widespread—if not Ph.D-level—connoisseurship about rooms and buildings, just as there is about music, food, bicycles, and movies; and there would arise, in response, a drive among architects to address their art's public, and to please that public, at the risk of being ignored, shamed, or bankrupted.It is entirely fair to argue that "the Heatherwicks" of the architectural profession (see Note 7 above) have placed themselves precisely in the high-risk position of making—and pleasing—a/the general public, and so deserve the gratitude of their slip-streaming peers. The task before well-meaning architects, I am arguing, is to muster that same intensity of effort (the stamina, the prototyping, the PR, the engineering...) and some greater fraction of their clients' wealth, unapologetically, towards the production of finer, more generous, and less alienating everyday buildings. How to do this using market mechanisms is a $64,000 question...but only to those who think free markets should be the primary mechanism that produces architecture.

Let me not go on. For more on how great buildings don't just serve us but address us, and vice versa, see my Architecture Beyond Experience (AR+D Publishing, 2020).For an overview, visit https://www.dropbox.com/s/m4pr..This piece offers a new theory. As for ideas about how future architecture might create a larger public for the drama of its production and reception using non-pedantic discourse, real theory, actual science, and genuine heart: look to yourself and your friends, dear Offramp reader. In the age of social media, it ought to be possible. And maybe it's happening already.