Designing for Whom?
a Short Introduction
One of the many definitions of architecture is the art of designing buildings and other kinds of spatial constructions. It differs however from most other arts in that architectural works, whatever their aesthetic or even academic value may be, are also designed to cater to a specific group of people’s wants and needs and to fulfill specific functions. Furthermore, matters of safety and well-being are, or at the very least should be, an important factor in the design process. Architecture being so inseparable from its users, it would be unwise to not take their opinions into account in discussions regarding its success. The architectural press has not concerned itself with those opinions in the past, thus they have largely remained unpublicized. The development of the internet and the various social media platforms has allowed members of the general public, however, to reach a substantially larger audience than ever before, bringing their opinions to the forefront for the first time in the history of architecture.
on Public Opinion
The feedback loop that is then created has led, naturally, to discussions concerning the role of people without formal architectural education in the design process, and the weight of their opinions.
Often, negative public reaction is attributed to undeveloped aesthetic sensibilities and lack of architectural education, the opinions being then underestimated or even outright rejected without critical examination. This arrogant blame game and call for education does nothing more than deflect the blame to third-parties. When criticism is delivered by a user, regardless of background, it cannot be ignored.
Where doubts are more substantial is in matters concerning public participation in the design process or the selection of competition winners. The ability of the average person to “read” architectural plans and discern their qualities or issues is disputed. The concern is then raised of public opinion being dependent on superficial criteria, such as a beautiful facade or appealing renders in an option’s presentation.
Another valid concern has to do with the public opinion’s trustworthiness. Many designs, when first presented, are faced with harsh criticism but are accepted or even embraced after their realization. The Eiffel Tower is a well-known example of this, initially being hated by both the public and the artistic community. Public opinion did not succeed in preventing its erection, but it was responsible for it not being disassembled, as originally it was designed as a temporary installation. Eventually, it evolved into a trademark of not only Paris but the entire country of France.
Not straying very far from the Eiffel Tower, the case of the Tour Montparnasse, a skyscraper in Paris, is also of note. It is sometimes said that it has the best view in Paris, because it’s the only place from which you can enjoy the Parisian skyline without the skyscraper ruining it. The building was considered so damaging to the city’s skyline that it led to the city instating rules regulating the height of every future building of Paris.
Daniel Libeskind, however, has recently defended it, claiming that, although the building itself does not present any particular qualities, Parisians’ reaction to it led to exiling tall buildings to the outskirts of the city, putting an end to the idea of a sustainable, densely populated city center and condemning Paris to being a museum-city. He judged the reaction as short-sighted and emotional, and ignorant of its environmental consequences.
It is evident that public opinion can lead to harmful, reactionary decisions. This does not mean, however, that any form of influence should be rejected.
the Architect’s Role
Some styles of architecture, such as postmodernism, tend to produce shapes that require a theoretical background or architectural education to be appreciated. Acceptance from the public was not, in cases like that, set as a particular priority in the design process, and it often took a backseat to conceptual and morphological experimentation. The value of experimentation cannot be ignored and the a priori rejection of any style would be a mistake. Architects should perhaps concern themselves however with avoiding results that lead to the alienation of the general public, pursuing a balance and sensibility in their designs. Even in this pursuit, designers should be careful; complete compliance with public opinion would lead to creative stagnation.
Another style that proved to be polarizing for architects and largely unliked by the general public was brutalism. Brutalist works are often characterized as “cold” and criticized for projecting a totalitarian aura. Exposed concrete, a material used in most brutalist works, quickly develops signs of wear, especially in humid climates. This patina is often interpreted as decay, and buildings that look run-down are hardly ever appealing. The public disdain for works of this style has led to many of them being demolished, with multiple architectural initiatives cropping up to fight for their conservation. Characteristic is the case of the Boston City Hall, the demolition of which has even been used as a pre-election promise. It is often described as one of the world’s ugliest buildings, and its users have described it as unpleasant, dysfunctional and disheartening, while attempts have been made to transfer the city administration to another space. The American Institute of Architects, however, has named it as one of the 10 most important works of American architecture.
The aforementioned facts lead to doubts concerning architectural education, with the importance it places in the design of units and the frequent disregard to its relation to the larger context it is placed in, an approach that wouldn’t necessarily provide adequate results in a real-life, non-academic context. This has led to some architects treating an architectural site as a self-contained canvas, ignoring its historical and spatial context, even at times designing buildings that consciously sacrifice functionality in favor of some conceptual or morphological innovation. This approach that is based on innovating and impressing that is nurtured in contemporary architecture academia has prevailed globally. However, no design exists in a void. It is created to solve problems in an already existing environment and not to serve as eye-candy and enrich a skyline.
That said, even if the architect deems it a priority to design something that will be liked by the general public, it’s not certain that they’ll be successful, regardless of their skill. Research findings point to the fact that architects are unable to predict the general public’s reaction, as they literally interpret and read their surroundings differently.
An important question is then formed: can an architectural design be considered successful when the users for whom it was created have objections to it?
The aforementioned prove that this question does not have a single answer. Indeed, if there is any conclusion to be drawn, though neither neat nor satisfying, it is that every unique circumstance calls for its own consideration. Not every criticism dispensed by members of the general public is equally valid, but it is the duty of an architect to know them and not dismiss them on the basis of lack of architectural education. Architectural education itself should aspire to bridge this gap and develop sensibilities regarding the needs of users and the priorities in the design process.
Naturally, even if all of the above is put into practice successfully, the criteria on which the designs are judged are largely subjective and it’s impossible to satisfy the entirety of the general populace. What is deemed important, though, is the establishment of the prerequisite conditions for the development of fruitful dialogue between architects and citizens, which would constitute a more substantial way of public contribution to the practice of architectural design.
If you are interested in the way the internet has been used in contemporary design processes that promise to include the public, I have developed my thoughts on the matter here: “The Internet: a Promise of a New Era for Participatory Design?”