By Rachael Johnson, AIA, 2019 AIA Colorado Member Voice Committee
As an architect I am often asked by non-architects, staring with their heads tilted, “what do you think of that new building? Good or bad?” My lengthy schooling of architectural styles, history and form are often considered qualification enough to definitively determine what is good architecture and what is bad. Deep down, though, I know I can’t answer that question fully. I offer a noncommittal acknowledgement of some of the cool things I notice and some of the unfortunate design moves that I would never have attempted.
But should it be taken as fact or opinion?
First, what makes architecture good or bad? I would argue that there is no such thing.
Perhaps there are built structures that I wouldn’t consider architecture; perhaps there are spaces or forms that I wouldn’t choose to design in my own work; perhaps there are specific details or materials that have merit or do not for specific reasons. But since architecture is a combination of both a built space and the humans behind it, I have no interest in judging just one half of that story. I promise you I will be wrong because I won’t know the many decisions that occurred throughout the process to lead to the finished product.
Secondly, despite the extra knowledge I gained in specific training for this career, my opinions are no more valid than any onlooker who stops to consider the built environment. We design and build buildings for the people who see and use them and of course, selfishly and hyperbolically, as a demonstration of our own superior design taste.
Of course, those subjective design moves have objective consequences. That’s where my schooling comes in – we research and debate the costs and benefits of subjective aesthetic or functional moves – and what is right or wrong depends solely on the rubric we grade against, be it budget, zoning and building codes, environmental consciousness, client branding or personal preference. Expertise from school and tenure in the field assist in maximizing those benefits and minimizing costs.
There are definitely entries in my history books that repulse me at first glance, but when I learn more about the circumstances and conditions under which that thing was designed, built and paid for, the edges on my feelings soften and I begin to see some rationale. I do have opinions and I do look at buildings more than a non-architect, but I have about the same number of hours logged into simply existing in the built environment as any other person my age. As there is always a danger in working in a vacuum and listening only to those with the same knowledge base, I find inclusive conversations about design to be very healthy: healthy for me as a designer, healthy for the industry, healthy for the community and healthy for the works themselves.
So as both an architect and a person on this planet, I suggest the following, no matter your specific education:
Please, have an opinion! Let’s debate! Your background is not important here, but your passion and curiosity are. Every person who interacts with a work of architecture, whether you’re in design, construction or are an end-user, should have thoughts and feelings about these spaces we dream up. I’m thrilled with any conversation because I believe we all grow from these debates. I love architecture and I love the design process, but more importantly, I love the human interaction with and within a built space. So, when my family and friends so clearly crave my analysis of a building against which to privately compare their own, I’m just pleased they are looking, and we are talking.
Keep up the conversation, care about your spaces whether you put a pencil to paper during the design process or you are just passing through on your way to work. A passionate and open community that is brave enough to wonder out loud and humble enough to listen leads to a more engaged and aware society.