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Architecture vs. design

Surely architecture is almost over; surely design is just beginning. Understand by architecture the intellectual side of the profession of buildings besides engineering, and by design understand the canons that make creative work credible. Note that architecture does not mean the method of construction, and that design does not have its buckminsterfullerene comprehension.

Design is a mysterious profession. What justifies the existence of the professional designer is the idea that just the aspects of appearance and presentation which are indifferent to conscious choice and usually beyond conscious recognition—matters of spacing, proportion, and color that perhaps no one but a designer can explicitly observe—these aspects, when properly controlled, create the impression of quality—and insofar as it provides a principle of choice ceteris paribus, is quality itself.

Credibility in everything to be exposed to public view now requires—now is thought to require—the participation of designers, their rules and guidelines and heuristics. Of course designers do protest how generally their advice is disregarded. But infer from the frequency and openness of this protest how much in demand they are, how often their advice is asked, how seriously they can get away with taking themselves—remembering that no one who takes themselves seriously gets hired unless their employers take them yet more seriously.

Architecture has been able to resist only because it is the least plastic and therefore the most conservative of all arts. But it is growing weaker and more perverse all the time. It is a little ridiculous now. Architects draw, they write, now and then they build; they are ready to renew and reinvent—to sieve the world, to shuffle society, to drydock what it means to be human. Earlier generations of architects did so; surely ours is just as brilliant, just as capable; surely we deserve the same chance? But we lack something. Those earlier generations of architects made their revolutions plausible, not so much through their ideas as through the tension between their ideas and the means which propogated them. The cruel ugly means gave their visions urgency—caged by typewriting, interrupted by commercials, purple with copying, disarticulated by ads and columns—in that desert even the most extreme voices seemed worth heeding. But now the fever has passed. Architects dream the same dreams, speak the same visions, but now we read them in blogs, these designed forms, disposed according to principles of order, symmetry, balance and correctness as strict as Palladian intercolumniations.

Everything is ready for designers to replace architects, with reliances analogous to those that preceded professional architecture—for pattern books, pattern languages; for modules, grids; for ornament, eyelines; for tradition, referencing; for orders, models. Sometime soon a designer—it need not be a famous designer, only one with access to money and loose laws—will realize that designing a building is not only a figure of speech. And once business and government realize that they can once again be correct, can buy good taste, money will leave architecture behind. I do not follow architecture well enough to be sure that this is not already happening.

I observe; I do not approve. Certainly I have the polymathic attraction to the concept of correctness, which lets me practice arts without devoting myself to them, and the writerly distaste for the opaque language that architects, like squid, emit when challenged. But esthetically I resent the contraction of architecture from art to craft (with due respect for the necessity and subtlety of craft). And as a human being I suspect buildings that are all staging and no plot. A building can and should shape what can happen in it. The old architectural principle of commodiousness—of suitability to many uses—seems to me a bad one. When a building allows what happens there to happen as it happens anywhere, it gives freedom only as it takes away opportunity. Portable does not equal universal. Most things happen as they do, because they happen where they do: you cannot make an ecosystem out of epiphytes. But my disapproval changes nothing. I expect that either design will displace architecture, or architecture will become a branch of design; and the world will be prettier, nicer, easier, neater and smaller.