Beyond Purism or Populism
This is the first of three posts about the single-family house, architects’ dreams, and clients’ needs. In the midst of building my first house as part of a larger family compound, perhaps inevitably, I have been thinking a lot about the status of the single-family house in Los Angeles but also nationally.
There was an interesting article in last Sunday’s NY Times about the disappearance of starter homes from the market. According to the authors, it seems that nationally, the “…small detached house has all but vanished from new construction. Only about 8 percent of new single-family homes today are 1,400 square feet or less. In the 1940s, according to CoreLogic, nearly 70 percent of new houses were that small.”
The following post, Case Study Casita, will revisit the Case Study House program through the lens of a narrow, two-story 1500 s.f., three-generation family house I designed in 2008-2012. You can see it below, as realized in 2014. As you might guess from the photograph, my clients completed it without me— initially to my great consternation but, of late, to my increasing delight and fascination.
In a few weeks, the final post, Think Small Part 2, will address the promise that small houses collectively hold to transform Los Angeles for the better, especially after Governor Newsom signed California State Senate Bills 9 and 10 into law in 2021 and banned parking minimums last week for new developments near transit hubs.
The Trojan House: a Nightmare or a Gift?
Every architect’s waking nightmare involves a client taking over a project and finishing it themselves.
When clients do this, it feels like a violation: of the architect’s trust, of a contract, and of the line between you, the designer, and everything else around you that you might not want to think about. It feels like a form of erasure until you learn to look at others’ needs and your self-image a bit differently. But more on that later.
Sometimes this happens when clients run out of money; sometimes, there's a divorce, and sometimes, we can’t get along to go along. Not surprisingly, losing control of a project happens to many architects— some are famous or infamous, and some, like me and many others, are not so famous. For instance, New York architect Peter Eisenman’s early House II (see below) was butchered by his psychologist and lawyer clients, Florence and Richard Falk. Part of a series of “post-functionalist,” Chomsky-inspired houses he designed, the Falk House was conceived of as an “…architectural sign… [meant to] signify its lack of function.” Since, predictably, the clients didn’t think so much of that idea, they fired Eisenman, replaced the original flat roof with a pitched roof, filled in several skylights, added interior walls for privacy, and closed up several openings in the floors with grates. Eisenman came to hate them. “I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falks' privacy problems,” he grumbled later.
In LA, Frank Gehry lost control of the Brentwood house he designed for the Broads, who turned out to be as stubborn as their architect. Unlike Eisenman’s cousin Richard Meier, who built Edythe and Eli Broad’s Malibu house in high Getty Style, Gehry quit the two powerful art patrons. Viewed from the air on Google Maps, the house appears Gehryesque, but there are a few un-Gehry-like giveaways. For example, the area in front of four car garage is paved in the same red Indian stone that Arata Isozaki used to clad MOCA. Rumor has it that Broad, MOCA’s founding Board Chairman, insisted on using some MOCA leftovers for the house, which may have set off Gehry. The two did not talk for quite some time, but Gehry, unlike Eisenman, needed his former client to complete Disney Concert Hall. So, at the private vernissage for DCH, Frank was conciliatory, “All of you have heard about the problems Eli and I had, but look at what we made,” he said. “We’re both control freaks of different types, and we collided.”
That neither of these notoriously tricky architects cared to learn from these incidents and adjust their work accordingly perhaps speaks to their unwavering commitment to an idea many other architects secretly harbor: what is good for the architect is always good for the client. And by extension, what the client wants shouldn’t count for too much. Clients are to be barely tolerated, or not at all.
Whether you see this as arrogance or self-confidence, stubbornness or foolishness, perhaps what is more interesting about these trojan houses is the lesson that was missed in the exchange with the client: how clients often have insights, ideas, and tastes that can help architects improve their work and even themselves.
That is, of course, only true if we know how to receive a gift disguised as a threat.
True or False?
1/ The business of architecture is about creating meaningful cultural differences, not making things most people might appreciate or need;
2/ With a few significant exceptions, most architects, tend to resent or at least pretend to abhor popular taste and ordinary buildings.
If you answered true to at least one of these questions, I would like to suggest that you think architecture is an art form.
To my mind, that means you are a Purist, and you probably believe that architecture is an insider’s game that should separate itself from society to save society from itself, etc.
If you answered false to at least one of these questions, let me suggest that you are a Populist.
You are probably willing to entertain the idea that architecture can successfully communicate with an audience outside the profession or the academy.
As a recovering wannabe avant-gardist, I used to think architecture was a pure art form.
Like most evangelists and/or zealots, the origins of my delusions started in school, where radicality, autonomy, and experimentation were the gospel. From there, the symptoms only got worse until only Perfect Acts of Architecture, e.g., performances of total absolution, could be entertained.
Purist architecture is, by nature, exclusionary, unique, and not pedestrian.
To set themselves apart from the masses, Purist architects use derisory terms like “the generic city” or “Junkspace” to describe where most people choose to live. Architecture is made of extraordinary stuff; the rest of the city consists of other people’s shitty tastes.
Purist architects, especially those of ‘culturally significant’ persuasion, see themselves as self-realized heroes or outcasts engaged in a pitched battle to save society from itself. This invariably leads to various disassociative disorders, depression, paranoia, aggression, protege exploitation, and, speaking for myself, a great deal of anxiety.
As evidence, try having a normal conversation with a Purist architect. See how long they can go before they not so subtly hint that they are committed to transforming the discipline of architecture or are married to timelessness. If you can’t be bothered engaging one in vivo, I suggest you visit some of their websites, where you’ll find gem-like claims to being prophets of beauty, radical innovators, and purveyors of culture.
The trope is, of course, antiquated, like over a hundred years old: old enough to be quite traditional and hardly as reactionary as the Purist architect might want to believe. But Purism persists because, if nothing else, its adherents are true believers and passionate antagonists. Like most civilizing missions, the Purist architect’s theater of resistance always needs a worthy opponent. Unsurprisingly, the easiest enemies to fight are ordinary people with ordinary tastes who like ordinary buildings.
But for Purism to resonate, it can’t just be a fight; our “lacking” society always needs an architectural fix. Society must be continuously re-imagined and re-invented. New forms are required for new ways of life, etc. If a savior-messiah complex drives purist architecture, at the same time, it is pathetically self-historicizing. There is an aching need to be reviled and loved, seen and rejected.
The big problem for the Purist is the audience. Most people don’t care. Most people want something normal to live in so they can fit in. This need to conform also drives our politics and our economy. To a degree, people vote for and buy what is successfully promoted to their tribal segment of society. Call it conformism or consumerism; it is mostly what makes America and the housing market run.
But by doing the opposite, by being reactionary or obscure, some architects have found an effective way to get negative attention and, therefore, some cultural traction as outsiders. And there is the rub: if you want to be a famous architect, start by being difficult. Your Purist resistance to norms will get you some attention if you are any good.
If you are better than good, your work will get copied, disseminated, and ideally built somewhere else by someone else. This is called influence. If it is excellent (or, these days, even very bad), your work will at least get made into a meme, widely ❤️’d or 👎’d, but maybe never built. This is called being TikTok (or IG) famous, and apparently, it is an excellent form of cultural capital for savvy young architects to invest in now.
Sadly, when the Purist architect's perfect, extraordinary architecture enters the popular lexicon, its radicality quickly gets debased and devalued. And this process, in turn, keeps the poor Purist panicked. In the long run, making something unusually resistant to popular culture is a fool’s errand. This is because as soon as Purist architects ‘invent’ or ‘innovate’ something, it gets appropriated. Predictably, then they have to start over before their work gets stale. This is called resisting cultural norms.
So, the goal is to consistently make up meaningful differences without getting too deep into how they might be received or implemented— being obscure only enough to be considered unique but not so opaque that someone, ideally a less-talented follower, can’t easily replicate your innovations.
The weird trick to Purist architecture is that it is counter-intuitive. It requires more self-control and calculation than wild self-expression, making it quite artless and mechanical, strangely. Like a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit, the Purist architect has to stay on track. Other than slavishly running after that weird headless, synthetic bunny, knowing full well that the chances of catching it are slim-to-none, that is mostly all there is to the game.
It must be nerve-racking.
…or the Populist
On the other hand, many architects have grappled with engaging the ordinary as part of their calling. Let’s call them Populists. For their purposes being too removed from everyday life is a bad thing.
Populist architects believe it is good to commune with their clients, their clients’ normal things, ordinary budgets, and everyday settings. This suggests a genuine interest in other people’s lives, tastes, and dreams.
Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, the patron saints of Populist architecture, were pioneers of this form of practice. Their friend Charles Moore thought architecture should “…have eyes and ears and arms and a heart, and it should talk to you when you're in it.” Frank Gehry initially made a name for himself by flirting with bad taste and everyday construction materials. Melbourne architect Peter Corrigan’s theatricality and love of the suburbs spoke of a wanton egalitarianism. In Mississippi, Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio has a mission to listen to and work with the local community. Their Anderson and Ora Lee Harris House, above, is an example of what Mockbee called “…using one’s talent, intellect, and energy…to gain an appreciation for people and place.”
Finding the line between one’s art (something personal) and everyday life (something shared) is a delicate dance and often a letdown. Egalitarianism, unlike elitism, requires a real commitment to your fellow citizens’ lives and an honest recognition that “Main Street is Almost Alright.” There is not much to fix if you know how to look closely, as Scott Brown and Venturi suggested in Learning from Las Vegas. And that can put one out of work.
But, if leaving things almost as-is sounds easy, Populist architecture is a tricky needle to thread. Purist architecture, like religion, flows from the exclusive voices of the initiated to the masses, but Populist architecture must be engineered to reverse the process of transmutation from the ordinary to the unique. Often that takes miracles. Instead of trickling down from high to low, popular sources must be reified without being demeaned. Workday means of construction and not bespoke details become obligatory. Symbolism must be legible, earnest, and still hover a bit magically.
Going all in on making Populist architecture is so fraught because the urge to make something accessible to everyone can also be easily misunderstood. Too much inclusivity might seem like a caricature, and too little derived from real life might not be legible or affordable for the layperson.
This may sound reactionary, but let me offer that being open to a genuine two-way conversation with our clients is a lot riskier, artistically, than staying in the garret. The Purist architect faces being a misunderstood genius as both a curse and a boon, but for the Populist architect, there is another danger: creating a more accessible or “inclusive” approach to architecture can also seem like pandering or slumming: just more cleverly disguised cultural appropriation, an even more cruel and patronizing form of elitism.
After all, since architects can’t make architecture actually talk, the best the architect-as-ventriloquist can do is throw their well-trained voice cleverly, which, maybe, is a pretty mean trick to play on people.
Is it fair to say that the creative process is equally challenging for the Purist and the Populist architect? Yes: one struggles to stay ahead of the general culture while the other must labor to hide any impulse to abstract or transform the ordinary into high art.
However, the problem isn’t about what things look like at all. The history of this creative dilemma, for both Purists and Populists alike, is more socio-political than aesthetic. It’s not a Greenbergian formal problem for the critic to dissect. Instead, the root cause rests in how architecture operates as an overly well-defined profession, not a poorly received art form.
The real challenge for Purism and Populism is that our shared source of self-invention, the font of creativity we all draw from as architects, must remain the same: the profession’s ongoing hallucination that somehow it can separate itself from the very society it must operate within to survive.
The matter is not an artistic puzzle to be solved; the conundrum is embedded in the very origins of the enterprise. Once architects removed themselves from communal building guilds, from the arts and crafts, and declared themselves to be a unique profession, they cut off access to architecture’s very means of production and, therefore, to popular ways of making things and the people making them.
And this self-imposed isolation, in turn, has made every stripe of an architect, Populist or Purist or somewhere in between, increasingly irrelevant to the larger culture. Absent the grounding forces of construction, craft, engineering, law, finance, and popular taste, architecture quickly collapses from a lack of gravity. As Marx might have understood it, architecture’s real problem is a matter of interrelationships and necessities: why things get done and who does them, not how we do them or who wants them.
But, what if there was a way to start a conversation about how architecture might interact with its audience that flowed from the ordinary person to the everyday professional instead of from the extraordinary architect to the exceptional patron? What if the shape a building took was also determined by, for instance, the client’s cultural biases and prerogatives independently of the architect’s willful designs and careerist ambitions?
What could be learned? What could be unlearned? What would be lost? What could be gained?
Would it even be architecture?
To be continued….
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