Let’s Put Narrative Back into Architecture

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Let’s Put Narrative Back into Architecture

Let’s Put Narrative Back into Architecture

Architecture is dying, but not from neglect or economics. Ten percent of architects, and 14% of new graduates, were unemployed during the 2007-2009 Great Recession. At the end of 2016 unemployment was 2.5%. Construction spending has increased and building industry health indicators are steady. It wasn’t easy, but architects survived the worst economic downturn since 1929. In 2017, life is good again.

And yet, architecture is withering, socially. A series of essays in the British journal The Architectural Review sums it up: “…whereas until less than a century ago we seem to have no problem in creating buildings people liked … any candid assessment must accept that much, if not most, of what is being built today is pretty dismal”. Today’s architecture—what the AR calls “This thing of terror—is “devoid of social purpose.”

The critique is roughly the same as those leveled against glass box office buildings and sterile housing projects in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Modernism was a European reaction to the terror of World War I, transposed to America at the beginning of the next world war, and then abandoned when reductionist ideals of the machine age went unrealized. Public approval of the Modern Movement, never strong, waned in the 1980s.

Since then architecture has run a gauntlet of “isms,” from reinterpretations of local culture and context, to postmodern icons of historical allusion, to non-historic deconstructed buildings, to parametric blobs of computer-generated objects d’ art. Architecture has spent the last 75 years searching to regain the public’s interest, to reconnect buildings to culture, to rediscover its social purpose. It is still looking.

While revolving door theories bewilder the public, the quest for meaningfulness confuses the profession. Architects don’t understand why the general populace dislikes or ignores the bulk of their work. From a behavioral perspective, though, the explanation is simple. Architecture’s malaise has little to do with style. The problem isn’t physical. It’s psychological. […]

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