A woman walks into a bar. Seated at the barstool, wide-eyed, poised and expectant, she is about to raise a drink to her lips, when the bartender, a grizzled New York type, leans across the counter and asks, conspiratorially, “So, whadda ya think about Daniel Libeskind ?”
As funny as it sounds, it’s a true story—one that exquisitely sums up a moment, encapsulates it within a specific milieu, and the words would make the pitch-perfect line for a New Yorker cartoon. When she described her actual experiences in the saloon, the woman in question, an architectural historian, had been making a larger point that architecture had decisively entered the popular consciousness. She recounted her encounter with a kind of bemused awe, but it also made a hee-haw tale, a slap-your-leg line right out of Letterman. If the fragile world finds itself longing for good news, here, at least, was one happy improvement we are pleased to report: Architecture has finally gone mainstream.
While the story exaggerates the depth of change, isn’t the news astounding? For decades, we architects have been ruefully, poignantly describing the heightened state of European cultural consciousness, an idealized realm in which taxi drivers have opinions on the latest works by heroic designers and overweening racks of consumer magazines present architecture like so many plums or pears. Pick a design; they’re perfectly ripe this month and ready for tasting.
In plums as in architecture, however, reality includes the pits. While Libeskind and Vinoly, Schwartz and Shigeru Ban may make the front page of USA Today, the depth of our national dialogue on architectural matters remains pitifully thin, limited to the superficial image or the emotional, knee-jerk reaction–a battle to the finish of the cool eyeglasses. How can we translate this hype or the heightened public interest to good effect?
Sometimes, words fail us. It seems clear that architecture needs a new language, new words and symbols to explain its character and contributions, if we hope to engage our audiences any deeper than the dazzling first impression or the star turn. Up to now, when trying to explain architecture’s three-dimensional potential, we have had to rely on a jargon-laced vocabulary that reduces us to babbling pseudo-intellectuals, waving our arms about and speaking in an incomprehensible tongue. Naively, we decry how the public just doesn’t get it.
Here, finally, is our chance. The spotlight is focused on architecture with a capital ‘A’. By paying attention to our audience, then clearly stating our arguments and contributions, architecture can rise from the arcane to the universal . Here is a simplified message. Every person needs shelter. We can provide habitation with a difference, altering and improving consciousness, and sense of potential, even productivity. Our work can reduce wasteful consumption of resources, harness the winds, channel the sunshine and the rain. Given a confluence of client and the times, and employing our personal gifts, the we can translate the inanimate into poetry, capturing aspirations or even grief in concrete and glass, stone and water and steel.
If bartenders are interested, and know our names, we architects would be fools not to care. The time is right for clarity and for forceful, engaged presence, with our own clients and with the communities we serve. It’s time to step out of the shadows, into the limelight. Now, whadda you think of Daniel Libeskind? Got a meaningful, ready answer?