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Comments (41) Posted 03.13.05 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Rick Poynor

Why Architects Give Me the Willies


A long time ago - it almost feels like another life - I used to write about architecture. For three years, starting in the late 1980s, I worked for Blueprint magazine in London. Then, as now, it covered both architecture and design, and I wrote news, features and reviews about every aspect of these subjects.

In truth, I always felt a little uncomfortable when it came to architecture. Although I had read my Pevsner etc. while studying art history, I had come to architectural writing relatively late via a stint on an interior design magazine. It had never been my intention to pursue the subject. I knew a lot more about art, literature and film than I did about the history of architecture. Graphic designers sometimes claim you can only write about graphic design effectively if you are a designer. I think that's nonsense, but I often felt that not being an architect was a real disadvantage when it came to the more technical aspects of the subject. Blueprint's publisher and editor had trained as architects and most of the magazine's strongest architectural writers - people like Martin Pawley and Rowan Moore - had qualified as architects.


Still, I enjoyed it while it lasted. There is no better way of experiencing cities than going to look at the architecture. So I would trek around Barcelona, guidebook in hand, studying every building by Gaudí and the other modernists, or make pilgrimages to Paris to familiarise myself with each new architectural grand projet. I'd visit Antonio Citterio in Milan and interview Shin Takamatsu in Kyoto. Back in London, I'd head like a homing pigeon for the bookshops at the Architectural Association and the Royal Institute of British Architects. For a while, I immersed myself in architecture. In 1989, I even wrote a book about an architect, Nigel Coates, though what attracted me about Coates was his theorising about the city and his intense engagement with popular culture - then unusual in an architect - as much as the architectural aspects of his work.

Despite this exposure, I never felt completely at ease in the company of architects. In the mid-1980s, working at the Architectural Press in London on a magazine called Designers' Journal, I received an early taste of the social stratification of design disciplines. The company's Westminster offices had a magnificent wood-panelled Victorian pub called the Bride of Denmark in the basement, where architectural luminaries such as Le Corbusier had scratched their signatures on an ornate mirror, and we would take old-fashioned tea breaks there. There was almost no mixing between those who worked on the long-established weekly Architects' Journal and the illustrious monthly Architectural Review and our upstart interior design magazine. We sat in our own groups.

At Blueprint, meeting designers from all disciplines, I realised that I just plain preferred designers as people. It's no secret that graphic designers can be arrogant, but this is a kids' erector set compared to the architectural ego in its most towering, steel-trussed, grandiloquent forms. An architectural education is, after all, long and demanding. You have to be smart and determined, with large reserves of self-belief to go through with it. Those who make it to the highest levels of the profession mix with the super-wealthy, become rich themselves and achieve great power, but any architect enjoys considerable social standing. The other professional groups that architects most resemble are consultant surgeons and lawyers. What links them is the control they are licensed to exert over our physical being. Surgeons have life-saving access to the body's vulnerable interior. Architects channel and direct the body's movements in space and our safety depends on them. Lawyers concern themselves with whether the body will remain free, or be constrained, or even die in countries that retain the death penalty. These are tremendous forms of power for an individual to wield and this knowledge and the sense of self-importance it fosters permeates these professions, shaping their ethos, and influencing the status we accord to these groups.

I decided to concentrate on writing about visual communication because, compared to all this, the activity was an underdog with much less power and everything to prove. While architectural writing had some obvious benefits - there is a more developed public interest in architectural matters and many more places to write about these topics - the subject seemed so well worn that it would be hard at this stage to make much of a contribution or impression as a writer. The significant work has already been done. Also, I enjoy small, light, transient, relatively inexpensive things, little bursts of communication and expression that float through our lives subtly infusing our perceptions and inflecting our moods and beliefs. I am still interested in architecture, but a new bridge in southern France by Norman Foster that I shall probably never cross means much less on a personal level than a book design, a poster, a CD cover or a website that is part of everyday experience and actually makes a difference to me. I'm sure that's true of most people, but the bridge still receives the newspaper write-up - because architecture is very expensive, because it expresses the conditions of power, and because, compared to anything else we create, it is just, well, big.

All this came back to me while working on an exhibition about British graphic design at the Barbican Centre, London. Called "Communicate", it was paired with a Daniel Libeskind retrospective and each exhibition had its own floor. Shortly before the shows opened, I was introduced to a member of Libeskind's entourage. He said he liked our exhibition and that it made a good support for the main exhibition - Libeskind's. In reality, both exhibitions occupied the same amount of floor space, received equal promotion, and had supporting event programmes of a similar size. Our catalogue was actually bigger. But there it was again: to this man's way of thinking, Libeskind, a non-British architect, singlehandedly outweighed the cultural contribution of more than 100 British graphic designers created over 45 years, and furthermore, in the briefest exchange he felt a need to let me know it.

Shortly after the exhibitions opened, an architecture and design critic got in touch to say that he had found the contents of "Communicate" much more absorbing than Libeskind's show. It was nice of him, but no prizes for guessing which one he wrote about in his paper.
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Like many designers, and the busy public at large, I follow what goes on in the world of architecture almost entirely passively. (i.e. only when the writers and editors of my favorite magazines and newspapers pump out a story, review or profile). The turf tits and tats, the catty quotations, the vanguards and guardians harumphing around with puffed-out chests - the sheer ego mass - can sometimes give the architectural world a lurid, tabloid feel.

That said, not an hour ago in the Mar.14 New Yorker, I finished reading a profile of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (of the famed Seattle Public Library and soon-to-be-opened Casa de Musica in Portugal). The title of the piece was "Intelligent Design." Currently living in Kansas, where creation science is still an effective political wedge tool, that phrase alone was enough to get my heart rate up.

But it was the subheader that REALLY leapt out: "Can Rem Koolhaas Kill the Skyscraper?"

What a fascinating question! But, after wading through the length of the profile, Koolhaas meant to kill 'the traditional skyscraper.' The client for this forward-thinking enterprise? CCTV in Beijing, constructing a vast headquarters for the state-controlled Chinese broadcaster. Controversial sentiments abounded in the profile, like taking the job in the first place (Will the magnificent building lend a façade of international credence to what is already the state's most powerful propaganda machine?) Koolhaas himself feels that CCTV will "eventually emerge as a global news organization equivalent to the BBC."

On first thought, that's almost as creepy as creation science worming into midwestern biology classrooms.

On second thought, why the heck can't we get a few vis-comm/graphic designer profiles in leading rags like the New Yorker? Who among us has the pull to spin and pitch such profiles to influential editors? What designers are fully engaged with - and articulate in - revealing interesting connections between their profession and the world at large?

And, from left field, what designers would be willing to put their skills into giving an entity like CCTV a more appealing identity, or make it a sleeker, more efficient and effective information dissemination tool for the Chinese government?
Dan Warner
03.13.05 at 05:49

rick,

Your piece at the beginning of Obey the Giant about the shopping mall was one of the most observant pieces about architecture that I have read in a long time. I am currently working as an "architect," and I only say " " so due to all of the hoops that we need to go through, the amount of money and time that it takes to get the official recognition. In fact, I'm still a bit embarrassed to call myself one. But remember that these superstars are riding on the back of a number of us, depending on us to translate their vision and singular world view. I will be forwarding this to many, as it rings so true in my day to day life. We often joke about how we might one day get to be so oblivious to the rest of the world, but I rather hope I don't.

but to play devil's advocate for a moment, what about Bruce Mau?
Chris Grimley
03.13.05 at 06:31

Most well-known architects I've seen in action have a distinct larger than life quality. They do not hesitate to dress idiosyncratically, speak dramatically and in general cultivate affectations that would be bizarre in most other professions.

To be successful, an architect must be a spellbinder. Architecture is a high-risk proposition. They must become good at standing in front of big groups of skeptical people, with tons of money on the line and some aspect of the permanent built environment at stake. This is demands a leap of faith, and no matter how elaborate the models or fancy the renderings, it's the architect's force of personality that will, in the end, carry the day.

The powers of persuasion required of a successful graphic design are, on average, considerably less. The only graphic designer I recall getting the Koolhaus treatment in the New Yorker was Fabian Baron when he was art director at Harpers Bazaar: charismatic, talented, and near enough to the white heat of the fashion world to be of interest to the typical reader. And, interestingly, like Bruce Mau and Tibor Kalman, he is (or was, at least) viewed with suspicion by the professional graphic design rank-and-file, who viewed his sefl-promotional skills with a mixture of distaste and envy.

What is especially funny about those willie-producing architects is how young they start practicing for their roles.
Michael Bierut
03.13.05 at 08:25

I'm skeptical that there aren't equally outsized egos in the graphic design community, up and down the ladder of experience. The personalities mentioned above, along with perhaps 8-10 others, and their hangers-on, clearly suffer from delusion thinking, and typically are the fat end of the wedge when it comes to press coverage. But the community of practitioners is far wider, and is as rarely chronicled as the masses of graphic designers (who have at least as many journals or other press outlets for profiles and interviews). One of the blunt facts that is rarely addressed is that there is a level of recognition and power that often exceeds that of all but two or three architects worldwide: it's called advertising. Donny Deutsche is the graphic design community's Libeskind, like it or not. I'm not saying this should be, but unfortunately is, since there is enough superficial similarity for the culture press not distinguish between them.

Anyway, didn't Tobias Frere-Jones quite a bit of press for Gotham? I remember at least a Times article, and I recall a New Yorker piece as well. Maybe designers need to hire better PR firms -- and that's not being glib.

Miss Representation
03.13.05 at 11:46

I love this Site! You are very good thinkers with your type--uhhh Typography.

I am well aware of the common perception of Architects in the USA as I am now celebrating my 25th year as a draftsman--I am indeed licensed to... I really did start in the sand box at age 3, and I am not wealthy at all. I am still trying to overcome that deficit while choosing to be independent. Architecture is hard work and super-stars are rarely a good model of realism...BUT, I hope to show you all one day, in my own way, necessarily, with your help!
I am a FUN Architect because I do many other things: like play the violin, study history, listen, watch, taste, touch, and smell many other perspectives to infuse my imagination---if not instantly inflating my "built"-portfolio of buildings-or my Ego.

To my mind, A significant cultural difference between Architecture and many other Arts may be the fact that Architecture is "in-escapble;" we all are confronted with what we make together as a truly collective art, in a very physical and seemingly permanent way. (Read: Deal with your neighbor's lousy taste-just kidding!) In most cases, making Architecture is a VERY Collaborative Art- especially- when a building in a context. Ideally speaking - I compare the "Architects Role" not as the "Composer," but as the "Conductor" of a "Great Orchestra" of "Players" who "Naturally" improvise around a themes like the best JAZZ players. BUT to this musician=composer, Architecture is NOT Frozen Music; It should be warm and populated. Leadership and communicable forms are necessary; I sometimes find that lacking. You too? However I may complain- it is important to present solutions in our work, not just rewarding commerce and "Ad" talk. Architecture "Communicates" so we can talk back. It's sort of like good acoustics to the Environment. Somehow, we have "de-natured our designs" to "hype." An "integral architecture" can remind us of Nature, and OUR Nature.
Glossary: An Integral Architecture: An inclusive Architecture which addresses the physical needs for Shelter on many levels including but not limited to: Function, Technology, Form, Economics and an Emotional Expression (both spiritual and rational)in many more than 3 dimensions; please. Let us work Towards a useful Architecture which serves the individual and the collective need for making a place- to be as we are. A note to you graphic designers: we can say it together! Cheers! in Denver Colorado. Amazing.......Peace.
Niccolo
03.13.05 at 11:57

Re that 'Communicate' and Liebeskind exhibition maybe the organisers should have asked visitors to ticky-box which exhibition they had come to see ;=) I definitely went along to see 'Communicate', though I did also look round the Liebeskind.
Chris Amies
03.14.05 at 01:40

I'm not sure I get the point of this article. Yes of course architects as a species are arrogant, vain-glorious and given to grandstanding, not surprising given that they get 7 years of study to practice being bombastic and iconoclastic, but "there is more developed public interest in architectural matters"? Maybe in Europe but not in the UK - most people couldn't care less about the built environment unless someone wants to build a supermarket next door to them.

Regarding Communicate/Libeskind at the Barbican - okay so someone from Libeskind's 'entourage' got a little confused, but it's hardly defining proof that architecture is given priority over graphic design, and perhaps understandable that the Libeskind exhibition occupied the main gallery space downstairs whilst the Communicate show was in the upstairs rooms.

From a critic/reviewers point of view, a show about an iconic 'superstar' architect very much in the public eye at the moment with the WTC redevelopment, is always going to be an easier target than an unfocused scattershot of British graphic design since the 60's.

Communicate was, I feel, too much of a mish-mash, with too broad a scope to do the work and designers justice, and as such a missed opportunity to promote better understanding of the history of graphic design in the UK.

Ideally, dual shows like Communicate/Libeskind should compliment/counteract each other, and create some dialogue, but in this case I think they were too atomised, and existed as two separate shows in the same space, making it hard to find common points of reference. As previous noted, in prior posts, the only thing they really shared was their typography.
marty
03.14.05 at 09:07

Never as now has there been so much attention to architecture, in specialist and general media, so it is hard to compare architects, their work and their clients to other times...
There is now a huge general public recognition for architects: everyone wants their Gehry Guggenheim, everyone who knows Prada (or at least Miuccia want them to) knows Rem, and everyone wants to see Norman Foster's next big thing.
So the "fight for fame" between a communication designer and an architect is still a tough one. An exception is maybe Bruce Mau - well said Chris - that seems to manage both fields quite well, as proven by his Too Perfect exhibition at the last Venice Architecture (you read right, architecture) Biennale.
Even industrial designers get more press. Just think of Karim Rashid, Marc Newson, Philippe Starck, Ross Lovegrove just to name a few of "the greats", not to mention the "young shooting stars", as this is really the design field where you get famous faster and younger.
So as communication designers, what are we to do?
To take the Barbican as an example, I visited both exhibitions last September (I intended to see Communicate, BTW) and even though I wasn't 100% happy with this exhibition, I didn't spend over 15 minutes in the Libeskind one. It was dull, confusing and superficial. Either Libeskind's complex architectural theories are bullshit, or he needs better graphic design...
Fred
03.14.05 at 09:17

There is something excitingly utopian about architecture. I loved the "Communicate" show at the Barbican, but I also loved the "Archilab" show at Tokyo's Mori Museum (it was about radical architecture and utopia). Architecture has a philosophical dimension because it supplies answers to the basic question of ethics, "How Then Should We Live?"

It's hard to imagine someone like Prince Charles calling a magazine redesign a "monstrous carbuncle". I suppose the closest we've seen to that is Margaret Thatcher draping her handkerchief over British Airways' redesigned tail fins.

I'd like to play devil's advocate here and say that we need graphic designers to get more pretentious, more colourful, and more controversial. Graphic designers need to tie their work in to sex and death. Who's the Damian Hirst of graphic design? Who's the Tracey Emin? Where are the utopian graphic designers, the flamboyant graphic designers? Perhaps the most colourful characters are the ones who risk arrest tagging and wheatpasting, but they often hide their faces for legal reasons behind pixel mosaics.

There's something reassuringly pretentious about the ambience of, say, the Architectural Association in London. The bookshop there is great, the lectures are great, and the students really seem to be looking at the wider issues of culture rather than learning a simple craft. (And yes, this topic has legs and will run and run because it's about class too.)
Nick Currie
03.14.05 at 09:22

A wee addendum to my last thought: if it's true that we're moving from a hard, built world of steel and stone to a soft, flexible, flowing world of information (with the transition being what Tom Wolfe called "electrographic architecture", the exact midpoint between architecture and graphic design, the landscape of a Las Vegas or a Shinjuku), then this distinction between architects and graphic designers is going to become less and less meaningful.
Nick Currie
03.14.05 at 09:32

Rick - Don't be glum about not feeling comfortable writing about architecture. After all, no one else can either. Have you read a copy of the AJ, BD, AR, Blueprint etc ... recently?

I like writing about architecture precisely because it is part of the everyday, rather than an object or a sculpture (you can read some of these efforts at Strangeharvest.com if you like). Which is the opposite of how architects usually describe their work. There is a big gap between the actual building and the PR blurb mouthed by its designers. It's no wonder that the criticism is so weak, when architects statements are vague, imprecise, jargon filled experiments in Pseuds Corner-esque posturing. If architects are so unsure of what architecture is supposed to be about - beyond flamboyant, abstract, meaningless gestures - then its hard to blame the critics for being equally bemused by the point of architecture too.

On the other hand, there are a couple of examples that show it might help being an architect - think of the that brilliant 'Junkspace' piece by Koolhaas or the still-fabulous 'Learning from Las Vegas' by Venturi and Scott Brown. Perhaps it's because they don't have to write about proper architecture. They are at liberty, unlike the critic, of looking at the rest of the world rather than architecture. And of course the rest of the world is much more interesting than high architecture.

I pity the poor critic who must try to find something interesting to say about yet another Foster designed project (or Gehry, or Hadid or another of those signature iterating super-firms). On the other hand, if a week goes by without one of these firms building something new, its hard to convince an editor of anything more ... experimental. Indeed, an esteemed architecture critic for a leading UK newspaper recently confided to me the sheer difficulty of finding something interesting to write about every single week.

There has been no one to touch Reyner Banham in his prime - for anyone wanting to read great writing about architecture I would recommend his collected reviews and articles 'A Critic Writes'. They span people, things, products, places, buildings, and much more in a widescreen view of what architecture is about.

sam
03.14.05 at 09:50

Nick, Thatcher's handkerchief is a great example of the public's awareness of graphic design.
But do we really need YBAs for the graphic design world?
Nevertheless, a good critic of the issue raised here does come from the artworld.
Find it here: Design and Crime
Fred
03.14.05 at 10:53

Just slightly off topic, on the day I visited the Barbican shows I saw Sean Griffiths of FAT - who Sam knows very well - in front of the tube station opposite to the Barbican. Talking about architecture celebrities and graphic design...
fred
03.14.05 at 11:10

fred - sean is often found ranting about architecture on the streets of clerkenwell. a bit like that guy who used to go on about eggs and cheese at oxford circus.
sam
03.14.05 at 11:24

I read the article in the New Yorker about Koolhaus and I admire his work for the Seattle library. However, I was surprised that in the interview he actually admitted that when a client starts to get cold feet on a project and wants to make changes he throws a mini-temper tantrum and intimidates them into going along with his proposal. The fact that he is physically imposing at
6 ft. 5 in. probably doesn't hurt either.
As a petite graphic designer if I did that I would be shown the door in about 2 seconds.
Leslie
03.14.05 at 11:52

Nick, we have had some pretentious, colourful, controversial graphic designers -- Carson, Kalman, Mau. Sagmeister, constantly in demand for lectures, seems to want to join their company. Not enough message there, I suspect, but his self-cutting poster was compelling for many people as a narcissistic image of the pain of creativity, even if it wasn't quite in the Vienna Actionist sex and death league.

I can swing both ways on these issues. I'm excited by some architects' vaulting ambitions and achievements and I still feel an almost visceral excitement circling a great building and exploring its interior. I recognise, as Michael describes, architects' need for compelling acts of self-display to clinch the deal. I can even see the mystique-building purpose of the ludicrous prose and the profession's taste in over-large glasses. But at the same time this pretentiousness puts me off. Libeskind, for one, surrounds his projects with deliriously overstated pseudo-poeticisms -- delivered in tiny type on the display panels at the Barbican. You just want to say: shut up and let me decide for myself whether, for instance, the Jewish Museum in Berlin embodies these feelings of terror and anguish or not.

Sam, agree with you about Reyner Banham. Still a benchmark for writing in this field.
Rick Poynor
03.14.05 at 12:09

...we need graphic designers to get more pretentious, more colourful, and more controversial.

Nobody is actually going to take this seriously are they? If you're a graphic designer and feel tempted (your name might be David or perhaps Bruce) please think twice and first take the advice of a true friend with a good understanding of your real intellectual and artistic capabilities.
William Owen
03.14.05 at 12:15

It can appear as if some beaux-arts agenda operates with architecture on "top". Yet go to any arts education program and it seems students treat architecture equally to so many contemporary visual discourses or communication media in general. Once entering into the cultural "workforce", though, it doesn't take long to comprehend why so many "legacy app" agendas operate. You mention exhibitions - which patron is the average national museum policy geared for (those fundraisers) or how is the public sold architecture in media, via sound-byte architects and so on. Nothing changes here.

As someone whose arts education began with the 80s (when Koolhaas was just the respected author of a very significant but hard to find book) architecture was interesting for being clearly a paradox - a university field where relevant discourse and theory existed through the early 90s, at a time when the same field was aligning with entertainment culture, bloated with budgets, egos and big-time follies, servicing all kinds of impossible claims, from developers to theorists, and scaled up to global media standards. It offered a perverse attraction to the architects and their oeuvre (that should represent "your" lived/built world), who can seemingly throw the "baby" out and keep the "dirty bathwater".

Yet it shares with design an odd fact that there are significantly few complex, interesting exhibitions or institutional-framed discourses on them. They always fall flat, "straightened" out as only production history, as objects, buildings only, without the paradox, the culture, the play of the work "identity". Even Koolhaas's return to fold with a museum exhibition in NYC and reprint of Delirious... was anticlimactic, half-hearted it seemed. More odd is this tendency emerged as a characteristic in the same era where the world could seemingly be defined by Benetton ad campaigns, Starck everything or the onslaught of more serious music videos.

The 80s "perverse identities" charted new ways out of the me-70s, dismissed the "good self" and looked for a liberating syntax that could be discovered in the most contradictory architectural field at work. Architects operating as "celebrity" today are just reflection of the narcissism of the field when it is joined to the (patron's) communication media mirror.

That is what should be the opening for institutions to offer intriguing exhibitions as vantage points not allowed otherwise. But the so-called contemporary cultural institutions and museums, are just not "up to speed". They could choose to do other than generally behaving like an uninspired copy of "E!" channel, a 3d fold out of a vanity magazine, and yes, still straightening out all, both celebrity and culture.

We are able to take on how our society and culture routes along several kinds of lines of thought and issues, whether expressed in architecture, arts, design, and so on. But certainly it also demands forums, venues, the ideas, and the context for which a unique public or community of interests is attracted or even recognize themselves. Your website does this, as well, it is important that your exhibitions and their histories exist for developing publics and ideas, which they do. But I cant see the need to consider why Leibeskind utters to you that simplistic one-way flow that all leads to him.
frank
03.14.05 at 12:17

Not much "resonance" about the real meaning
of architecture here today? Even ants do it.
Cheers from Denver.
Niccolo
03.14.05 at 12:44

Of all the various designers and creatives I've encountered (not a huge number) Libeskind was the second most egotistical--the prize goes to Peter Greenaway, who simply went on about how his was the most interesting work in cinema in decades. Libeskind was nearly as bad, but at least the way he presented one got the impression that he *might* be making fun of himself, a little.

As an architect, I've actually found it much more constructive and inspiring to read Poynor, Fella, Helfand, Blauvelt, Keedy, and Heller--anyone writing well about design as communication--than to read architectural theorists (Robin Evans and Reyner Banham being two exceptions).
Derek
03.14.05 at 01:26

OK. For the record, Michael Bierut hates ITC Garamond and Rick Poynor gets the willies from architects.

Dialogue from an American film classic:
Beavis: I hate things that suck.
Butthead: I like things that are cool.

Personally, I'm friends with both ITC Garamond and architects.
m. kingsley
03.14.05 at 05:28

architects usually make graphic designers feel insecure because both are designing, but architects have more credibility in society. architects are licensed, and most hold advanced professional degrees.

graphic designers' credibility is undermined because their tools are available to the public (there's not really much difference between the minimac and the g4 i purchased 4 years ago, and almost anyone with enough will can find bootleg copies of the necessary software); and a college degree in graphic design, and moreso a graduate degree in graphic design, isnt seen as necessary to practice in the field.

a lot of graphic design writing is usually whining about how little respect we get as a profession. i think the trend of design writers seeing graphic design as elements within the world of signs and language ended too soon. i think the engagement with semiotics was interesting and good. a lot of architects talk about urbanism, and are able to borrow freely from other academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, english, and comparative literature. urbanism is the theoretical branch of architecture that investigates the context in which structure and the built environment exists. it is able to relate to other fields, such as the ones i just mentioned. writing on graphic design seems either too generalized, or too specific.

the development of critical theory on graphic design is what i think what will help validate the profession more. to validate design as an intellectual endeavour, which is what architects have done. i dont really see it happening anywhere. most writing is either incredibly narcissist (how does one become a great designer with his/her own voice) or defeatist (we all kowtow to the client). in fact, i know very few articles i could retreat to, any theoretical writing on graphic design that would enlighten me more or challenge me more than a conversation with colleagues. dialogue is important, but i think more challenging writing is necessary (but i think we've had enough of writing on the need for challenging writing on graphic design).

when debord wrote about the society of the spectacle, he talked about how the signifier has become more important than the thing signified. that is also what venturi and scott-brown are writing about as well. the spectacle is the image, and the image is language. this is what graphic designers construct, though most people dont know how to assert their agency in this regard, or even recognize it.

i have to say though that rick poynor's 'obey the giant' was a step in the right direction. some chapters i believed were an interesting examination of graphic design as it exists (and also practiced) in the world.
manuel
03.15.05 at 12:48

And, from left field, what designers would be willing to put their skills into giving an entity like CCTV a more appealing identity, or make it a sleeker, more efficient and effective information dissemination tool for the Chinese government?

Thanks Dan! When I heard about Rem Koolhaas and the CCTV building, I was shocked that he would do a building for such an evil, mind-numbing propaganda machine. It's a shame, and I'm glad someone else noticed.
Ryan Nee
03.15.05 at 03:54

I'm a graphic designer at an architecture firm, and am currently setting up a new business-card template to send to the printer. The templates had been designed to accommodate long, hyphenated last names as well as multiple professional accreditation initials.

After entering in all 100+ names into the forms, one person's name did not fit.

This person used their full first name---not unusual---but then also their full middle name, whereas most chose to forego even a middle initial. And then, this person wanted "Associate AIA" after his name, which I suppose is OK, but it's sort of like putting "almost AIA" after your name. ("Associate AIA" means you have an architectural degree and are paying dues but haven't yet passed the certification exam.)

So, in the interest of trying to get all the information to fit, I asked if he wouln't mind either using just an initial, or else maybe getting rid of "Associate AIA."

He declined to omit any information, explaining that "It's not 'Frank L. Wright.' "
salvomania
03.15.05 at 04:05

that´s a good one, salvomania.
felipe gil
03.15.05 at 07:13

It's hard to argue with the premise that architects are icky. Hitler, after all, was a frustrated architect and a vegetarian, while Phillip Johnson was a frustrated Nazi who ate everything.
mark yoes, r.a.
03.15.05 at 09:32

On an unrelated note - thank you for altering the spacing, etc. in regard to the comments. It is *much* more apparent who the author of each comment is.
A Jagielow
03.16.05 at 12:05

This discussion has really devolved, now I am tempted in defending both P. Johnson (a liberal gay modern)and Hitler (a failed romantic artist) in the same breath- but I will not do such a thing here, except to say that you do not have your facts straight regarding either of them.
I thought the AIA associate story was more strange than fiction. Sad and hillarious. Comment: I think your template had better make room for a few more lines or the entire profession of graphic designers might be stereo-typed as template stunted...HeeeHeee from an architect known as only as "Niccolo" in Denver.

An after thought: Do you have Any examples of Graphic Designers who are also great architects? I can think of one off hand: Herbert Bayer master at the Dessau Bauhaus who yes, moved to Aspen Colorado for a US container company! This master who not only deployed Typeface/Fonts but invented some as well. All The others were communists (oh) NO? (Mallevich, El Lissitzky).

So do not get me started about My Architect Louis Kahn. If you Stoop to complain about Architectural B.O. then I wil get off of this site--If that is what you want. PEACE Niccolo in Denver.
Niccolo
03.16.05 at 01:05

[Design observer won't let me post this using my Yahoo account, and publishing it over my real name might be, ah, career limiting. So here it is in e-mail. Make of it what you will, but please don't publish it without my permission.]

"Those who make it to the highest levels of the profession mix with the super-wealthy, become rich themselves and achieve great power, but any architect enjoys considerable social standing."

Oh, foof. The architectural ego is grown in an environment of intense hostility, and has its foundations in vast self-doubt; for every Frank Lloyd Wright who might almost live up to his ego, there's a hundred more designers who are just pushing out the work. Fact of the matter is, most US architects are sole practitioners, just scraping along. Some of them aren't even scraping along, not even all of the famous ones; a few years ago a famous postmodernist was paying the bills with industrial design for a discount chain. Most of the US profession is afraid it's going to be marginalized.

The profession is responsive to clients, like any design profession, and has far more constraints than any other design profession: what one can build is heavily influenced by technology and the current culture of building. The real greats of the profession can, sometimes, get to do something genuinely new. In Seattle, they call Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project "the plane wreck". Seattle was the long-time home of Boeing's manufacturing and the joke conceals something that aircraft builders know: Gehry's achievement involved adapting an existing technology which was used to shape airplanes. Lord Norman Foster has my admiration as someone with a firm grasp of the technical side of building. But many architects are very weak in technology; I know a second-generation contractor who says that SOM is the worst architecture firm in the world--she hates the way their buildings work. Architects, even architects who are also engineers, are dependent on the engineering consultants who do the nitty-gritty of making sure that each bolt is doing its proper job, and the craftspeople who put the buildings together--another source of insecurity.

So don't be taken in by the profession's propaganda. Pay attention to the places you live in; look at the background--the day-to-day buildings and landscapes that make up our world. And if you are very daring, ask, "Why are these not beautiful? Why are these not comfortable?" "Why do these highly educated and genuinely talented people end up producing, usually, mediocre work?" It doesn't have to be this way, truly it does not.

Caw! Caw! Caw!
The Raven
03.16.05 at 04:03

Thank you "Raven" for fleshing out some realism about the real tragedy of the profession as it is perceived and practiced in USA. What is needed
is participatory design from the bottom up including help from some other talented designers who can help "communicate" a very complex process.See above "Integral Architecture"
Cheers, Niccolo in Denver-did I say AIA? yes.
p.s. We need each other and it is not just a technological question, it is a home depot walmart question.
Niccolo
03.16.05 at 05:14

GREG,
I think we have finally distill'd IT(the problemo):
respect for architecture (as an art)
must occur prior to repect for the architect(S).
Is the a consensus on this point? Cheers,Niccolo in Denver. did I say MIT'87? yes.
P.s.Back in 1986 Libeskind was only a clever graphic.(at P. Johnson's first Decon show at MOMA. Today LibesKind is born again in Denver at the DAM Denver Art Museum: Comments & directions are now needed on how to hang pictures on vertically sloped walls.HELP designers-we need graphic explaination out here in COLORADO.
Niccolo
03.16.05 at 09:26

Niccolo, what facts are you referring to?

Hitler applied to architecture school in Vienna and wasn't admitted because he lacked a sense of scale. Architecture was an obsession of Hitler's and was a key component in the ideology and representation of the Third Reich. See Albert Speer's autobiography Inside the Thrid Reich.

Regarding Phillip Johnson, he was in fact a public Nazi sympathizer into his thirties, and worked for notorious right wing causes in the U.S. His relationship to modernism and liberalism was complicated and cynical to say the least. Johnson, to his credit, was forthright about all of this. See Paul Goldberger's obituary of Johnson in The New York Times.







mark yoes, r.a.
03.16.05 at 03:24

Mark r.a.
I am not defending the B------s
My understanding is Hitler was a
failed painter, but I will look into what you write.

P. Johnson is another story, and I think
your point is well taken--I think
what you write means very different things in
different contexts.

SideBar:OKAY, That A. Speer was that Architect-Graphic design hy-bred? (Hitler was actually a previously carnivourous mutt.)

We all can be mistaken,and can make ammends. Hindsight should be 20/20. No offense to anyone but let us Blogabout TODAY. Cheers,Niccolo
Niccolo
03.16.05 at 05:25

It seems funny that we're talking about architects as if they're a different species from the rest of us. Of the architects that I know and are friends with, I find that they're more open and respectful of the role graphic designers play than not. Though maybe they're an anomaly. Sure, they may not like typography plastered on their monuments but who likes a lot of text when designing a poster that's going to hang in a museum eventually?
Michael Surtees
03.16.05 at 05:53

Graphics:
I'll admit it
I am coming out-
I LOVE graphic
design and designers.
collaboration is a must.

"I would love to make a
background space for you"
-So said an ancient priestess
architect in lower Egypt.
and glyphs were spun.

Cheers
Peacicle
Niccolo
03.16.05 at 07:02

Rick:

A good friend of mine passed along your wonderful recent article on architects, and I had to laugh and shudder at the same time.

In the late 70s I obtained an undergraduate degree in architecture from a midwestern university, and spent two of the most stressful years of my life while in school. It was very much a self-inflicted hell for those willing to deprive themselves of sleep and normal human activities, and was akin to the grinding academic load that the medical and law students typically carry. There was a healthy dose of masochistic, "I'm going through boot-camp" bravado on the part of many, especially the male students.

I worked in the field of architecture in several low-level capacities after I got my degree, but after I met my future wife, an art student studying graphic design, I decided that architecture was not my best choice. I've spent the last 20+ years as a graphic designer with relatively few regrets.

Regardless, I still love architecture as a creative and practical endeavor, and I've worked on a number of design projects for architects, planners, and builders over the years. I can honestly say that architects are generally interesting people doing interesting things, but they can be at the same time some of the most frustrating clients imaginable.

Every architect I've ever known has made it clear, inadvertently or intentionally, that they believe themselves perfectly capable of being a bangup graphic designer—they just don't have the time. I believe they secretly think the same thing about brain surgery and nuclear physics. They can range from I-work-with-bricks-and-steel-and-you-don't macho he-men on one end of the spectrum to the pompous, condescending windbags affecting Wrightian capes and walking sticks on the other.

This attitude directly stems from, as you pointed out, their having such a direct impact on our physical environment, as well as from having to master the incredibly complex nature of modern buildings. That resulting sense of omniscience becomes omnipotence in the minds of too many of them, and the "god" complex oozes out in all its glory. Of the female architects I've known, none in my experience exhibit the same conceits as the male architects. They can be no less convinced of their own innate graphic design talents, however.

Having said all this, I would much rather work with an architect convinced of his or her own godliness than a creepily messianic sales and marketing shark expecting you to paint lipstick on his product pig, and love doing it. Now THAT is painful.

thanks,

Victor Caroon
victor
03.21.05 at 09:57

Lead guitarists from rock bands give me the willies also.

Perhaps the architect who depends on making big powerful statements is a high society counterpart to the equally affected and egotistical lead guitar player who derives his manhood from playing the blues scale really fast. They are in essence the same.

Secondly,
The thing that strikes me about Libeskind after seeing the Barbican show and reading his book, "Breaking Ground" is his ability to create sweeping, grandiose rationales for his work. His work always has this angular, deconstucted feel, but the rationalles range from "crystals" to shimmering expressions of hopeful sentiment based on memories from the obscure writings of holocaust survivors.

So in closing, if Libeskind were a musician maybe he'd be Simon & Garfunkel.
Ben Weeks
03.24.05 at 02:11

And if you are very daring, ask, "Why are these not beautiful? Why are these not comfortable?" "Why do these highly educated and genuinely talented people end up producing, usually, mediocre work?" It doesn't have to be this way, truly it does not.

I ask this all the time. I would love to meet the self-aggrandizing, pompous, and omniscient souls who prostitute their talent designing the heartbreakingly ugly strip malls, supermarkets, and drugstores that have taken over every city I visit. These are the god-like figures clawing to make themselves famous? I would venture to guess the lowly ham-and-egger doing that kind of work is not drawing a lot of press attention and never will. No one should be intimidated by any architect regardless of how many years the architect spent locked in the Arch. Lab amongst his or her drafting tables and eraser dust.

Virginia
04.07.05 at 12:47

Rick,

do you stand by your assertion in blueprint a few issues back, that architects are generally more intelligent than designers?
Jessica
04.19.05 at 05:27

Somewhat off topic, I would like to point to an article by Sheila Levrant de Brettville in [Re] Reading Perspecta: The First Fifty Years of the Yale Architectural Journal. De Brettville analyzes the journal's history from a graphic design perspective. It is relevant to this discussion in that Perspecta is a journal that has always been a collaboration between Yale's graphic design and architecture students--now more than ever before.

The collection is a wonderful tome (it weighs at least 12 pounds) which allows one to see the unfolding and development of architectural theory spanning 50 years.
David Cabianca
04.28.05 at 11:02

I was so entertained by this article. i am a graphic designer/art director by profession and my husband is an architect. If anything, i find that we actually balance one another out. we understand each another on so many levels. But where we don't, we are able to open doors for one another.
Jen Ray
10.21.08 at 04:29


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, media, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Rick Poynor

Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design
MG Publications, 2010

Typographica
Laurence King, 2001

Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World
Birkhäuser Architecture, 2007

No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism
Yale University Press, 2003

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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