3T Architecture. What modern architects CAN do…

“In my experience, if you have to keep the lavatory door shut

by extending your left leg, it’s modern architecture.”

Nancy Banks-Smith

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I have re-visited few of my recent posts; it looks like I am getting soft. I don’t look radical or antagonistic, rather another good-hearted fella on the web. Either I’m getting old or I’m losing my edge. I have to prevent a meltdown. The last thing I wanna be is a boring syrupy “nice guy”. So I’m going to cut off those white angel wings and to show you some teeth. Please stop thinking that things are all that rosy and jazzy. Because they are not.

In order to prove it I’d like to continue our previous conversation about modern “masters” of architecture. Few months ago I asked a simple question:  What modern architects can do? We saw that they don’t bother to seek for the harmony of golden ratio as antique masters, they don’t draft or paint as Renaissance geniuses. We also know they are not responsible anymore for the two out three principles of the Vitruvian Triad for Architects.

Make no mistake, modern architects (those who obtained their pathetic title from the pathetic bureaucrats) are not gone. They can do a lot of things. Not necessarily are those things related to the Architecture though. But you have to understand – architecture is not the top priority on the modern architects’ list. So let’s go down to business and see what on Earth can they do!

In fact all modern architects can be divided into 3 groups (not by the size, but by the nature of what they do), and those groups could be stylishly nicknamed 3T: Theoreticians, Talkers and Traders. Each one can do different things.

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Theoreticians

“Theoreticians” – is a very small group of architects that can THINK.

“To think” means to theorize, to philosophize on vital issues, to create original ideologies and to analyze hypothetical evolution of things.  Obviously all that is conducted on the platform of the architecture, although it might go further into the other academic fields from linguistics to math. I have a huge respect for those intellectual leaders who can be proudly called Thinkers. Their views are highly original. They know how to interpret the history while their studies open professional horizons for the future.

The problem arrives at the moment when these incredibly smart theoreticians try to implement their abstract theories in real life. In other words when the buildings they dream off are getting built.

Theoreticians design with their mind not with their soul. They approach the design process with systemic rational analysis and ignore such elusive substances as universal harmony or intuition. To them everything is calculated. Thus their projects are not meant to be fascinating aesthetically or remarkable artistically. Instead of the aesthetics and art theoreticians are obsessed with the ethics and architectonics of their own ideologies. They got to “get it right”.

Interesting observation: more rigid and rationalized an ideology is – uglier are the architectural results of it.

Le Corbusier is a good example. His obsession with industrialized society and socialism utopias, his claim that we must “look upon the house as a machine for living or as a tool” (Vers une architecture / Towards a New Architecture – 1923) brought to life hideous monsters. Those ugly concrete boxes have formed catastrophic architectural realm of many countries for decades…

The most prominent modern theoreticians (if we count the last 100 yrs or so)  in my view along with Corbu are Buckminster Fuller, Peter Eisenman, Robert Venturi,  James Stirling.

Certainly they are influential thinkers but … here you go – breaking the taboo… they are not architects. They are not good architects. They undeniably have enormous impact on the profession of architecture and urbanism, but let’s stop pretending that they are gifted designers.

Here is an analogy. “Theoreticians” are just like literature critics. Brilliant critics that know everything – they know how the words should be used and what the language traditions are; they can provide a witty critical analysis of the book, showing all it’s advantages and deficiencies. They understand every genre; they know the literature upside down. The only thing is… they can’t write. With all their immense understanding and experience they will never be able to write a decent book. They are not writers.

Theoreticians are not architects. They construct verbal concepts, not stunning structures. Just look at their works.

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Talkers


“Talkers” – as it follows from the name, can TALK (it is a growing group of professionals that are very busy talking about themselves).

“To talk” means to publicize yourself by any means and to promote your own image as widely as possible. PR and promotional activities (exhibitions, public speeches, media presence, interviews, socialite events, festivals, galas, etc.) are main business. And then architecture, planning and other secondary issues come. Talkers are using advanced computer technologies to generate catchy illustrations and flashy renderings. It is just as far from the genuine architecture as Hollywood flicks are far from the real life dramas.

The leaders of the “Talkers” are highly popular and successful architects  often are referred as STARchitects. Their names (or let’s call it properly – brands) occupy pages of the mainstream media: Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel…

An analogy here is pretty clear – showbiz superstars like Madonna, Rolling Stones, Elton John. Once they were rebels (just as starchitects were inventive designers). Today they are industries, powerhouses for money making and their creative talent is highly questionable. (We have discussed it in “Architecture and Rock-n-Roll are dead” essay)

Those brand-names are just the tip of the iceberg. This group is not that small. The brands I have mentioned (sure you can easily name another dozen or two) are mega-stars on the international scene. But smaller starchitects exist on every level: national, provincial, municipal… They are less famous of course, they are not influential on the world-stage so to speak, but they are very powerful within their own territory. They have right connections and useful media resources. They pull the strings and get the projects thanks to their “star power”… And again architecture is not exactly their primary concern.

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Traders


And then there are “Traders” – the largest group, a foundation of the modern “business of architecture”. Traders TRADE.

“Trade” means only one thing – to survive. Do anything in your power in order to survive. It doesn’t mean: create best designs and win commissions. It literally means to do anything regardless of the methods, styles, manners, rules and sometimes even laws.

So architects-traders actually can do a lot. They have learned to survive and to succeed without extraordinary intellectual status of the “thinkers” or glamorous image of the “talkers”. They work hard and move fast. “Survival of the fittest.” They can’t afford to waste time on formal niceties or deep thinking. They must produce tons of drawings and specifications (no need for quality, the size and the quantity matter). They must be on unrealistic schedules and tight budgets. They must get approvals from the corrupted officials. They must satisfy eccentric customers demanding the best products for the cheapest price. They must get payments punctually based on tricky contracts. They must maintain cash flow to keep the business afloat. They must observe their licenses, credentials, paperwork, insurances and other bureaucratic crap in perfect shape. They must update old software every month. They must learn new software every year. Lately they must follow sustainability and eco-design requirements. They have so many things to do. And they do it.

So who cares if they can’t sketch elegant facade? Is it really that imperative to present imaginative vision? So what if their handwriting sucks? How can we blame people who are doing so many important things for such minor ridiculous details?

It is impossible to list “traders” by name.

And He asked him, “What is thy name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” (The Gospel of Mark 5:9)

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Act of will

“The architect represents neither a Dionysian nor an Apollonian condition: here it is the mighty act of will, the will which moves mountains, the intoxication of the strong will, which demands artistic expression. The most powerful men have always inspired the architects; the architect has always been influenced by power.” (Nietzsche)

This piece is not about Theoreticians, Talkers or Traders. This is about Architects. Architects, which probably don’t exist anymore.

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P.S. I wanted to finish my long piece on this sonorous style exclamation. But I foresee some angry reactions.

And who the hell are you?

Who gives you the right to play an entomologist classifying great architects as if they are insects?

OK, in principle you might be right. Yet I decided to spice things up a bit since I by myself was “a trader” and “a talker” (on my own miniature scale of course). I have stopped to be “a trader” and I don’t like to be “a talker”. I don’t pretend to be “a theoretician” of course. Always hated critics, I prefer original Authors. “Creators” as you would translate it in architectural terms. And that’s what I would like to be. But it is unfashionable, unwholesome, unreasonable and unprofitable in today’s stupid reality of life.

Now crucify me.

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Comments
18 Responses to “3T Architecture. What modern architects CAN do…”
  1. kid says:

    It’s definitely interesting to follow you. Always a pleasure to meet someone still critically open-minded (and maybe a bit posing in criticism – difficult to say after the few readings), but it’s a pleasure anyway.

    I agree on this topic. Architecture is way more commercial today, than before. And it even didn’t took a long time to get into the state, just 50 maybe 80 years. Although I think you’re missing one category of architects-introverted thinkers-hobbyists who are designing for their own pleasure, for their own ideals and their own “small” clients. Yes, I am mostly talking about individuals rather than studios, but they exist. They’re not famous, but they exist. You can find them in (your disliked) Japan, in Northern Europe, some Western Europe, some in Canada and Australia.

    Also I am young and not experienced in business-bullshit world that much, but I tend to keep my own ideas, coz I know they worth more than money and fame.

  2. Collier says:

    For two-point-five decades I have been both a “nice guy” and a “trader” (but not a traitor) within the Architectural profession. A large number of “traders”, in spite of all we’ve done to survive, have struggled and failed. While I’ve cursed the darkness plenty in the past two years, I now count the upheaval in the practice of architecture as a good thing over all.

    By the dim light of my desktop screen I took a long look at my career. At some point the screen winked back.

    As certainly as I believe the current ways (Second Wave/Industrial Economy ways) of promoting, funding, designing and constructing are crumbling around us, I believe a Third Wave/Information Economy will emerge. Those of us shaken from our “trading” ways can pause to envision our place in the New Economy. In fact, I believe we can step up and begin to shape that place.

    This blog (and others) point the way. People of like minds and of mutual need are gathering, information and insight are being shared freely, global gatherings AND neighborhood meet-ups are being fostered and I believe, as a result, unprecedented connections of clients and designers will follow.

    Albert, please keep thinking and writing, keep pressing for the ideal. I believe we can leverage this New Media for an Architecture free from at least two of your three Ts.

  3. L. Cohen says:

    Excellent piece, as always! Very catchy abbreviation: 3T…

  4. David says:

    So you see yourself as a former ‘trader’, a reluctant ‘talker’ with aspirations to be a ‘creator’? Why not a theoretician. Using the above hierarchy, seems a good balance of the 3T’s would give you an ideal architect – one who knows to how get things done (trader); one who knows the basics/theories, and understands them (theorist), and one who can quickly & effectively self-promote to actually get some business, and regular flow of clients/projects. That last one (talker) you’ve been doing very well via blog & twitter. So why not strive towards a balance of all 3? Why aim for the ultimate – creator? ‘God complex’ is too easy of a reason – your first assumption in this blog was the architects have power issues. Why strive towards what you already see is unattainable? A balanced compromise is too ‘human’ to be a solution?

    Just curious, not trying to crucify you.

    • Albert says:

      Groups don’t exist in a “pure form”. 3T definitions are not cast in stone. Some “Theoreticians” are also big media-stars & successful “Traders” (Eisenman) , while “Talkers” can present original opinions on complex theoretic matters (Liebeskind). Thus the dosage constantly changes and architects might move between the groups. It’s not that rigid…

      Yet in my view some ideal proportion of all 3 groups’ qualities (“a balanced compromise” as you call it) will NOT make a perfect modern architect. Certainly the one needs characteristics of each group in order to be smart, famous and business successful. However to become a Creator something else is required… Maybe “…the intoxication of the strong will, which demands artistic expression”?

  5. I am not an architect so cannot possibly comment on those issues. But I enjoy reading your posts to get your unique perspective. Haven’t exactly seen your “soft” side, but then, you don’t seem to angry either. And who is going to mess with a guy who speaks about 8 languages?

  6. saif says:

    Your writings are interesting, but who do you consider to be closest..to becoming a real architect….are there any out there?

    • Albert says:

      I expected this question. In absolute terms that would be Michelangelo who’s creative genius is completed with the great Act of Will (that’s why it’s him not Leonardo or Brunelleschi). Being more realistic, I think Daniel Libeskind in the 80s – 90s was a true architect. To me – his deconstructivism powerfully embodied in Berlin Museum is an Act of Creation. Unfortunately after that he sold his soul to Showbiz and produced bunch of repetitive parodies of Berlin (one of his latest terrible projects is in my city, Toronto). I like modern Dutch architects (not Koolhaas who is pure thinker, not an architect at all). If you want some name – Marcel Wonders. He’s more industrial/interior designer but his architectural vision & attitude are truly inventive. I actually met him few years ago on some presentation in Kyiv, he has a great personality. I hope he’s not ending up as a “Talker” (that’s what happened to Philippe Stark who in my view is a genius)…

  7. Abdul H. says:

    Dear Albert,

    I’ve been following your blog for quite sometime and I must say that you are officially my twin brother by thought :)

    Your opinions are quite my verbal discussions with my tutors day in and day out, how I struggle to think differently than the other hundred headless chickens within the department/factory of architecture here in London.

    I might just be a second year student but I truly wish I could study architecture on different conditions.

    I just want to mention one great architect that I admire, Alejandro Aravena. His way of thinking and approaching architecture is always interesting. To me, he does what an architect should be doing -building but building for the people.

    “All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuable”.
    You already know who said this ;)

    Here’s a link for an interview he did on ArchDaily – thought I’d like to share ;)

    http://www.archdaily.com/9942/ad-interviews-alejandro-aravena/

    • Albert says:

      I appreciate your kind words, Abdul.
      Works of Alejandro Aravena are fresh and interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing with us.
      Actually modern South America as a cultural zone is a very creative place. Maybe one of the most energetic areas on the planet these days… (Should I mention literature? Markes, Kortasar, Llosa… just to name a few of the most important writers…)
      Good luck with your studies.

  8. Mike says:

    while certainly interesting to read, your comments are unbelievably generalized – nearing the point of stupidity. the architect profession is tough and far from glamorous but you need to open your eyes and understand that even small firms are trying to express themselves and present new ideas. you only focus on starchitects but never bring up the work of newcomers.

    chipperfield’s work is great but how can you deny that he fits into your category of a “theoretician”, or even “talker.” he knows how to talk up his ideas and put his name behind a project.

    • Albert says:

      Before blaming me of stupidity maybe you should read few more essays from my blog… Especially the one about Chipperfield if you are such a fan.

      I’ve reviewed your Tumblr dedicated to beer & architecture. It’s certainly deep and thoughtful in contrast to my “stupidities”. Bunch of drunk kids are taking pictures with the beer next to the famous architectural monuments. Thank you, it opens my eyes indeed, what a brilliant & smart way to represent yourself.

      Cheers!

  9. Vinayak says:

    your words seems to touch the right note within me, in a way inspiring and probing to think beyond what is seen – to what lies within it.
    thanks for that Al.

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