The problem with architects

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies – Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

— Neil Gaiman, Nerdist podcast, 2011. Via Brain Pickings.

The problem with architects is that they care too much about architecture. We spend way too much time and energy talking about architecture, reading architecture books and magazines, visiting architecture blogs and websites, nurturing a monocultural viewpoint on the world that surrounds us.

Architecture is a field of knowledge that spreads into many different areas of life. It’s not just about material buildings, it’s not just about light or about the art of drawing or whatever fantasy you’ve been told in college. It’s about the interaction of things in the inhabited world.

The most difficult thing in creating good architecture or urban design is that there’s a lot of complexity going on, there are too many layers. Everytime you look at things from a different point of view you see different things. If you’re considering structure, for example, thinking about the right balance between material resources and the needs of the building, you will assess a number of interrogations. But if you’re thinking about daylight or rain, about the air flow, about electricity and a myriad infrastructures, about garbage disposal or sewage draining, you will see other things.

And if you widen that thought process to areas like, say, energy consumption or sociology, or economy, or history, you will see even more things you didn’t consider in the first place.

So when some architect says that projects are “born” on a napkin drawing, what can you say? Can you put that amount of thought in a sketch made over a cup of coffee? Do you think a good work of architecture is born from a moment of inspiration? Well, I don’t.

These thoughts came to me as I was watching S G Collins, director of Postwar Media, talking in his latest video, Return to Civilization.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m not saying I agree with everything he’s saying – although I can’t help identifying with his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. But that’s not really the point. No, the most interesting thing is that here is a non-architect talking about architectural issues, and doing so by presenting different questions. By addressing the multi-layered complexity of architecture and urbanism that is often missing in the monocultural discourse architects tend to surround their profession with.

The problem with architects is that we need to change the way we question, think and execute our work. We need to go outside of our comfort zone. Monocultural thinking is our greatest enemy.

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