Architecture is Like a Dishwasher

I came across an article in a Columbus, OH business journal, describing how architecture students from Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture were picketing and protesting in front of a recently completed campus union building.  They resented the mediocre, impoverished architecture that the architects had designed, and that the administration had settled on.  They were demanding a more demanding architecture, that raised the status of architecture, the university, and even the city.  (Note: Ohio State has a rich tradition of very provocative architecture by Peter Eisenmann and others).

The author quotes the students:  “Ohio State is progressive, the Union is unimpressive…  The 338,000-square-foot student center provides essential gathering spaces, but was a missed opportunity to create a campus icon… We want this conversation to start… We want people to be more critical of what’s being built and the status of the city… That’s how Columbus achieves its mediocrity… They want everything to look alike.”

The author then goes on to explain that architecture can elicit very different reactions in different people, saying the building instantly provoked “inspired” and “hate” discussions in Columbus.  But then he resigns to the position: “For such a large project, it proved impossible to please everyone where design was concerned.”  He seems to imply that architecture can either be functional OR demanding, but not both.  With a note of sarcasm, he compares architecture to a dishwasher: “With architecture, knowing whether a design is good or bad is as certain as knowing the single correct way to load a dishwasher.”

The building has some close ties to CMU: the building was originally designed by Michael Dennis & Assoc., the same firm that did our own U.C., Purnell Center, and stadium.  Dennis’ firm jumped ship half-way through the O.U. project, however, and it was finished by another firm.   (Dennis later disavowed the O.U. project, though as you can see from the rendering above from Dennis’ website, it’s very similar to the completed building at the top).   The similarities continue: in 1999 some 2nd year CMU architecture students created a provocative light installation that protested the recently completed Purnell Center by Michael Dennis, calling the building “fascist,” unmodern, and uninspired (see image below).  The student protest provoked a huge discussion on campus and even in the neighboring (Jewish) community.

What do you think?  Would you ever protest a building?  Which ones?  Why?  Doesn’t every architect and client have a right to build what they want?  Would you ever protest the design of a starchitect?   How about a classmate?  Where should our architectural values come from?  Should we always voice them boldly?  This goes to design AND criticism.  Is architecture like a dishwasher: everyone has their own idea, and everything is equally OK?

Isn’t there actually a “best way” to load a dishwasher, and it’s usually someone with a great deal of experience who can show the novice what that “best way” is?  Are some architects more qualified than others to determine “quality” or what is “demanding” architecture?  I’ve never known an architect who consciously set out to design a building that was “bad” or “ugly” or “uninspiring.”  So doesn’t that mean that all architecture is equally valid?

What do you think?

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