Reconnecting Architects with the Community

May 15, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Marcin Gerwin: It happens quite often that when a new building is completed many people see it as unpleasant or even hostile, while at the same time the architects claim that it is a great work of art. This difference in opinion is quite striking. Why do you think it happens?

Mark Lakeman: It’s a question that every community is asking. It’s a conundrum. People have historically perceived architects as being cultural advocates — they trusted them — so it’s traumatizing for communities to feel betrayed. People even ask what is the role of the architect; why there seems to be such a divorce between our expectation of the architect, and the actual reality that the architect has become a commercial maker of building designs. I think that the answer is contextual — it’s a historical issue. You will find the answer to this divorce in the series of disruptions of history, to design and community. For instance you have a historical continuity for a long period of time and then it’s disrupted and power is reconcentrated into an elite class. In that context, the idea that the society designs itself has been aggressively obscured, and it has apparently been lost.

On the other hand, I think we should cultivate a broader understanding of the role of design in society. That’s what I intend to do for the rest of my life. I want everyone to not merely understand design, and therefore value designers, but rather I want them all to be designers in their own lives, so that we strengthen democracy. We don’t want people to be voters, we want them to be problem-solvers. The benefit that I also personally see in people broadly understanding design, is that my own office is flooded with work because people appreciate it, and me as well.

MG: I have a feeling that some architects believe this education should mean convincing people that the modernist buildings are fantastic. They believe people don’t value them only because they are ignorant. It seems to me, however, that the problem is not with people lacking education, but with the modernist architecture itself. The principles upon which it is based are mistaken.

ML: The essential philosophy that is taught to students of architecture is quite a frustrating thing. As someone who builds things, I work with people, I use my hands — like today there is a work party in my community where we are building things. I know how to build because of that. Most architects only understand buildings abstractly. They are taught incomplete theories, they draw pictures, but they usually don’t actually engage in the process of building or maintaining the things that they design. So this void of understanding is a problem, and it also plays out in other expressions of disconnection. You also notice that design students almost never draw pictures of people in their projects. They put them in at the last minute maybe to give a sense of human scale to the presentation drawing. I think that’s fascinating because in all cases we are designing environments that people live in, but architects tend instead to think perfunctorily, merely in terms of basic commercial functions. They don’t really think about people, don’t think of their actual experience. How strange, because the great identity that underpins the whole culture of design and architecture is that it is the Mother Of All Arts, made to uplift the human being.

Industrial modernism on the other hand is focused on objects — architects now want to create beautiful things to look at, and it is a huge unfortunate oversimplification but it applies. The models that they’ve been given include Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or in some ways even Frank Lloyd Wright, and all were considered great artists who would tend to design things but not places. In contrast, that’s why this term placemaking has arisen. It’s because architects have nearly utterly failed to provide a sense of place. We’ve learned at best that the architect is a facilitator of cultural engagement and at worst just merely a designer of objects.

MG: What would be beneficial for the community then? What should be the priorities for the architects?

ML: I gave two presentations about this subject at Harvard last month. And I was asked there the same question — what do we do now? How in the world do we reorient our entire educational curriculum? But unfortunately we cannot wait for the architecture schools to generate an entirely new wave of designers that suddenly will take the reins of the profession. Nor will we change the hearts of developers all at once. It’s a long term project. But what we can do right away is to get off the couch where we live and start to design in our own realities. That’s what we’ve been doing so successfully especially on the West coast of the USA. We’ve gotten people to come out of their house and look at their neighborhood. We’ve convinced them that they have their own power. It’s an illusion that someone else can tell you that you are powerless. And we’ve asked some really good questions like: “Are you satisfied to just pay a ticket to someone else’s reality, to always be merely a consumer? Or will you in your own lifetime become a cultural generator? Because this is all the time you have. Will you create your own reality or not?”

For us in the USA it is an easy question because we can just stand in the neighborhood grid, have people look around and ask : “Where is your public square? Don’t your ancestors come from a village where there was a place where people learned how to sing and create all forms of culture?” You could point out to them that they have no village square anywhere where they live, but you don’t have to tell them what’s missing, you just ask them: “What would you like to see?” And people say: “Well, gosh, it would be nice to have a place to sit around here. There is nowhere to sit. There is no playground, and without that our children have to cross the busy streets”. Then people say: “How about a place for information? How about a place where we can have food together?” Pretty soon they put the entire village square back together, because it just comes out of their sense of need.

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MG: What are the reactions that you meet with?

ML: The architects are upset. They say: “My God, what are you doing? It’s nice that you have children involved, OK, so there is no vandalism anymore. Maybe that’s good, but it looks terrible. Curves? Color? Metaphor? Are you serious?” But the architects are people too. Before they went into architecture school they were fully capable of creating beauty. But once they went through architecture school they were made to be utterly serious and they were intensely criticized. They were constricted, contained and reduced to eventually become self-serious elitists. Afterwards, they are so fundamentally worried about what everyone thinks of them that they design boxes that are gray, brown or black and have no connections to the needs of other people. They wanted to do so much more with their creative lives before they arrived in school, but their teachers were confused as well.

So what we are doing in Portland, and all over the country now, is that people are taking matters into their own hands. They are saying: “We seem to be able to do a better job”. Because when people don’t go to the architecture school they are still able to look at where they are and fuse their sense of history and local stories and address their needs like slowing traffic, engaging youth, getting people to get outside and walk, building neighborhood identity and pride. They can fuse it into a metaphor that is functional, symbolical and physical and create it. All architects used to be able to do this, but now they are contained within a set of precedence of what they think is possible. That’s what design education has done to them. Everybody else is more facile at being able to utilize their creativity then the architect commonly. I hate to say this, but it’s true, and I can say this as a second generation architect — I’ve watched this, I grew up in it, I was taught about it as a child and now I see it in my profession everywhere.

MG: Many architects claim that modern buildings cannot resemble buildings of the past. In a consequence they design boxes out of glass and concrete in the places with historical architecture. What are your thoughts about this?

ML: There is a mantra that is pervasive in the design culture: it is to make something of its time. To make something that expresses the technology of the time. It’s actually an intense, conscious emphasis on celebrating the current state of technology, because technology is taken to be the highest expression of who we are. I wish that people would gather in their communities and entertain the question — is this really the highest value that should direct how our habitat is created? Is the state of technology what we worship? Does the architecture of our places need to express what some chemist or engineer has created? We have a philosophical emphasis on technology and there can often be a near total disregard for the essence of community.

What is new and what is old can speak to each other in terms of scale, texture and practical considerations that make it so that the buildings we live in are easy to maintain. These things need to be designed in a practical way. At the same time there is a huge gap between the things that are old and are somewhat symbolic and the things that are new and which have abandoned symbolism. But if you listen to architects, they talk about their work symbolically, that it must express the technology of their time. Then the building is a technological statement and is expressing some philosophy like deconstructivism, postmodernism or modernism. The building is supposed to be a symbolic statement, but the people are going: “What? I don’t understand how you made this building”. And people look at the old style and say: “Hey, that’s comprehensible. There is a logic and there is a story of the people I should be able to read in how it was created. We can see that it was crafted by human beings, but this other stuff?” The architect is not helping society to know the story. The language that architects use can often be incomprehensible, even to themselves.

From the community point of view, the community never authorized the profession of architecture to abandon symbols and metaphors that were meaningful to the community. In commerce they say that the customer is always right. In the case of culture-making the community is the customer. I hate to even think in these terms but the people who are creating the products — the architects and developers — are absolutely arrogant about these issues. You know what Frank Lloyd Wright said? He said: “Madam, you will take what we give you”. This is another thing that they teach in architecture schools everywhere. The architect is the expert. They must always be “educating” other people. That’s taught to students coming out of school like: “You’re just a student, but you’ll come out into the reality. Start designing things and you will know more than everybody around you including 85 year old grandmothers. You’ll know more than them, so you’ll have to educate them”.

MG: So what you are saying is that it should be the other way around — architects should consult the community first. They should ask what are the values of people, what are their aesthetic preferences, so that the final outcome will be satisfying for them.

ML: Absolutely.

MG: But then architects might argue that ordinary people have a bad taste, so it would be better if the experts impose the aesthetics. I actually once heard applause after someone said that the style of architecture must be imposed. Do you think it’s possible to overcome this?

ML: There must be architects who are already struggling with this question. They should be part of the conversation. There must be people who are trying to bridge this gap already and their experience and their ideas should come forth. But it’s the community ultimately that needs to make it happen. Their voice, their insistence and activism has to become the strongest force in this whole equation.

The architects are not going to change voluntarily, nor will the developers who are driving this. The architects are so often just doing what they are told by developers. And developers have lots of money and they are isolated by it. They are isolated from the communities that they are exploiting. This is the biggest problem. Right now they are the driving force and their primary motive is simply to have more money or more stuff. And the more isolated they are the more stuff they think they need, because the main thing that they talk about with their developer friends is how much more stuff they will soon have. It’s like a bunch of simpletons are driving the destruction of our society. So the community needs to speak loudly. If the only people who are making proposals and doing designs are developers and architects, it’s just going to stay this way. Ultimately the people need to drive what is happening.

MG: What should be the role of architect then?

ML: The main thing is for the architect to engage deeply with the community in a conversation to elicit their intelligence. If the architect doesn’t do this, it’s such a foolishness, it’s such a lost opportunity, because the community is the mind, the heart and the memory of that place. The community is holding this gigantic repository of intelligence that the architect should tap into and support.

The architect should come in a humble way and say: “How can I support the life that is happening here?” This is the only way to be sustainable. If the architect is only coming in saying: “I want to create a monument to myself!”, then the monument that he or she creates will remind everyone of how much they don’t like that architect. That’s what usually happens. If they want to be remembered and have stories told about them, let it be a story of how they were a hero in the community by facilitating their vision. This is the thing that the architect can help with.

A lot of the time communities are just sitting there and they are not engaged, because they don’t have a creative facilitator. So, they don’t even know what their vision is, even though they all have the parts of that vision. The architect can actually come in and help them to crystallize a vision so they can say: “Aha! That is who we are”. That’s the role the architect can play. This is the way for the architect to find an entirely different depth of satisfaction, meaning and connection in their community.


Mark Lakeman is an architect and Permaculture designer. He is a co-founder of City Repair and a principal of Communitecture. He lives in Portland, USA.

This is an extended version of the interview which first appeared in Dziennik Opinii in Poland.

Marcin Gerwin

Marcin Gerwin, PhD –  is a specialist in deliberative democracy and sustainability. A political science graduate, the topic of his doctoral dissertation focused on sustainable development in the context of global challenges. He designs democratic processes and runs citizens’ assemblies. He is an author of “Citizens’ Assemblies: Guide to democracy that works”, as well as “A Constitution Created by the Citizens” and a co-author of “Rivendell Model”. Apart from democracy-related issues, he gives self-care and flow workshops.

Tags: building resilient communities, modernist architecture, permaculture design, Placemaking