By Ryan Kinports
Architecture employs fashion to a great extent. There are two dominant views about this that I have seen in this school, and the industry overall. One is to ignore the idea that your work could be considered as something besides a serious contribution to society. The other is to fall in line with what is in popular demand without applying thought to improving upon or creating the next standard in design. They are both narrow paths to walk.
We all want to make significant contributions to our field, as any motivated professional does. There is a growing concern across this country to focus on rebuilding the public transit system we had 60 years ago that functioned so well. We need to become less dependent on personal vehicles. Systems like this require network master plans, transit hubs, smaller stations for bus and train, and numerous support buildings. Fortunately for us the public is paying more attention to how their built environment looks. Unfortunately for the public many designers are focusing on building their coliseum rather than a building that people want to see and interact with daily. One prominent example of focusing on standing out rather than function was the Kemper Arena roof collapse in 1979 that was a result of poor drainage and structural planning. The building had won much appraise from the architectural community. It was an outstanding design for the time; you can see a similar steel exoskeleton on the Recreation Center. Had the arena been in use at the time there would likely have been deaths. There seemed to be such a focus on creating an iconic building that other concerns were neglected. Perhaps this was motivated by the concern that Kemper would be considered “just another arena.”
Like any fashion driven field architecture has a strong design component that draws from the works of peers. This is an efficient system to spur innovation. The downside is that it creates a retail mentality where a few designer brands define an industry. The trends now are large curtain walls, expansive organic surfaces, and in interesting compilation of buildings that appear as though they would interact with the surrounding environment but ignore it almost entirely. Prominent examples of tends setters are Santiago Calatrava (despite enormous cost overruns and complaints of maintenance issues), Herzog & de Meuron (Bird’s Nest, empty most of the year), and Frank Gehry (MIT Ray and Maria Strata Center, severe structural issues). You may have noticed that despite all three of these architect’s creations having severe problems they have become icons in our field. In this school we are expected to be able to build what we design, which often means that our initial unique designs must be reworked. More significant though is the driving force these superstars have on design. So much of classical design has been left behind simply because it is old rather than there being critical problems with those aspects. The real innovators are those that are able to take only the best aspects of various styles and create their own visions from them.