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November 2006 - What’s Ailing Architecture?

WAA? Session

An inquiry into the current state of the art and the profession: Panel Discussion with Rebecca Fant, Murray Whisnant and Peter Wong, moderated by Manoj P Kesavan.

Part 1 – Presentation


Thanks to Charles Holloman Productions for the professional recording of the session, and to Mitchell Kearney for making it possible.

It is really the best of times, and the worst of times.
Architecture is quite high-profile these days. There is a never-before media attention, creating a roster of celeb architects (or “starchitects”), whose name alone is enough to sell out the commercial developments that they design. Also perhaps there has never been a time in history with so many professional architects designing so many buildings.

Yet most of what we see around is “junk architecture” – buildings of hollow elegance that are created for instant consumption, and are of no lasting value. Why is the higher number of professionals and the increased attention not leading to a increased level of public awareness and higher quality of built environment? Why are most affluent American cities like ours so impoverished when it comes to having structures that are capable of inspiring/touching deeply those who enter it or inhabit it?

These are big questions, definitely! Yet one has to start the inquiry somewhere, and we will start by looking at two different aspects of the problem – first at how architecture is practiced today, and then at the place of the profession in today’s society.

I) Inside the profession:

Architects are trained to be creative artists. Yet, what is the role of creativity in contemporary architectural practice? Why is there such a divide/disparity with what is being taught at architecture schools and how it is practiced? Can architecture be an artistic discipline and a service profession? How effective is the current process of education, internship, licensing etc. in the making of a “true” architect? For that matter, who is a true architect?!

II) The architect and the society:

Anyone familiar with the profession knows that architects have very little say in the shaping of today’s cities. Much of what we see around are dictated by governments, consumers, developers and other economic and legal forces. That being the case,

A) What is the role of the architect in contemporary society? From the craftsman/beautifier in the pre-modern society, to the visionary/leader of modernism, where does the architect stand in the post-modern/post-consumerist/post-critical/post-whatever society of today? What should be the role?

B) The communication gap: Most of what is published in architectural magazines are of interest only to other architects, and are of questionable relevance in common practice. What most architects consider to be good architecture is not understood or appreciated by most people. Why is there such a language barrier?
Also, why is there such a shortage or lack of architecture in the popular media? And even when the media talks about it, why is it almost always so uncritical and superficial?

Panelists Information

The panelists, in alphabetical order.

Rebecca R. Fant founded her architectural practice, Architecture Matters, in 2005. Her work focuses on residential and small commercial projects with intent to integrate sustainable design principles. She received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia and a Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Her twenty-one years of practice began in Roanoke, Virginia, and proceeded up the east coast to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, PA, and New York City. She moved to Charlotte and joined Odell in 1997 and has been active in several community groups and the AIA. She is currently President of AIA Charlotte and will be serving on the CMS Standards Review Committee.

Murray Whisnant was born in Charlotte and educated in Charlotte public schools, and the School of Design at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. After graduation he worked with 3 successive firms in Charlotte, prior to establishing his own firm in the city in 1976. In 1990 he was elevated to Fellowship in the AIA, and simultaneously was awarded the Kamphoefner Prize for his devotion to modern architecture. His work has included residences, university buildings, ecclesiastical and commercial structures which have been recognized and commented by the NCAIA Design Awards program. Like many architects in our retrospective culture, most of his best work, has gone into his waste basket.

Peter L. Wong is an architect and Associate Professor at UNCC, where he has taught architectural design, history, and theory since 1988. He received his bachelors in 1981 from the University of Washington in Seattle, and masters from the University of Pennsylvania in 1985. He is a recipient of a 1996 Design Excellence Award given by the National Organization of Minority Architects and has received an AIA Charlotte Merit Award for a workshop and guest house completed in 2003. His written work includes a translated edition of Vittorio Gregotti’s essay, Inside Architecture, as well as writing that explores the meaning and use of architectural drawing techniques. Currently he is designing a group of small houses that reinterprets 1950s and 60s architectural modernism.


  1. Architecture is facing the same issues that all visual art faces. I for one fear that instant gratification is part of the problem. No one accumulates enough information, both historical and philosophical, to have the necessary background to move forward, or to even enjoy a dialogue. “Just google it!”
    Then Big Business comes in, with a budget that staggers you. Only after you are committed to the project do you learn that they are more interested in the bottom line than the design line. If there is no one on staff who can verbally sell the image, it gets picked apart. Or, the public is led by advertising, not good taste which the public has not acquired since the public has been busy trying to keep up with the Joneses.
    Of course, the opposing view is Outsider work…. at least it is honest most of the time. It is not trying to be sophisticated, educated, superior… You get Gaudi, I get Howard Fenster. I like your guy better!
    By Dot Hodges
  2. If architects want to make money, they should have become dentists. This is what an architect once said about the members of his profession. Although this seems to be a shallow statement, the profession and its members are greatly resposible for the current state of architecture. Architecture is more than just art. Unless its ‘professional’ members recognize and commit to right its ailment, no progress will be made.
    By Gaurav Gupte
  3. Mary Newsom, Assoc. Editor of the Charlotte Observer, had posted an intro to this discussion on her blog:
    http://marynewsom.blogspot.com/
    It drew a whole lot of comments. I am pasting below excerpts from my reply to some of the comments, which might be of relevance to the discussion:

    ”(First) let me clarify something about my intro to the point8 session: what I was talking about was the general condition of architecture, not specifically about Charlotte. I think the mediocrity we see around here is pretty representative of most other cities in the country of comparable size. When it comes to architecture, our city is not particularly pretty, or ugly!
    I think blandness – not “bad-ness” or ugliness – is the issue here. (Please see a small article that I had written a few months ago for a local magazine: http://www.charlotteviewpoint.org/pdf/archives/CVP4-06.pdf ) But then I guess its true not just for individual buildings – in the case of most of the often-derided “suburbia” too, it is not its ugliness that makes it mind-numbing, it is more because it is all so bland, characterless and lifeless.

    The “modern vs. traditional” is a tiring and never-ending debate in architecture, which I don’t want to get into right now. However I feel that this kind of a radical stance is one of the things that is hurting architecture. Both the schools (with their thousands of variations) have a lot of merits, and are very meaningful and relevant to those who practice them and can appreciate them. Denying/opposing one of them is forcing oneself to be blind about a whole another side of architecture.

    Now I don’t want to get into the whole public/private money or expensive/cheap building argument. Most of the “junkitecture” you see around aren’t actually cheap. More money doesn’t necessarily lead to better architecture. Also mediocrity is an affliction common to both public and private projects. We will need to go beyond those easy explanations to try find and address the real causes for the problem.”
    By Manoj P K
  4. Please allow me to base my views on the personal assumption that it isn’t just architecture that is suffering from mediocrity. Every mentionable arm of art seems to be afflicted by speed, showmanship and lack of sensibility. Actually, it is the best of times for those in the professions and the worst for those outside, to who it is catered. Makes one wonder, where have the real connoisseurs gone? Whether it is art, literature or architecture, today the chief driving force is commercial gratification than creative delight. As for architecture, from my personal experience and limited knowledge as a lay person, I have gasped more at the mammoth dimensions than at the splendour of the rising buildings around me.

    True, the old versus new is a corny argument. I do not expect to find the beauty of classic literature in a new award winner. Yet if the new stuff can intrigue me with its charming style of story telling, then I would never indulge in the old versus new spat. I would be pleased to have been treated to the delights of a fresh, succulent sundae. What I am looking for at the end of the day is creative fulfillment, the means and methods of dispersal are left to the ‘experts’.

    However, in an age where money calls the shots, time is at a premium and the demands of economy are pressing, can we hope for the creative faculties to come out of the pedestrian rut and stand up for what it really represents, viz. imagination, innovation and impressiveness? Or will it take another age of renaissance to stem the rot?
    By A I Kumar
  5. Yesterday, I saw a rough-hewn log home in the final stages of being built. It wasn’t chinked or roofed yet, but it was stacked and had the door cut. I’ve never been a fan of log style homes. But I was very taken by this structure. Now after reading this discussion I know it was passion that attracted me. The sweat, the hand cut-ness of it that drew me in. The piles of shavings all about the place where someone had labored long and hard to notch the gnarly lumber. It was so organic and simple and beautiful. We live in a world where elements are glossed over. We forget sometimes the basic nature of things and ourselves. I think mediocre or average anything begins with a lack of passion.
    By Deanna Lynn Campbell
  6. I suggest we add the topic “The role of design in education”
    Why do we have few if any courses in primary and secondary schools about the built environment and the fabricated objects that surround us. Here would be a starting point for raising the level of understanding and appreciation(hopefully) for good design of such things as cities, buildings, automobiles and tools. From such basic understanding could emerge a new culture that values the inherit quality that “economy and delight” (quoting from Geoffry Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism)imparts to the things humans create. Very idealistic indeed but where do we start otherwise?
    By S Vonnegut
  7. Gaurav Gupte, I agree, it would be easy to lament the shortcomings of the architectural profession and the lack of taste and ignorance of a general public as Dot Hodges puts it. Charlotte offers a creative playing field for innovative architecture to take part. No architect can hide from the creative potential given to him or her. This forum is indicative of an interested group of people already present in this metropolitan area. You have to take charge and push for better design, for a more reasonable approach to construction, but also for more art in our livable environment. However, the art in architecture should not be contraire to its function, which is fundamental to architecture’s uniqueness in the world of art. And so I also agree to A. I. Kumar. This is as good a chance to offer innovation as any. Because it is needed. In Charlotte construction has divorced itself from architecture, architects have divorced themselves from architecture and the educational system has divorced itself from it. They have divorced themselves from a beautiful endeavor that is destined to thoughtfully integrate need, innovation of material, structure, use and spatial qualities to a poetic, yet practical whole. Just as Deanne Lynn Campbell asks for passion and S. Vonnegut for the value in economy and delight, I would ask for the passion for the possible. The possible for the building industry in Charlotte to embrace its architectural potential. So much beauty can be had. Do it.
    By Toby Witte
  8. My problem with Architects is many don’t consider long term maintenance of the building. In some cases maintenance is impossible due to form taking priority over funtion. In addition more attention should be paid to materials for durability. In short, the architect should provide a design that minimizes life cycle cost not first cost.


    By Frank Burns
  9. Hey this is great.


    By Art