Why are there so many boring buildings?

'In Architecture as in all other Operative Arts, the end must direct the Operation.  The end is to build well. 
Well building hath three conditions. Commoditie, Firmness and Delight.'                 Sir Henry Wotton

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The earliest prescription for good architecture is that written by Vitruvius at the time of the Roman emperor Augustus, who proclaimed that buildings needed 'utilitas, firmitas and venustas'.  Utilitas means utility or how well the building serves its purpose, firmitas means good construction, and venustas means beauty or aesthetics.

If this is not the earliest definition it's certainly the most repeated. Vitruvius's treatise resurfaced in the Renaisance when earlier classical Roman models were being sought as the true humanistic path to supersede Romanesque and Gothic styles which were considered medieval and old fashioned. Vasari, Alberti and Palladio all published influential books in the middle of the 15th century, and all of them repeated Vitruvius's mantra unchanged.

The oldest English definition is that above by Sir Henry Wotton from his book 'The Elements of Architecture'(1624) who also echoes Vitruvius.

That mantra still sounds fine in principle, and although Palladio was adamant that all of Vitruvius' s three aspects were inseparable and all had to be satisfied, this simple ideal doesn't get us very far in practice. There is an inbuilt relationship between these elements of course, and a degree of overlap and compromise is required to arrive at the final building design. The structure affects the way the uses are accommodated and that in turn affects the appearance, which in turn affects everything else in a circular iteration. 

Questions of balance and judgement become important.

The earlier idea of a fixed 'style', usually based on that left over from the renaissance where important buildings like banks had classical porticoes with columns had disappeared with the advent of the modern movement.  Pioneers like Le Corbusier kept repeating the slogan that 'form follows function' and so it does in a broad sense. They asserted that if the  use of the building was well served and the other functional aspects were also all satisfied on a particular site with a particular orientation, then it would follow as night follows day, that the appearance would also automatically be right too! 

Alas, beauty does not automatically follow from a good economical structure in a well functioning building as some of the early modernists would have had us believe.  And the reverse is equally true, one cannot forgive a beautiful building if it doesn't also work well.  It usually takes a bit of give and take, push and shove compromise to achieve the right balance and in the end attaining this right balance and solving this multi-sided problem is the true art of architecture.  Usually once the plan and cross-section have been determined, the overall form and general appearance of the building usually falls into place. 

Books and exhibitions often concentrate on the visual aspects of architecture ignoring the functional aspects; the client's brief and how well the building relates to its surroundings are not normally taken into account. This is a mistake and photographs taken of a building in splendid isolation that ignore the surrounding urban context can't ever reveal the true value and importance of a building or otherwise.

And as there are building types such as airport terminals and medical research laboratories that didn't exist two hundred years ago, in the ideal situation buildings take on a particular look depending on their use and all of the above determinants and the materials that are chosen.  Unlike earlier 'fixed' styles, a flexible modern visual 'style' has gradually developed where buildings can be very different but all have the same general modern aesthetic. 

So if that is the case why are there so many boring look-alike contemporary buildings?  

There are many overlapping reasons; to start with of course, there are architects and architects, varying in skill and attitude, and a great many buildings are not even designed by registered architects much less good ones.

It wasn't until the 19th century that people started calling themselves architects and considering themselves as members of a learned profession with all sorts of privileges.  In medieval times the superb geometry of the vaulting in gothic cathedrals was set out by master masons, and in the Renaissance, painters and sculptors like Michelangelo and Bernini also designed buildings, although even then there were still people like Palladio who started life as a mason.  And in the ensuing centuries, it was common for educated gentlemen to turn their hand to designing buildings; as well as helping to write the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia and his own house in nearby Monticello.

The formal organisation of the profession of architecture in Australia was consummated by the final founding of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1929 and the establishment of a Scale of Professional Charges after years of various State organisations, Victoria being the oldest because of all the work generated by the Gold Rush. The first Architects Registration Act was in NSW in 1921, and these things and the eventual creation of schools of architecture at the universities have all led to the organisation of the architectural profession of today.

The architect's role is not an easy one. The client has a brief of what he wants and not only is this sometimes antithetical to Vitruvius, they also often have preconceived ideas of what their building should look like, and don't always like what is proposed by the architect. Every architect soon learns that people are often slow to adopt innovative ideas and that you have to persist and be flexible and give clients time to get used to the design and not give up too quickly in the face of initial resistance. It's a difficult position for architects to take and this unwillingness to agree with the person who is paying your fees, must seem like know-it-all arrogance to the client.

Architects are fond of saying in this situation, a bit tongue-in-cheek perhaps but also with a certain throw away arrogance, that their aim after all is not to give people what they want but what they need!  Rather than being seen as insufferably elitist, I think it should rather be seen as an admirable declaration of utopian intention.  But it doesn't always work of course, and the person who pays the bills has the ultimate say.  Phillip Johnson even likened architects to the oldest profession; that architects also stand around waiting to be asked and some of them will do anything for money!

So while the understanding, taste and appreciation of many clients could no doubt be better, we should ask whether the quality of building design be improved through the better education of architects?

Mies van der Rohe once wrote about his teaching role that:

'It is the business of education to implant insight and responsibility. 
It must turn irresponsible opinion into responsible judgment and lead from chance and arbitrariness to the rational lucidity of an intellectual order.'  

If only!  Mies is also quoted as saying that he was not trying to invent a new architecture every Monday morning, an attitude I support but which probably won't get you very far in today's competitive 'bottom line' world.

I didn't have a regular education, I was apprenticed to a good architect instead of attending architecture school, and find it hard to make specific suggestions to improve the formal training of architects.  But there is certainly a current educational strain that encourages the idea of personal artistic creativity with  an emphasis on aesthetics and a disregard of the rest among some architects in a way that is, I think, both undesirable and unrealistic.

The result of this 'artistic' attitude to design is that our cities are full of 'wanabee' landmark buildings but unfortunately very few of them deserve the title; read my recent article on new St Kilda buildings!  Most of them should be buildings designed with restraint as a background and a foil for the more important community buildings. The simple fact is that not all buildings (or their budgets) are landmark buildings and let's face it, in the natural order of things, not all architects are landmark designers. 

What we need in our cities are more well designed, unassuming 'background' buildings, and by this I don't mean undistinguished buildings, just ones that know their place and where even good designers (and clients) recognise and accept their role and the associated design limitations.  But too many designers lack Mies' sense of restraint and perspective and see every building, however straight forward, as an unfettered outlet for their creative genius and as a consequence often overreach their talents.

And none of this is helped by the way architects spread themselves too thinly by ineffectively assuming moral responsibility for all the ills of our urban environment, rather that concentrating on designing much better buildings as their contribution to improving our cities.  US architect Robert Venturi wrote in his seminal book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, that  

'The architect's ever diminishing power and his growing ineffectualness in shaping the whole environment can perhaps be reversed, ironically, by narrowing his concerns and concentrating on his own job'. 

I agree with this position, and it should be said even louder today, particularly as changes in the way buildings are procured are making the architect's difficult role even harder.  The traditional method of procuring buildings where an owner commissioned an architect to design a building, and the architect designed it, prepared the construction drawings and called tenders from builders and then administered the building contract and inspected the works during construction has almost gone by the board.

The majority of office, retail and apartment buildings are rarely built by individual clients any more, but by builder/developers as a commercial activity; buildings are regarded as a 'product,' built to sell at a profit, and this usually means building at the lowest practical cost.  Architects who work for developers quickly find that 'form follows finance' rather than function, and that many of their traditional services are dispensed with.

Traditionally the architect had a quasi-judicial role in the building contract where he was required to arbitrate fairly between his client and the builder (over extra costs for example), but the construction role is more often carried out these days by project managers who take a much more partisan role to reduce costs. The architect's other traditional roles are more often than not also restricted in scope; more and more the architect is in essence, restricted to the design the external appearance and picking the materials and colours.

Increasingly commercial clients call for 'design and construct' bids where the design and the cost are considered at the same time, a system which puts the best design at risk unless it happens to be allied to the lowest price. The builder is the leader in this equation with all the power in their hands; they are, after all, prepared to take the risk of quoting a fixed cost for a barely designed building.  Builders try and make the architects share the risk and make their fee conditional on winning; not a good system for architects!

And these are not the only reasons by far why building design standards are so low. Local council planning requirements are bureaucratic and time consuming, and an architect can easily spend more of her time trying to satisfy complex planning requirements of doubtful value than in actually improving the design of the building.

The need for more sustainable buildings is clearly vital and yet most architects have been slow to take the lead in incorporating the capture of storm water and reuse of grey water, generation of electrical power and the saving of energy, proper sun protection and design for natural ventilation into their buildings.  Their developer clients are usually reluctant to spend money on these things unless they get some financial return, and usually the environmental and economic benefits accrue to the eventual long term user. 
A great exception is the CH2 office building next to the Town Hall in Swanston Street and plaudits are due to the City Council in leading the way. 

I'm afraid the Institute of Architects is not taking the lead and betrays its basic attitude with an award for sustainable buildings.  Their concern would be more impressive if they took the automatic view that no building should even be considered for a design award if it wasn't as sustainable as the current state of the art permits!

The reduced role of architects is also reflected in the business aspects.  Architecture was never greatly profitable in a business sense and it's got worse in the last ten years. Architectural graduates earn far less than their counterparts in medicine or the law, and it says something for the idealism of many architects that they persist in such a poorly paid profession. There's an old joke about an architect who wins the lottery; when he was asked what he intended to do, he replied that he supposed he'd go on practising until it was all gone!  

The situation wasn't helped when a Federal 'competition' watch-dog decided that the long established RAIA Scale of Minimum Professional Charges was a form of price fixing, which it was for good reasons. It was abolished in the interests of competition and it was said this would lead to more economical costs which would benefit us all with lower building costs and lower costs generally.  Architects were forced to tender for work like a builder and this led to fee bidding that shook up the profession; over a short time what had been a normal, acceptable minimum fee of 6% of the building cost for complete services, dropped to between four and five percent.

With the six percent minimum fee there was always a swings and roundabout element, you lost a bit on some jobs and made up a bit on others, but it worked out overall and more importantly it enabled architects to provide an adequate level of professional service.  In the new situation, architects were forced to tailor the work to what could be afforded within a reduced fee and this has had effected the quality of service delivery as well as design.

An observer might therefore conclude that the government's competition strategy had worked, but there was a consequence of this ideologically driven change that was only revealed by a CSIRO study a few years later.  They found that screwing architects and engineering consultants had certainly saved clients money on fees.  But they also found that building costs had increased by a much higher percentage than that saved on fees; the consequence of fewer drawings and generally less complete detailing caused time delays and increased costs during construction while the builder worked out what to do. 

So much for free market economic rationalism!  It's settled down a lot by now, and on the whole serious clients accept that you get what you pay for, but fees have generally remained less than they were under the old scheme, and all this has had an inevitable effect on quality.

To cope with all these changes, the profession is being polarised into fewer, very large firms structured on corporate lines, many with up to one hundred employees.  At the same time well over 95% of architectural offices are less than five people in size.  There are advantages in numbers of course. These corporate offices can undertake larger projects over longer time spans, put people in the field and manage work overseas, and can offer a wider range of professional services by including planners and urban designers, landscape architects and environmental engineers in their offices. 

I'd like to be able to say that the smaller offices are more creative, and some of them are, but their continued existence is dependent on shrinking incomes that in the long run will inevitably affect the quality of their work and their ability to innovate. 

The future of the larger offices is probably not in doubt, and while many of them are producing corporate work of a higher than average standard for their corporate clients, they have become like the companies they serve; it's all a bit standardised and there's not much risk taking.  These offices all have shareholders and at least one is a public company that is quoted on the Stock Exchange.  What all this means for the quality of architecture and in the long run for the design of our cities remains to be seen, particularly as we don't have an entrenched design culture like some of the Scandinavian countries.

So we while you might blame architects for all those bad buildings,
at the same time you should have sympathy for the ways the different methods of procuring buildings have distorted the design process and made it harder for architects to always provide 'Commoditie, Firmness and Delight'

Don Gazzard LFAIA
June 2013