Thursday, July 26, 2007

It's Extreme

I have a guilty pleasure of sorts. And it embarrasses me to admit it.

I actually like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

I believe that my right to call myself a progressive student of architecture has now been revoked.

Let’s be honest. It’s over the top. It is extreme in every sense of the word. Nothing is subtle about what happens over the course of their “week”. Things get blown up, bulldozed, torn apart by everything from diggers to horses. Hundreds of volunteers descend en masse to build homes that bust at the seams. Rooms have playgrounds or swings or animals or cars, fulfilling childhood fantasies that all of us once dreamed. And then there is the stuff – the TVs of ever larger size, the kitchens with the gleaming stainless and their stocked fridges and the multiple ovens, the yards with pools, fountains, football fields, a race track or two. It is as much a photo op for the range of products available at your local Sears as it is a reality show.

And then there is the emotion, the multiple shots of wet tears, “oh my gods”, the screaming, the hands covering mouths in gasps of overexcited joy. The cutaways to reflective moments by the numerous hosts and family members, each reciting the innumerable ways their lives will be changed, transformed, by this moment. Clichés abound, but you overlook them because of the sincerity with which they are uttered.

I have to say that, personally, each and every project has been a testament to what I dread about the American Built Environment. The homes are extraordinary only in the speed in which they are erected and the excess in which they are finished. They reflect the McMansion nature of residential architecture, where more is better, even when unnecessary. The designs are, themselves, clichés, with Rockwellian ideas of “home” shouting from every pitched eve, porch, bay window and, yes, garage. This is the American dream lived large, brash and in your face.

And yet, though I might cringe at the aesthetic choices of their designers, I can’t help but watch. Watch and marvel at the impact these homes have on their grateful residents. People argue the potential impact of architecture, the ability of the built environment to affect human beings; I’d say that each episode is proof positive that the things we build can dramatically affect those who inhabit them.


When I was teaching my Architecture for Kids class – the one filled with second and third graders – I started simple. I asked the kids what they thought of when I said the word “Architecture”. Several drew tall boxy skyscrapers, the true ‘Burghers tried their best to draw the Three Rivers Stadium, but a majority of them drew images of their homes. Or some sort of reflection of what their own homes. Because, beyond just trying to get the right appearance, like those who were so patiently working on the stadium, these kids were adding things to their houses to reflect, well, the atmosphere. There were flowers and swing-sets, their pets rolling in the grass, and of course, family members either in the windows or outside holding hands. There was a life attached to these buildings, memories that these little artists felt essential to achieving an accurate portrait of their subject at hand. I should know. Because when I asked each kid to describe why they chose to draw what they did, I got some very detailed, very long descriptions, drawn out in ways only an 8 year old can.

Each presentation was a revelation. To be honest, I had become quite jaded by then, ready to write off architecture as nothing more than a game in semantics, popularity and image-making. But, as each kid stood up to explain why their drawing represented the word “Architecture”, I understood that they had been deeply influenced by the results of our profession. Once kid excitedly recounted his first time walking into Three Rivers Stadium, noting how the big arches reminded him of football players holding up a teammate. Another informed the class that, having gone to the top of the Cathedral of Learning and looked down, he now understood why it too his mother so long to drive around the city. The roads were just too crazy.

For the kids who drew pictures of their own homes, the presentations were deeply personal. Why their homes were perfect, or cool, or great, varied. But each spoke with great conviction. They loved their houses, and everything that was wrapped up inside them. They wanted everyone else to know why their house was so awesome, and took elaborate pains to make sure we agreed. And I loved watching these kids, knowing that they, at this moment, felt so strongly connected to a place. It gave me hope that, someday, I might just provide the shell for some future child’s happy memories.


The homes of Extreme Makeover may be clichéd architectural forms, but I get why the designers play it safe. The people they are helping have been battered left and right, and their homes reflect the turmoil. Like the families, the homes are often broken, held together by sheer will, and in need of some serious TLC.

Thus, the challenge undertaken by the makeover team is greater than just providing a new place to live. They must create something that encapsulates the hopes and dreams of a family looking for a new life, a better life, fresh from the pain of the past. Get it wrong and you not only make something a person doesn’t like, you crush the dreams of people desperately looking for something solid and firm to build a new life upon.

So, while part of me squirms at the fact that an architect fails to appear anywhere in the series, another part of me appreciates how carefully each house is tailored to the family that will live there. These families get places that they instantaneously connect with, speak about with the same reverence my kids did. And it makes me think that, perhaps, these people have seemingly done a better job than I of being an architect.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A FountainHead Moment

Inevitably, as an architect, you’ll encounter at least one reference to Ann Rand’s most famous of novels, The Fountainhead. Most likely someone will ask you if you a) have met architects with the ego of her most famous of characters, Howard Roark, and b) do you think Mr. Roark was right?

In reading the book or watching the film, I couldn’t help it; a small part of me admired Howard’s commitment to doing things his way. He lived in an idealized world of architecture practice – he believed in his expertise and talent and demanded the same from others. Yes, he suffered. But, it was for his art. And isn’t that the most respectable thing you can do?


Studio is a unique place, a hybrid zone that is both reflective and ignorant of the realities of the profession of architecture. It was our practice battlefield, where weeks were spent answering to yourself, your expectations, your logic. Development was a labor intensive process of experimentation, with the luxury to fail. To make a mistake. To decide that, yes, that was really stupid. It was practice to make perfection, to create a final plan of attack that would, hopefully, yield a victory come final reviews.

In every studio, each professor asked us to push ourselves harder, produce more. Like over-zealous parents, harping on our irresponsible behaviors, they never seemed content. But, it makes sense, because, ultimately, it was through our work that we would argue our position. Our work was our proof, our method of persuasion, to convince strangers that our ideas had validity.

While, at the time, our professors seemed like blowhards, I can see a point to their methods. Our professors were training us not only in how to approach design, but how to believe in ourselves and our talents. Because if we didn’t, then why would anyone else? And if they couldn’t trust in our talent, then why would they bother to listen?


The thing about working is that, often times, you’ll find yourself second-guessing that self-belief. Time and time again you find design decisions being driven by factors that seem to be far beyond your control. Or input. You get rejected, again or again. You learn the phrase “value engineered”. After enough times, you begin to wonder what’s the point?

I guess that I find the value of Architecture to be diminished in this day and age of market-driven desires. When a name raises a property value rather than the potential of the idea. When money talks more than social responsibility. When it seems like the final decisions are made by spreadsheets and dollar signs.

Sure, the money is important. I mean, things don’t build themselves. And, well, I eat because someone pays my company, who then pays me. I get it. Architecture is a business as much as it is anything else.

But, when compromise seems to be less about give and take, and more about being railroaded, or just silenced, then I think we need to step back, take stock, and ask ourselves, what happened? When did we become ignorable?

So, while pulling a Roark on my next project isn’t really what I plan to do, I can see how I might want to. Instead I am taking stock. Evaluating. Do I have the faith in Architecture to change the world? The talent to contribute to that pursuit? Or am I worth more somewhere else?