AIA eye on architecture: Sharing design space

The recent article in Curbed Detroit, critical of the new interior spaces renovated by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock, and the many posts on a variety of blogs about these interiors continues to show that architecture and design matter to many of us. Even though some of the writers can be caustic, much of it is healthy debate about how we should make our built world. t

The spaces in question, in the newly renovated old National Bank of Detroit Building (now called the Qube) are full of flamboyant colors, eclectic furniture and complex spaces.

First we have to remember that these are interior spaces. If the goal was to seek attention you would expect that they would have done something crazy to the exterior of the building. Besides since when do critics deplore attention seeking architecture? It seems most critics have fallen in love with Frank Gehry’s architecture and that, with its flamboyant metallic curves and complicated structure is truly attention seeking design. 

Beyond these critiques let’s understand how an architectural design evolves and why we have such diverse architecture in the U.S. We do not have a governmental style bureau or government rules that regulate architectural design. Property and individual rights rule and owners can build what they want as long as it fits within the zoning regulations and building codes. Some communities with historic neighborhoods have restrictive architectural codes because the community has determined there is an aesthetic that needs protecting. 

Much of Tuscany in Italy is ruled by such codes because the Italians have realized how important the quaint aesthetic is to their tourism economy, but aesthetic regulations are not the norm and I would argue should not be the norm. Our unregulated design world is messy for sure, but it is also a source of great interest, diversity and creativity. 

What we do not have in the way of harmony we make up for in energy and diversity. So you may hate one little interior but look around and you will find something that touches your architectural sweet spot. That’s the beauty of this crazy place where individualism is revered and extroversion embraced.

You may think that architects have complete control of "their" design. In some cases they do. When an architect has a commanding personality, respect and reputation this is the case. Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier, Steven Holl are few architects that could or can command and control the design process, but in most do not have this luxury. 

I have said before, architecture is typically a team process and the owner is a critical part of that team. This is the truth no matter what some uninformed writers might say. Owners are the builders, they have the money, the power and they hire the architect that suits their vision. 

Many, not all, but many, have very specific ideas about the design they want. When an owner has questionable vision an architect has a difficult decision to make. The architect can give in and do the best with the owner’s vision, he or she can try to change the owners mind or the architect can resign the commission and leave it to another firm that might share and develop the owner’s ideas.

Every good architect has had to make this very hard choice and it is never so black and white. After all, it is our duty to serve our clients and we want to give them an architecture that satisfies their needs. When a firm is trying to support a staff, with families to feed, you know it is not easy to give up a commission. It is only the few architects with such will and economic security that turn down clients on design principles alone. 

The biggest challenge every architect faces is to establish a respectful dialogue about the aesthetics of architecture with their client. This is why we discuss our ideas and vision of what good architecture should be. This is why it is great to see the debate that continues around design and architecture in this city. In recent years this kind of discussion was lacking, so it’s clear we are growing as a culture that appreciates design. The more we share our ideas the more we begin to understand the complexity and diversity of our built world.  

At first we will not always agree on design related questions for sure. In our highly polarized world it is probably not possible all of us want the same architecture. It’s not in our DNA, but maybe we can at least appreciate the many beauties and designs that do exist. Maybe it is possible to develop a deeper understanding about why we design the way we do. Maybe it’s possible to have a respectful and intense dialogue and share a language about design.

Other cultures, in other times, have done it. Renaissance Italy, the Modern Movement, the beautiful white stucco islands of Greece all had great and consistent techniques and design ideas. We cannot expect such consistency but hopefully we can find some shared language that will help us form a better built world. If we do not we will always be disappointed and confused by our attempts to build better architecture and a better place to live. 

In our continuing effort to expand the dialogue this coming April 20 The Emerging Professionals Committee of the AIA Detroit Chapter will have a panel discussion on Women in Design at the DIA. 

Also recommended: a panel discussion organized by rogueHAA called Urban Futures. The event is Saturday, April 21, 6-9 p.m. in a retail space (1565 E. Lafayette) in Lafayette Park.

Frank X. Arvan, president of the Detroit chapter of the AIA offers his opinions on Detroit's built environment to Model D each month. Comments and rebuttals are always welcome. 
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