Friday, April 25, 2008


Psychologists have a term for pretty much everything. One of those terms is compartmentalization, which is the process of actively not trying to think about one thing when you're involved in another. Usually it denotes a kind of denial: we know that using lots of gas is bad for the environment, and in fact we actually care about that, but we try not to think about it when we buy a new Suburban "because we need the space." We know that eating that second cheeseburger would make our spouse, doctor, and accountant all cringe, and in fact we agree with all of them, but we try not to think about that when we order it and try to enjoy it. Compartmentalization can be seen as a very mild and very common form of cognitive disorder.

I think that Modernism has made us all a little bit disordered. Here's why.

As we've gotten more and more information, have an increasing number of products and services, have work lives that are more encompassing than ever, we've responded to that by specializing. We say, "that and that and that are somebody else's job. I'm responsible for this." (People think that the industrial work process was the moment of strong specialization, introducing the "division of labor." I think it's a natural human response to overwhelming complexity. But either way, it's now a self-sustaining spiral. Industrial efficiency has given us more stuff to cope with, so we specialize more, become more "productive," and provide even more to cope with.)

There's so much to know in academia that we have to compartmentalize intellectual work, so we have disciplines like psychology and anthropology and cultural geography and history that rarely communicate even when they're studying the same phenomenon. At Berkeley, the architecture department and the landscape architecture department were both on the second floor of Wurster Hall, but there might as well have been an armed checkpoint between them. It was pretty rare for anyone but a custodian to occupy both spaces.

There's so much to know in the professions that we have an army of subcontractors for jobs of any substance. Here's a comment by Mack Scogin, a principal with Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects in Atlanta, from a January 2008 Yale symposium on universities as architectural patrons:
“It’s absolutely incredible to me what it takes to do architecture in today’s world. If you will, I’m just going to read you a list of consultants that we are working with on a present project. This is one project. They have a consultant for health-services design, equipment planning, specifications writing, structural engineering, facade design, miscellaneous metal engineering, masonry engineering, landscape design, landscape documentation, geotechnical engineers, civil engineers, acoustical design, fire-and-life-safety design, smoke-exhaust engineering, security systems, hardware systems, information technology and communication, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, plumbing engineering, lighting design, elevator design, LEED design, sustainability, irrigation design, environmental design, food service, parking design, traffic consultant, structural peer review, commissioning agents, at least two cost consultants, construction management, code-and-agency-approval consultant, graphic consultant, and, of course, all the lawyers that it takes to negotiate all the contracts between all those people, us, and the client. That’s almost 40 separate disciplines involved in the making of one building. What that means is, these are all people that have an expertise that we as architects cannot bring to the table at the level that is required to make a state-of-the-art building in today’s world.” (Biemiller, Lawrence. “What if Robert A. M. Stern gave a party and nobody came?” Chronicle of Higher Education Buildings and Grounds section, January 28th, 2008.)
This lack of systemic thinking makes it almost impossible for us to make sensible decisions, because each player needs to maximize their variable, the only one they're accountable for.

The common, and somewhat trite, response to this complexity is to describe architects as orchestra conductors, bringing all of the players together in harmony. What I'd suggest instead is that the architect has to be the one person on the team who fully understands habitation: what it means to be part of a place, who all of the stakeholders are and what their unique goals would be. The architect is the experiential expert, like the executive chef who doesn't cook much any more but who tests and tastes every single thing before it goes out to the front of the house.

We'd have to think differently about design education if we thought that habitation was important. But there'd be at least one advantage. Taking this generalist, systemic, holistic role would also mean that the architect could be the only member of the building-provision team who isn't suffering from cognitive disorder... you'd be the only sane person on the job.

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