In my last editorial I lauded the creativity and research going into installation work in Los Angeles. But I also made clear that I don’t consider this architecture. The point was to encourage architects to not only focus their efforts on creating beautiful gallery work, but on infiltrating the built world, changing it for the better.
What I didn’t express clearly enough was just how difficult that can be.
The problem isn’t just that architects are less interested in sweating and hustling and toiling, often fruitlessly, to get built work, especially with the economy still sputtering. It’s that the built world isn’t interested enough in them.
As I’ve alluded to before, our development, banking, and construction industries, and our government bureaucracy—all of which determine what gets built more than architects—are all stacked against design.
In real estate, a few small developers (in Los Angeles those include REthink, Heyday, and Casey Lynch, who is working with Barbara Bestor on a creative solution for a series of small lots in Echo Park, which we’ve profiled this month) are putting an emphasis on design. Their models don’t require outsized profits to work. But they are far and away the exception to the rule. Bigger developers and Real Estate Investment Trusts (with some exceptions, of course, like Related Companies and CIM) simply don’t factor design into their budgets, a fact that I’ve heard from several who work in the industry. It’s too much upfront cost for not enough reward. Banks won’t loan money to projects like this, even if developers were interested. Instead firms hire safe corporate firms that will give them safe corporate results. Have you ever taken a look at the Orsini, developer GH Palmer’s Mediterranean monstrosity near Grand Avenue, on the northern edge of downtown? It’s the same corporate thinking that gets us horrible chain restaurants and other mediocrities that reap high profits through cutting corners on quality.
In construction we see an industry that is unmistakably behemoth and incredibly slow to change. Old systems are deeply entrenched. There are exceptions here, too, like Matt Construction, C.W. Driver, and Morley Builders. But for the most part such businesses want to keep jobs in place and lock in profits—why would a national company like PCL Construction want to experiment with digital fabrication and advanced new forms when it would mean ceding expertise and money? Contractors and project managers now control much of the show, and they don’t want that to change. In government, particularly in LA, the deck is still stacked in favor of huge firms that have the most entrenched government connections. The recent Sixth Street Bridge competition, juried by “design aesthetic advisory committee” of little design expertise, selected by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and area councilman Jose Huizar, chose firms that, while proposing exciting schemes, include only giants like HNTB, AECOM, and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Of course getting to know the best players and systems in all of these fields is helpful. Another solution is to sidestep bankers, developers, bureaucrats, and even contractors altogether by doing it alone as an architect developer or going into design build. This can indeed work, and has, but it’s costly, risky, and dependent on expertise that only a few architects have. Another solution is to seek out and partner with some of the emerging developers and progressive contractors who are interested in design. Another, which is being undertaken by tech-savvy firms like Gehry Technologies, is skewing control of digital project management in the hands of architects, who have the unique ability to orchestrate all the parts of a project. We can also continue to lobby government and business to improve their policies, but without the kind of money that talks in those circles, it’s a tough battle.
What I want to know is what else works, or what will work. Once the economy gets going again this issue will be of utmost importance. I encourage you to send us suggestions and examples of how to make the case for good design and increase the influence of innovative architects. Send us ideas not just in written form, but even through visual representations. We want you to build, and we want your advice. It’s a tough sell in a field that is consumed with form and technology. But I’m betting we can be as creative with our implementation as we can with our architectural ideas.