April 8, 2019 · Business Communications

Should Architects Just Give The Public What They Want?

The architecture profession is constantly debating the rules and processes of creativity and innovation.

There are two camps and both have drawn battle lines around their simplistic visions for the role of the architect.

The traditionalists believe that great architects are creative visionaries who innovate on a prophetic vision for a better future, freely ignoring the input of the public or their client.

The reformists believe that our job is to make the public central to the design process with the goal of producing demonstrably better performing buildings to suit their needs, preferences and stated desires.

Increasingly, architects are subscribing to the latter. There is a palpable pressure for practitioners to update their methods and communication style to be more transparent, more connected and more inclusive.

As a consequence, it has become fashionable for directors to shift the attention away from themselves, directing it towards the client, the end users, the community and the stakeholders instead.

These architects prefer to describe themselves as connectors, facilitators and researchers. They despise labels like starchitect, visionary or genius.

They are supposed to show how the community was included in the creative process, and demonstrate empirically how the final building will provide the efficiencies, features and quality of life improvements that were demanded of them.

All of this begs a question...

Are we making automobiles or faster horses?

Henry Ford's most famous adage is "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

The obvious takeaway here is that the role of the inventor, creative or entrepreneur is to offer the public something that they don't even know will serve them.

Although Ford is unlikely to ever have uttered those words, (it appears that the phrase first popped up in 2002) it has become widely known because there is some truth beneath the arrogance.

This phrase became popular in the early 2000's, it appears, as incomprehensible advances in digital technology emerged. The public really had no understanding of the possibilities of the internet, smart phones or social networks - so it was vital that the creative avant-garde found a morally justifiable way to discount the public's voice while they turned their dreams into realities.

But in the short space of 10-15 years, a lot has changed.

Steve Jobs, the hero and exhibit A of Ford's disciples, is now heavily criticised within tech circles. The elitist attitudes of Steve, and the other arrogant visionaries of his era, are now blamed for everything that has gone wrong with 'big tech': the scandals, the exploitation, the horrid invasion of user privacy and rights, the stagnation of innovation generally and the catastrophic unintended consequences of their tech-golems on society.

Perhaps all of this could have been avoided if these technological visionaries had given more thought to their users, acted more transparently and democratised their decision-making processes.

Later generations of Ford Motor Company executives have asked themselves the same questions about Henry.

While his great innovations on the assembly line lead to a new and rapidly growing market that helped his motor company to grow from 10,000 cars in 1908 to 472,350 cars in 1915 - the market changed and Ford ignored it.

In 1921, Ford sold 2/3 of the cars built in the US. By 1926, this had fallen to 1/3. A year later, the percentage fell to 15%.

Today, Ford makes up about 5% of the global car market.

People may not have known that they needed cars, but once they did, they wanted better and faster cars. It became very clear that Ford's distance from society's needs was a weakness, not a strength.

Ford suffered a rapid decline in relevance as time went on because of Henry Ford's apparent close-mindedness to the thoughts, tastes and ideas of ordinary people. By the time Ford Motor Company's culture changed, they had lost their lead.

The point here is that Ford's intuitive, prophetic way of doing things was absolutely right and necessary when pursuing the initial technological innovation. It resulted in a quantum leap of sorts. But, it quickly became a liability.

Apple, while wildly profitable, does not carry the same brand and reputational weight it once did precisely because the market changed and it wasn't prepared to listen.

Apple's competitors were. They were more than happy to figure out precisely which features the public wanted in their smartphones and implemented them faster than Apple could: better cameras, longer battery life, more pixels.

The same thing is happening to Elon Musk before our eyes. It's quite astonishing how quickly his most loyal advocates have morphed into his most energetic critics.

At first, he bravely gave the public what they didn't know they wanted, taking enormous leaps. He was seen as the genius of his generation, with ideas years ahead of their time. Now he is seen as a tone deaf elitist moron by many - if the reaction of public transport and built environment experts to the Boring Tunnel project are anything to go by.

More importantly, incumbent car companies are listening to the customers Musk is ignoring, giving them what they want, and will soon eat Tesla's lunch.

Ford, Jobs and Musk invented the markets that their more open-minded competitors would go on to dominate. History shows that ignoring customer inputs, and failing to respond in a timely manner to changes in the marketplace, is a recipe for disaster over the long term.

There is clearly a pattern between Ford, Apple, Musk and others like them.

Great advances in design and technology tend to happen by ignoring the stated desires of the public and doing what feels good. The public becomes accustomed to the new innovation and begin to articulate their informed preferences and desires. The visionary doesn't listen, their market share collapses and inclusive, responsive competitors take their place.

It's a disruptive sequence, or cycle, that has played itself out over and over again over the last century. It is as true for individual creators, as it is for entire industries.

Is the same thing not happening in architecture to the legacy of the modernist starchitects of the 20th century?

If I learned anything in the first year of my architecture degree, it's that the story of the visionary modernist architects of the 20th century is inseparable from the invention of curtain glazing systems, cantilevering, slabs, beams and all sorts of wonderful new post-war construction technologies.

The public had never dreamed of the kinds of buildings and spaces that were suddenly achievable.

But where are we today? Are we making similarly bold moves, or just incremental improvements?

If it's the latter, then isn't it conceivable that our profession is naturally moving towards a more democratic and socially progressive design process not because we are becoming better and more enlightened people, but precisely because we have run out of technological quantum leaps for the time being?

The debate between the two sides on the role of the architect: inclusive listener pushing for incremental improvement in concert with the public vs blinkered visionary design genius has been framed, I believe mistakenly, as a broader moral or political question with a seemingly obvious and righteous answer.

I hope this article has made a case that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, they are instead phases that occur naturally around the invention of new technologies.

It seems that we are currently in a phase of refinement and fine-tuning of the technologies and processes that we've inherited. In the tech world, architecture in 2019 would be in the quality assurance and customer support phase. We aren't developing the technology or releasing the beta, we're patching old code.

And if that's the case, then I hope that in the natural, healthy transition that we currently find our profession in at this point in the cycle as we wait for our next technological quantum leap - that we are able to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Here, I am optimistic that there is still a possible future for elitest, arrogant genius starchitects.

Elon Musk wants to put the human race on Mars. A truly elitist, immoral act in the eyes of those who argue (quite sensibly) for incremental progress towards a more sustainable way of living here on Earth instead of some kind of "escape hatch for the rich".

But he explains his motivations, and I can't help but share in his optimism:

"You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great."

"It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars."

I also want to wake up in the morning with the sense of excitement that the future of the built environment is going to be great, far better than the past and vastly different from what we have today.

I'm not optimistic that we will achieve that if we don't leave a tiny bit of room for the egotistical excesses of a few visionary architects.

Perhaps, when a new technological frontier emerges, they will be the ones we depend on to propose wild, dazzling visions of the future that myself and others outside of the profession have no capacity to imagine, let alone demand.



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