Build it and they will come, right? For architects, all solutions to urban, suburban, and even rural problems lie in the built environment. Just look at Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and even Paolo Soleri’s Arcology. These are all visions for cities that are supposed to be more egalitarian, more accessible and in Soleri’s case, more in harmony with nature.

But what if the solution to the world’s problems isn’t to build something new? Or even to mess with what’s already there? Maybe the solution is to make room, not build something. Maybe the solution is to make do with what we already have. Maybe the solution is to reinforce a building that’s buckling under the strain of age instead of building a sexy new tower.

If you think about it, it is in the interest of an architect to build something newer, something bigger, and something ostentatious because it means her fee will be larger. But does padding an architect’s pocketbook necessarily help the world and the people in it? Does building a fancy new 10,000 sf home in the desert made of steel and glass help solve the world’s problems or does it just add to them? One thing is for certain – building that fancy new 10,000 sf home in the desert does add to the architect’s bank account.

We live in a world where countries compete to have the tallest building, where the bigger your house, the more prestige you get, where the higher up your office is the more important you feel. We live in a world where newer, bigger and flashier are better.

But here is the shocking news architects don’t want anyone to know.

Maybe we don’t always need to build new buildings. Maybe building a new building is the worst possible thing we could do for a given situation. Maybe we should advocate instead for green fields to remain green fields and for that swamp to remain a swamp instead of being backfilled and made into solid ground for a new mall.

Here are 5 things that architects will never tell you or they’d be out of a job:

1. Don’t mess with that historic building. It’s probably better than anything we could build today anyway.

2. Maybe you should concentrate on making this existing building more energy efficient rather than building a brand new LEED Platinum certified building.

3. Maybe there’s a way to save this building, rather than demolishing it and building something new in its place.

4. Maybe it’s better to fit into this neighborhood instead of building a memorial to my ego that sticks out like a sore thumb.

5. Maybe the solution to poverty, social justice, climate change, war, and a bunch of other problems is not in building a community center, or an environmental studies center or a war memorial. Maybe the solution lies in galvanizing people in ways that has nothing to do with building a building.

Before we build a single new building we should first ask these 10 questions:

1. Is it absolutely necessary to build a new building?

2. Can we solve our problem by using existing facilities?

3. Can we renovate an existing building instead of building a brand new one?

4. Can we add on to an existing building instead of building a brand new one?

5. If we absolutely have to build a new building, can we use salvaged materials wherever possible?

6. If we absolutely have to build a new building and we cannot use salvaged materials, can we use rapidly renewable materials?

7. If we absolutely have to build a new building, can we rightsize it instead of making it bigger than it has to be?

8. If we absolutely have to build a new building, can we make it as flexible as possible so that it can be used for many different uses over many centuries?

9. If we absolutely have to build a new building, can we design and build it to be durable so that it will be around for centuries?

10. If we absolutely have to build a new building, can we make it beautiful, in harmony with nature, energy efficient, zero energy or energy positive (where it generates more energy than it consumes)?

In other words, we should ask – will building this building make the world a better place or will it make it a worse place?

If the answer is the latter, than we should not build it! Yes, an architect somewhere will be out of a hefty fee, but maybe the architect should reinvent herself from being a designer of buildings to being a designer of a better future for the planet, whether that includes designing new buildings or not.

Photo Credit: Brasilia – a failed utopian vision by architect Oscar Niemeyer. Photo by José Maria Silveira Neto (Flickr: brasília) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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5 Responses

  1. Hart Noecker says:

    I’d add one more: does the community who already lives there actually want a new building, and how will its construction impact their lives and affect their ability to stay in their homes.

  2. Bob Graham says:

    I beg to differ! Running an architectural practice based on historic and rehab, these are the questions that keep me in business!

  3. Anne Marie says:

    Admittedly I am disappointed at the view of architects described in the article. I think you may be unfairly lumping very complex issues onto the sole shoulders of architects. Building is a community endeavor that takes not only an architect, but clients, users, neighbors, contractors, lenders, government entities and for lack of a better word–market forces–to realize a built or an un-built vision. Generalizing a diverse group of some really moral and conscientious people together with a few bad seeds is a bit unfair to the profession. I know we aren’t a perfect group but most of the architects I know, don’t build personal monuments; they all strive and struggle, every day, to discuss and work through your 10 questions on many projects.

    And to argue in the opposite direction, some of the monuments built by the community are the best parts of our city. You share a particular love for the Steel Bridge. The bridge built in 1912 had a counterpart built in 1888 that had to be disassembled/demolished. And in the 1980’s the existing Steel Bridge was upgraded to make it useable for current mass transit needs. I would guess that at all these points there is community who built that structure with an architect and engineer having a significant role in its form and who worked through many of the 10 questions.

    Trying not to be long-winded (but knowing that I am), I would just like to cite that a city is a complex set of relationships that are continuously in flux and modifying all the time. A true city can usually handle all these complexities and allow them to co-exist together whether it be a monumental building or a food cart, a new LEED structure or an existing, historic building that has used all its available funds for a energy-recovery unit. It is that diversity that drives many architects daily. And as a critic of the profession and a former professional, I hope that you can share a wide view of the profession—from monumental to small—both successes and failures.

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