Good Design Part 2: Revenge of the Nerds

Yesterday the architecture world’s Preacherman, Jonathan Glancey, weighed in on the “what is good design” debate. Glancey — architecture critic for the Guardian — is fed up with computers, dammit. “Many of our new buildings and streetscapes feel increasingly digital rather than real,” he wrote on Building Design. It’s an argument people have been making for years — and it’s wrong.

See, our new buildings don’t look digital at all. They look cheap. They look boring. A few flashy, blobby, jagged examples (Gehry, van Berkel, Hadid) make people think that’s what architecture is all about these days. Nope. The blobbiest of ’em all, Jan Kaplicky’s Prague Library (pictured above), got axed. Hadid barely builds anything. Van Berkel’s Five Franklin Place is stalled. So is Calatrava’s Chicago Spire and Nouvel’s MoMA Tower. Today’s architecture is flat, one-dimensional, cookie-cutter condos and exurban ranch homes and white cube museums and historicist ballparks. It’s anything but “whizzy” (Glancey’s word). [Editor’s note: Does this making anyone else thing of “lizzing” from last week’s 30 Rock?]

When computers hit the architecture scene in the late ’80s, they promised big changes. Architects were riffing on Deleuze and Chomsky and Freud and thought that computer programs could help turn the mess (mesh?) of data and symbols that made up reality into architecture that grew out of this new idea of the world. Computers were a way to do exactly what Glancey says good architecture should do: synthesize art, craft, science, commerce, politics, media, life, and everything else.

And they still are. In fact, now might be the ideal time to forget about craft in architecture — why care about how something is built when nothing’s getting built anyway? The boring mainstream architectural climate of the ’60s spawned Archigram, and their ideas about user-generated urban change are still influential today. Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi got their start in the ’70s recession, making up sketches and comics while the industry stalled. Thing is, they came up with their ideas without worrying about building anything — indeed, because they didn’t have to worry about building anything. Today’s architects who can’t find jobs, or got fired, or are just bored at the office without any projects coming in — boot up that copy of Revit you pirated from school and get to work. Rethink everything. Start a collective. At least start a blog. Forget craft — design risk-free. On a computer.

Related post: Design Boom or Bust: What People Are Talking About Now