A Plea to Architects: What does your work say?

How do we measure design?

How do we measure the value, or contribution, of a design or anything in the arts for that matter?

I am reminded of an article I read called “Pop Comfort Over Ambition” published in the New York Times, Critic’s Notebook.  In the article, Jon Pareles concerns himself with pop music – but his critique can easily apply to the consideration of other arts, including architecture. He describes the current state of music as “unheroic and unambitious.” He talks of a public that votes with its dollars; a public who ignores the favorites championed by critics.

“Entertainment, not ambition,” he says, “is the priority.”

Pareles laments that major recording companies are “taking fewer chances on music that’s not geared for instant radio acceptance.” He claims the music is “as functional and one-dimensional as a fashion magazine or an action movie…They don’t set out to surprise the paying customers, or to leverage popularity into leadership.”

In regards to great work, it is clear that, regardless of the critics and the public, the most memorable music has always aspired to something more than entertainment. Pareles says, “[memorable compositions] set out to inspire, to startle, to define an era or to defy it.” Paul Goldberger parallels this sentiment: “Serious architecture, on at least one level, is a work of art, and it is absurd to deny to it the multivalent quality we grant other kinds of art. Music is not mere soothing background noise, painting not mere wall decoration, and architecture – despite its unique practical role in our lives – is not mere shelter.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Blurring the vocabulary of music and architecture, I wonder: Do we want to play in the momentary and disposable mass-market… or do we want to perform something worth owning; do we want to create something that lasts; do we want to build something more than mere shelter?

We must ask ourselves “What is our work trying to say?”

The best characterization that Pareles uses to describe mass-market music is… “pop with little more to say than ‘Play me on the radio’”

Let’s hope that our work has more to say than that…