United Cab no. 118: The Importance of Architecture to Non-Architects

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[Originally published 1st quarter 2002, in arcCA 02.1, “Image Mirror.”]

Author Casius Pealer, Associate AIA, is a 1996 B. Arch. graduate of Tulane University and recently completed service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the West Indies. He is currently a Research Associate at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Washington, DC, and co-editor, with John Cary, Jr., of ArchVoices, a free and independent weekly email newsletter with news, information, and resources for young architects in the U.S. and Canada. Mr. Pealer wishes to thank the American Architectural Foundation—in particular, Past President Norman Koonce and Mary Felber, Director, AIA/AAF Scholarship Programs—for supporting his field research.
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“When I drive through the most spectacular urban form of the universe, I see order and disorder, beauty and lack of beauty. In all this I move quickly, very quickly, with my finger on the shutter release, in order to catch, to capture this beauty, this order. For nothing exists which is not recorded. Except within oneself.”— David Bradford, Drive-by Shootings: Photographs by a New York Taxi Driver
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In 1997, I quit my architecture job and moved home to New Orleans to drive a taxicab. This unusual transition was the result of my interest in better understanding how non-architects communicate about architecture. My plan was to spend approximately nine months working “undercover” in the public realm. Although my research would ostensibly pay for itself, I was also working under the auspices of the American Architectural Foundation as a Field Correspondent.

My goal in changing professions was to learn about the general, human experience of architecture: how is architecture important to people, how are we affected by it both consciously and unconsciously, how do we take ownership of private spaces, and how are we inspired by public places? Driving a taxi allowed me the sort of informal conversations with people that I hoped would give me a better perspective on the importance of well-designed and well-built places. All the quotations in this essay are from conversations with passengers in my taxi.

As a taxi driver, my job was still to design particular experiences within the city — only now the entire city was my office and I worked directly for my clients. Those clients were from every imaginable social or ethnic background, and “additional services” included carrying groceries and running the occasional red light. I completed most commissions in less than twenty minutes.

My first efforts at getting passengers to talk about architecture centered on trying to define a list of standard questions I could ask and then to audio tape the answers. But in explaining what the tape recorder was for, I had to blow my cover as “just a guy driving a cab.” I then thought I could ask people to fill out a questionnaire, but realized the same problems would arise.

I soon began to understand that important conversations were happening without my choreography. People were talking with me about the real importance of architecture anyway, just as they would with any cab driver. Once I realized this fact, it made perfect sense. If architecture is half as important as we architects like to think it is, then people will talk about it all the time.

The good news is that people do talk about architecture all the time. At first, I didn’t hear it. People would talk about a band they heard last night, or a new job they started, or the new church they joined, or how great Mardi Gras was. But occasionally, sometimes even days later, I would remember a complaint about how low the stage was that the band had played on. A comment on the drab colors of the new office. Praise for the inspirational lighting in the church. How great it was to be able to open the second floor window and be right at the level of the parade floats — an easy target for the plastic or stuffed trinkets that mean so much in late February New Orleans.

Throughout ten months of casual and not-so-casual conversations with thousands of people from all walks of life, I learned a great deal about the importance of the built environment for real people. Diversity of styles and of use is important. The enthusiastic use of color. Appropriate context. Significant reference (not necessarily deference) to history. Decoration. Symbolism. Complexity, but not capriciousness or chaos. Orientation within that complexity. Authenticity. Plants and natural materials. Water and natural light. Most importantly, I learned that people do in fact talk about architecture all the time.

Stories

“Do you know somewhere — probably on Magazine Street — where I can find an old pair of binoculars?” asked the woman who called a cab from the Lakeside Mall. “I’m setting up a display at the store I work at, and we need something that says, ‘African safari.’”

“Man, that sounds like a job I’d like to have,” I said, buying time, since I had no idea where to get antique binoculars.

“Well, you know, people aren’t interested in just buying quality clothes anymore. You go into Ralph Lauren stores and there are props and stage settings — a saddle and a rope. They’re not selling saddles, they’re using the saddle to tell a story.”

“So this is to trick people into thinking they’re buying authentic Western clothes?”

“No, really — stories create connections for people. Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves within a larger experience.”

— 26-year old former Peace Corps volunteer, now retail sales manager in suburban New Orleans

All the various elements of the built environment either come together to tell a story, to allow people “to locate themselves within a larger experience,” or they don’t. New Orleans as a city has some of the most fantastic stories to tell, and it is the visitors’ (and residents’) ability, through the physical environment, to locate themselves within those stories that keeps them coming back. The stories are all the more fantastic because they are true. But fantastic environments like Disney World, Busch Gardens, and many newer, individual retail experiences like the Rainforest Cafe, the Nature Company, and even Starbucks work on the same principle: people need to locate themselves within a larger experience.

“Hey, I used to live in DC, too,” I said, trying to encourage some conversation.

“Yeah, man, well I hate DC — all those short, squatty, gray buildings surrounded by a fence. The place is like a prison.”

— 27 year-old male, New Orleans costume shop owner

Clearly, the nation’s capital is not like a prison to everyone. The symbolism and the stories told there are understandably different from stories told in Europe or even in most other American cities. New York City tells a story about capitalism, enterprise, and opportunity. Washington’s story is also about enterprise and opportunity, but it is a collective enterprise and one that tells much more specific stories about particular leaders of that collective enterprise. It is perhaps more difficult for people who don’t see themselves either as leaders or as part of the collective to locate themselves within the context of DC.

Context

“Yeah, this is our first trip to New Orleans.”

“Oh, fabulous. What do you think so far?”

“Well, we only got here this afternoon, but we’re staying at this new bed and breakfast on…Perrier Street, I think.”

“Oh, that purple and blue house in the 4700 block by Napoleon Avenue? It looks wonderful — is it?”

“Kind of. We found this picture on the Internet, and it looked great. The pictures looked beautiful, but who knew there’d be so many buildings, um…in need of repair nearby.”

— Middle-aged couple from upstate New York

One reason that architecture does have a moral imperative to serve the public realm is that the experience of the public realm — the street — is always just an aggregate of the physical and visual experience contributed by individual components. The whole is potentially much greater than the sum of its parts, but too often is less.

The stories that we as a community have to tell are actually far more complex and important than even we architects imagine. Because these stories defy planning, many architects and clients retreat into what they can control: the individual building. But just as we can’t all work alone, because team-building is difficult and relies largely on complex and unexpected personal relationships, we shouldn’t allow the built environment — our environment — to be composed of self-referential elements, all inefficiently striving to achieve their own, often conflicting, plans.

Diversity

“Hey cabbie, we’ll only be in New Orleans for two days. What should we do?”

“Well, for $1 per person, each way, the best deal in the city is definitely the St. Charles streetcar.”

“Oh, we’ve taken the trolley down St. Charles a few times. What I really like is that there’s a shack next to a mansion next to a grocery store. It’s very interesting.”

— Middle-aged man, dentist from Lafayette, Louisiana

Diversity in the built environment does not have to be as radical as a mansion next to a shack. Just as each of us has a unique personality and unique quirks and attributes, even strictly residential and economically stratified areas don’t have to be homogenous. Art imitates life, and like people, buildings have personalities. Simply owning a house is a form of personal expression.

For someone concerned with design and with design integrity, the kitsch collections of “stuff” in most homes is devastating. My parents live in Florida, but they love the Southwest and have been fortunate to travel there a number of times. In their living room, they look past paintings of red sand buttes, “Indian” rugs and a little cactus plant to the palm fronds and oak grove just outside. As a designer, I have to swallow hard before I go home; but as their son, I understand that these items are in fact relics of their experiences and memories, their trips out West with me, with other family, and with each other on their 30th anniversary. In short, these “things” tell an important part of their story. And if they moved out West to live in an authentic adobe hut, they would hang pictures of palm fronds and oak groves on the walls. And that’s proof of the vitality of the lives they have been fortunate to lead.

Symbols

“Hey, cabbie, someone sent our office a Mardi Gras cake last week, and one guy almost choked on the plastic toy hidden inside. What’s the deal with the plastic toy?” asked an obviously first-time visitor to New Orleans.

“Well, first of all, it’s a king cake, not a Mardi Gras cake,” I explained, “though it is a Mardi Gras tradition. The plastic baby is the whole point. A king cake without a baby hidden inside is like a Mardi Gras float without beads. Finding the baby in your slice means you buy the next king cake.”

— Four guys from Nashville, visiting early in the Mardi Gras season

Unfortunately, the kinds of symbols or clues necessary to tell an engaging story do not always mean the same things to different people from different backgrounds. In a world trying to accommodate and encourage diversity, symbols are potentially dangerous things. Ionic columns might symbolize the birth of democracy, or they might symbolize cultural imperialism. Native Americans might respect the wolf, but American ranchers might despise it. Even Art Deco depictions of industry, farming, and mechanization are often viewed as anti-feminist.

Symbols are, however, necessary, even unavoidable, for expressing fundamental human conditions. Clean lines and white canvasses are symbols of a Western, often male outlook. People yearn for more variety, more referents. The resurgence of tattooing is evidence of this yearning. If people can read symbols in the clouds, then they will read symbols into whatever environment we architects produce. And regular people do this because they are more interested in visual art, in imbuing their lives with substantive meaning, than we architects like to think. We need to re-learn how to use meaningful symbols explicitly, even if we can’t perfectly control their meaning.

Materials

“Man, have you ever been to the State Palace Theater? We played this gig there last night and that place is awesome,” said the bleached-blonde guy in the back seat.

“How so?” I asked.

“Well,” said his friend, “the lights are really cool — lots of stained glass. The fire hose cover is surrounded by pieces of stained glass. You just don’t get to see stuff like that often.”

— 25-year old DJs from San Francisco

Like a catchy advertising jingle, the State Palace Theater will remain a part of those kids’ (and presumably unimaginable numbers of other kids’) memories, precisely because so few places have any reference to hand-made or hand-crafted work as an integral part of the story being told. My experiences with people of all different backgrounds and interests confirmed my initial hope: that people do respond in a visceral if sometimes poorly articulated way to both firmness and delight. And with the State Palace Theater, the delight that was built into the original structure was really an investment that could have come from the advertising or marketing budget as well as from the construction budget.

Orientation

“Yeah, man, New Orleans is crazy. Do you cab drivers just take people for rides, drive ‘em all over the city ‘cause they don’t know where the heck they are, then drop ‘em four blocks away and charge ‘em $15?”

“Well, not rea–”

“Yeah, I mean, when you get out of the airport in Spain, man, the cabs are just waiting there. Waiting to take advantage of your disorientation.”

— 20-year old male, Tulane University sophomore

Our language implies that “orientation” is the standard condition and that “disorientation” is simply a state of being out of “orientation.” The reality is in fact the opposite: disorientation is our natural state, and so we use both the natural and built environments to orient ourselves within a larger context, both physically and emotionally. Cities built on a strict grid are logically comforting in the sense noted above, where comfort is simply the absence of sensation. Cities like New Orleans and Barcelona are logically very discomforting, but experientially rich. Both planned and accumulated cities have many positive qualities, and both communicate the positive and negative aspects of those value systems, necessarily shaping the personalities of the people who live in those cities. New Orleans could never have been the capital of democracy, and Philadelphia and DC could never have produced jazz.

Event

“Could you take me to 8600 Washington Avenue, sir?” asked the matronly black lady carrying a big ceramic bowl covered in tin foil. “It’s a new church building our congregation just finished.”

“Of course I can,” I replied. “So… is your new church nice?”

“Oh, my, yes. They have wonderful services there.”

— 55-year old New Orleans church-goer

I thought this woman would respond to my question by telling me about the beautiful stained glass, the fragrant flowers outside, or the comfortable pews inside. Quality places — places that are memorable and contribute to our individual and collective identity — inspire people and give them hope and renewed energy. But so do other good people, books, plants, music, and television. As architects and designers, our job is to make places conducive to various modes of inspiration, either in themselves or in support of other activities.

Language

“That building’s neat inside.”

— 91-year old retired male from Marerro, LA

Unfortunately, while people usually have very clear opinions about what they like or dislike — what is “too showy” or “too plain,” “neat,” “cool,” “impressive,” “dumb,” “interesting,” etc. — people are not used to going into great detail about exactly why they think what they think about a façade, a room, a park, a painting, or an entire street. Often people would identify intricate details or the colors of a building in some general way, but were typically much better at identifying what they didn’t like about a particular place rather than what contributed to a positive feeling. This particular cultural trait — if indeed it is such— contributes to the impression that good architecture or design is simply a matter of personal taste, like whether Mac is better than IBM or whether Jazz Fest is better than Mardi Gras. Those sorts of choices do, however, reveal more basic, core values. As individuals and collectively, we need to consider more consciously our core values and how our choices about the built environment either reinforce or challenge those values.

Conclusion

“If what’s important to you is having a roof over your head, then by gosh, have the best darn roof you can manage.”

— 35 year-old male, actor from New Orleans

The built environment is important because people are important, and the ability to gather and share, barter, eat, discuss, learn, compete, celebrate, sing, pray, be comforted, be born, die, and be re-born all require a physical place. As the woman said, “Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves within a larger experience.” The importance of the built environment is not in aesthetic, technical, or even historical beauty, but in engaging and adding meaning to the fundamentally human events that occur within, under, around, through, outside of those environments.

Risa Mickenberg, in the book Taxi Driver Wisdom, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying, “In every man (sic), there is something wherein I may learn of him.” Or as one of Mickenberg’s taxi drivers said, “If you’re a smart person, you can see what’s smart about the next guy.” I believe the same holds for buildings, and that we architects too often can’t see what’s smart about “the next guy.” If we have a moral imperative as architects, it is to design buildings that engage people—not rudely, by interrupting them and telling them what we think, but politely, with simple eye contact and a friendly smile. That friendliness means, among other things, including gestures such as benches, landscaping, and an appropriately scaled entryway. Once inside, we need to be effusive and courteous, if also occasionally provocative. If that courtesy means an operable window, a detailed handrail, or adequate lighting, then so be it. This is not an argument for being nostalgic, but rather for being a good host.

Buildings are in effect the hosts of our cities. When our buildings have been most haughty or indifferent, people have moved elsewhere. I am by no means suggesting that people want environments designed by committee, with no strong direction or point. Rather, I am suggesting that only by respecting, understanding, and engaging real people can the places we design begin to provide the leadership that society asks from us. As I found in the early stages of my research, the public’s answers to our questions are irrelevant. What matters are our answers to the public’s questions. To begin to provide those answers, we need to listen quietly to discern the questions.

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