This is the first in a series of articles, intended to help us better explain architecture to non-architects, with the goal of increasing their appreciation of the buildings that give us such joy and wonder and satisfaction. We want people to like the buildings we design, because, speaking candidly, we want them to ask us to design more of them.
Before going too far, it’s perhaps worth asking, “What is the difference, really, between ‘architects’ and ‘non-architects’?” We know that, with only a few exceptions—African termites, Baltimore orioles, Pritzker laureates—architects are people, too. Why should there be, as there so often is, such a great divergence in our likes and dislikes? We might suppose that our likes are shaped by our understanding—that architects like certain things because we understand their value, while other people don’t. That’s a good beginning. One thing we can do is to identify valuable things about buildings and demonstrate them to people. Improving how we do so is one of the aims of later installments in this series.
Yet, a litany of valuable features, however well explained, is unlikely to overcome objections of the sort, “Yeah, but I still think it’s ugly.” To get our heads around such objections, we must grapple with ideas that may make us uncomfortable, like “beauty” and “taste.” We needn’t dig deeply into philosophy—Edmund Burke’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful has its place in architectural thought, but it’s not here, in the workaday task of nurturing a public appreciation of design. What we do need is a sober appreciation of how people come to have the preferences they have and—as importantly—how we architects have come to have the ones we have.
The distinction between “architect” and “non-architect” is only partially due to our differing bodies of knowledge. More fundamentally, it involves different habits of mind and, sometimes, quite contrary values. Architects think in ways that other people don’t, and we often value things that other people don’t. Our values and ways of thinking could certainly be put to better and wider use in our society, were we better able to demonstrate their benefit; but there are also limits to their applicability. We sometimes forget those limits, supposing that we always know best.
So, we might begin by adopting an attitude of humility or—if we’re feeling too damned humble already—of critical self-reflection. Rather than start with the assumption that our task is to remedy the deficits in non-architects’ understanding of design, we might ask how our own understanding has been shaped and perhaps skewed by professional education and training—more broadly, by professional acculturation.
Try to remember your earliest days in architecture school. After the obligatory lecture on how hard the course of study is going to be and how poorly you’re going to be paid once it’s done (a lecture that practically guarantees that anyone with any business acumen whatsoever will transfer to another major), you probably began your design studies with an exercise that, at the time, was unexpected. You may have been asked to build a three-dimensional interpretation of a painting, or to make a collage out of found objects, or to draw with a pencil held between your toes.
A common goal of such exercises is to de-familiarize the subject matter of architecture, and it’s a fine and possibly necessary step in a design education. We grow up with such intimate and yet inattentive experience of buildings that, if we are to acquire a systematic understanding of how they work, we need to gain some distance, some perspective. Accordingly, beginning students in a professional degree program are rarely asked to design something normal and familiar, like a single-family home.
Often, the attitude of de-familiarization is reinforced throughout the professional design studio sequence, programmatically, as in assignments that invoke uses like “a house for an acrobat”; and critically, in the insistence that normative responses be rigorously questioned and, by implication, avoided. While a powerful goad to thinking, this attitude has at least two dangers. The first is that it tends to instill a distrust of, even a disdain for, the familiar. Rather than merely thinking, “Avoiding the familiar is a useful way to learn about the properties of architecture,” we think, “Avoiding the familiar is a necessity for designing good buildings.” We transform a pedagogical tool into a design standard.
The second danger is that we may fail to realize that, at the same time we are questioning the average person’s experiences of buildings, we are ourselves becoming attached to a set of experiences that we will cherish as much for their own newfound familiarity as for their objective qualities. While we might like to think that our appreciation of the Villa Savoie or the Thermal Baths at Vals is purely the product of reasoned inquiry, it is in fact as much a product of our familiarity with these buildings as is our non-architect friends’ preferences for whatever buildings they enjoy. It turns out familiarity does not breed contempt, except in relation to our in-laws.
Many psychological studies have demonstrated this phenomenon, which is known as the “exposure effect,” or, in social psychology, the “familiarity principle.” In one such study, participants were asked to look rapidly through a really, really big series of photographs and to say which ones they liked. They might have surmised that the study was looking for commonalities in the qualities that people like in photos, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was measuring the impact of familiarity on preference. Deep in the series of photos, images that had appeared earlier were occasionally repeated, but infrequently enough that participants didn’t notice that they had seen them before. Participants reported liking the repeated images with greater consistency than those they saw for the first time. Even with so brief an initial encounter, and with no time for rational evaluation, participants preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar.
We recognize as much in the preferences of young children, who love to hear the same books read over and over. (If my seven-year old son asks me to read Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book one more time, I will go insane.) A more compelling demonstration for those of us already condemned to adulthood might be found in popular music. Like most people, I suspect, I have a particular fondness for the popular songs of my youth. I wouldn’t begin to argue that Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” is a better song than Green Day’s “American Idiot,” but I like it better. Is that because I first heard it at a particularly impressionable time, or because I’ve heard it so many times since? Whichever, I had best remember, when I see young people’s eyes roll at my enthusiasm for the dulcet tones of John Fogerty, that they’re not numbskulls. Nor am I; we’re just accustomed to different things.
After our teen years, architecture school is probably the most impressionable time we will experience in our lives, at whatever age we enter it. The intensity of immersion in a community of thought and experience is extraordinary. We emerge from the experience loving certain architects and buildings only partly because of the knowledge we’ve gained of them; we love them, as well, because they have become intensely familiar. We may be able to convey that knowledge to others, but we will have to find ways to work through the differences in familiarity, because those can’t be shared in the same way.
In future installments, we’ll look more closely at how architecture school shapes our habits of thought in ways that may sometimes impede our communication with non-architects. And we’ll look at ways to more effectively share both our reasoned appreciation of buildings and our irrational—but no less true—love of them.