Here’s what I’ve long suspected: Our education and experiences as architects have left us out of touch with what the general public thinks about architecture. Take, for example, the Korean Church of Boston in Brookline. It’s among my favorite local buildings. It won a 2008 Progressive Architecture Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Harleston Parker Medal. The community reaction, however, was scathing. In a series of letters published on wickedlocal.com, neighbors pointed out that the “big gray box” facing Harvard Street was monolithic, cold, and out of context with Brookline Village and the adjoining traditional church — “like a stereo speaker in a room full of antique furniture.” It was a fair point: I had been so enamoured with the building’s sleek contemporary style I hadn’t even considered the view from the street.
To discover how far my values were disconnected from those of general viewers, in 2011 I surveyed 26 non-architects, asking them to name their favorite and least favorite buildings in Greater Boston and rate nine local award-winning buildings. It was hardly scientific, but the results were revealing.
There were areas of agreement: Respondents admired natural light, windows and views, connectivity and spaciousness, a balance of open and private spaces, interesting colors and finishes, and the integration of landscape and nature. Architects I’ve known and worked with value these things, too.
On contemporary architecture, respondents themselves were divided. Frank Gehry’s Stata Center was chosen as both the most liked and most hated building. I was surprised to learn that many found contemporary forms confusing and disconcerting: butterfly roofs, solid upper volumes floating on glass, daring structural moves. Similarly, industrial aesthetic, minimalism, and pure geometric massing often evoked science fiction totalitarianism. I had to laugh at the unflattering metaphors people came up with: “Death Star” (One Boston Place), “Borg cube” (Simmons Hall at MIT), and “cancer,” “wart,” and “vomit” for the much-maligned Korean Church addition. Respondents perceived overly generous spaces and unconventional forms as wasteful and expensive, especially in publicly funded buildings, and criticized designs for not prioritizing ease of maintenance, durability, and occupant comfort.
Like many architects, I learned to deeply esteem the early Modernists like Le Corbusier, Terragni, and Mies. I studied them in depth in college and made pilgrimages to their buildings. And I’ll occasionally appreciate a pre-Modern building, too — assuming I even notice it!
The majority of laypeople in my small survey felt the precise opposite. They passionately hate midcentury Modernism and view monumentally scaled concrete buildings like Boston City Hall as just plain ugly. Instead, they expressed a deep affection for anything elaborately detailed and historical. Favorite local buildings included the Christian Science Church, Museum of Fine Arts, Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, even the Smith and Wollensky “castle” on Arlington Street. You can stop rolling your eyes now!
Once we acknowledge this disconnect, what can we do about it? There are ways to help people better relate to our work. We can do more to explain our designs in practical, jargon-free terms that the public can relate to, such as cost, efficiency, comfort, and function. We can pay more attention to referencing the historical context of which our buildings are a part. We can take a moment to see through the eyes of others and remind ourselves to take their values more seriously in our design process.
This doesn’t mean we should only do the expected and conventional. Architects play a crucial role in innovating built forms and elevating society’s vision. But I hope we’ll never forget to spare a thought for those who will gaze upon and use our buildings long after we’ve moved on.