Stop Gatekeeping Architecture

Stop Gatekeeping Architecture

We all inhabit, and therefore participate in, the built environment.


A long time ago, way before I became an architecture critic, I was a person who looked at buildings. It never occurred to me that this was something one could do for a living. I grew up in a small town before the omnipresence of cell phones, meaning that if I was bored and didn’t have a book in hand, I had no choice but to gaze out at the world and occupy my time thinking about it. I believe that children are naturally attracted to buildings because they offer imaginative potential. Who lives in that house? Why do they live there? Why does the house look like that? Do poor people or rich people live there?

Some houses, the Queen Anne ramblers or the stately colonials, communicated even to a child status, wealth, intrigue—while my parents’ home, a perfectly normal one-story tract house built in 1995, communicated nothing but ordinariness. And yet this house was different still from the other houses on my street, some of which were built in the 1970s, others as late as the 2000s. I enjoyed comparing them to one another and having opinions on them. The stranger the house—the more modern or avant-garde—the more I liked it, simply because it was different. The year I had to ride the bus to school in the morning—one of the first children to board—I cherished being able to see every single house in my small town, none of them particularly notable, yet all of them unique and worth attention in their own right.

I am still the same: At the end of the day, I am a person who enjoys architecture. I believe that all buildings are interesting simply because they make up the backdrop of everyday life, and in each building, from the most sacred to the most mundane, one can read and interpret the history of a given place and the values of its society, from potent religiosity to drab consumerism. I believe very strongly that architecture is for everyone and that most of us are architecture critics in our own right, from the umarells in Italy—old men who stand around and watch construction sites—to my mother watching HGTV and disagreeing with how a particular renovation turned out.

We all have similar access to architecture as viewers, whether on the street or through our real estate–obsessed media landscape (after all, buildings exist in the world and cannot be hidden away). But how that built environment manifests politically adds yet another layer of interpretation. Architecture reminds us of our place in the world; it contributes to the vast visual and material landscape of intersecting inequalities under capitalism and, as a result, the sites of our collective struggles. When I look at the new construction on my block in Chicago, I do not think about the whitewashed pseudo-farmhouse solely as a (rather dull) architectural entity. I think of the two families who lived in the worker’s cottage that stood there before and wonder where they are now. I think about my own rent.

This is true not only of the vernacular but of “high” architecture as well. It takes a great deal of skill, education, money, time, and labor to be an architect. Architects learn how to analyze and execute architectural ideas in both technical and formal ways. But sometimes architects cannot see what the public sees or even what the architecture critic sees. As I said before—fortunately or unfortunately for architects—architecture accrues different layers of meaning to different people. Some of these are more positive than others. An example I use often is Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, a late-modern masterpiece comprising many protruding cubic forms. I credit the 1967 building with my own interest in architectural history, because I saw it on a trip to my mother’s hometown of Goshen, N.Y., when we got lost trying to find Dunkin’ Donuts. I dubbed it “the Lego building,” and to me it represented a kind of architectural potential I’d never experienced—I did not know buildings could look like that, and I wanted to see more buildings that looked like that.

For architectural historians, Rudolph’s complex is a fascinating work of late-modernist architecture, a period defined by its expanding formal gymnastics while still trying to reconcile the stalwart functionalism of modernist doctrine, a contradiction that grew so fractious it would eventually usher in the dawn of postmodernism in architecture. For my mother, Rudolph’s building was where the DMV was. And she hated that building. She is not alone—it was an unpopular building in Goshen, too weird for a town best known for its Victorian painted ladies. Attempts at preservation ultimately failed, and the complex was defaced with an addition so bad demolition might have been a better fate. Maybe Rudolph was too out there. But maybe the DMV, the butt of so many jokes, is a hard institution to defend. All of these elements, however, are all part of what architecture is and the role it plays in everyday life.

It may sound almost trite to say that architecture is for everyone because we all live and work and visit architecture, but it’s true. It is worth reiterating time and time again because there are (loud) commentators who believe that it takes going to university or speaking in theory jargon to be able to read, understand, and form connections to buildings. I find this credentialism and gatekeeping silly, and also self-defeating. I’ve experienced it myself, even as someone who pursued a master’s degree in a branch of building science (architectural acoustics) and has been an architecture critic for most of my adult life. Many folks are bird watchers without degrees in biology.

The reason architecture as a field is so protective of its elite status as an art (which is itself debatable) has always been mysterious to me. The way some architects talk about the people who inhabit buildings (“users,” “residents,” etc.) is often similar to the way tech people talk about those who use their products: The designers are the orchestrators of the world and must use their creations to coerce the unthinking masses to live in better or more constructive ways. In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment (1973), Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre had an interesting view of how people inhabit space: They appropriate it. This is true of both entire systems (like bourgeois capitalism, which has seen architects internalize public spaces like bars, restaurants, stores, etc., into the home’s private spaces of personal consumption) and also those individuals living under those systems (like workers who appropriate the balcony, a social space within an apartment building, with different accoutrements—curtains, potted plants, bicycles). An architect, who painstakingly finishes their facade with the idea that all will be unified and made whole from a long distance, is likely to be disappointed with someone growing geraniums in a railing flower box. But it is not a design failure if the building is used in this way—indeed, it is a success. Striving for perfection in architecture is an unrealistic expectation foisted on the ordinary.

I don’t like it when people approach me and start their sentences with “I didn’t study architecture, but…” So? Every time you protest rising rents or living conditions, or even just inhabit the commons as a citizen, that’s participating in architecture. Every time you move, rent an apartment, renovate, or decorate, that’s participating in architecture. Reading a blog, scrolling through Zillow, picking up a guide and trying to identify houses in your neighborhood—that’s participating in architecture, too. All it took for me to orient my life in this direction was one weird building in a small New York town, the SkyscraperCity forums, and A Field Guide to American Houses.

I believe that same spark, that same opportunity for inquiry, that same architecture, is for everyone.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy