Michael Bierut | Essays

What We Talk About When We Talk About Architecture

Class critique, Yale Art and Architecture Building, New Haven, Connecticut, December, 2003. Photo by John Jacobson

The most popular show on American non-commercial radio is "Car Talk." For an hour, two auto mechanic brothers from Boston ostensibly do just that: they talk about cars. People call in and describe automotive problems, and Tom and Ray Magliozzi offer suggestions on how their cars might be fixed. What makes the show so listenable, even to people like me who don't know or care that much about cars, is the fact that the show isn't really about cars, it's about life. A simple question about an alternator digresses quickly into a discussion of psychology, economics or geography; the Magliozzis function as marriage counselors, career advisors and therapists just as often as car mechanics.

Listening to "Car Talk" got me thinking about the pleasures of truly discursive discourse. Does it occur often enough in the world of design? And when it does happen, who gets to hear it? Which brings me to the Yale University School of Architecture.

I have been involved with Yale Architecture's promotions and publications program since Robert A. M. Stern came aboard as Dean in 1998. Stern takes his school's publications seriously because he knows their power first hand: in the sixties, as a student editor of Yale's architecture journal Perspecta, he was the first to print Robert Venturi's seminal manifesto Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture.

Perpecta, which is published to this day, has a counterpart called Retrospecta, the school's annual review of student work. Retrospecta is edited by students from the School of Architecture and designed by students from the graphic design program in the School of Art. The designers and editors are different every year; I serve as advisor and "continuity director" for the project. Most of the space of the book is taken up by reproductions of student projects and brief descriptions of the assignments that inspired them.

A critical part of the design school experience is the critique, where student work is reviewed by faculty and outside assessors. Previous issues of Retrospecta have included quotes from the visiting critics, sometimes simply to punctuate the layout typographically. In the latest issue, however, the editors (Jason Van Nest, Yen-Rong Chen and Mathew Ford) and the designers (Willy Wong and Yoon-Seok Yoo) have brought the transcripts of the review sessions front and center. Much of what passes for architectural writing, particularly in academia, is turgid and stilted. In contrast, "the diverse arguments, critiques, and provocations" faithfully recorded here are compulsively readable.

This drama inherent in the design critique has not escaped notice. In fact, Oren Safdie (an architect-turned-playwright and son of the legendary architect Moshe Safdie) used it for the setting of last year's off-off-Broadway play "Private Jokes, Public Places," in which a young architecture student defends a thesis project against two increasingly combative professors; the New York Times praised its "verbal acrobatics." And there are acrobatics of sorts to be had in the pages of Retrospecta, where the cast of characters include Peter Eisenman, Leon Krier, Charles Jencks, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Lise Anne Couture, Greg Lynn and Rafael Vinoly.

What I find interesting is that when the conversation is lively enough, just as in "Car Talk," I don't need to understand much about architecture or even the specifics of the problem at hand; I can just enjoy the give and take. Some examples:

Jeffrey Kipnis: Where did this public and private thing come from? Did they assign you to think about public and private? Or did you just assume it was a natural way to think about ti? I have seen it all day long. When I think about the Schindler House and I look at the plan, it is labeled in terms of "his" spaces and "her" spaces, not public and private.
Zaha Hadid: It is definitely not part of our repertoire.
Kipnis: I didn't think it was.
Hadid: I think it is a Yalie repertoire.
Charles Jencks: Yes, it was [Louis] Kahn who...
Kipnis: And he's dead, right? I asked Nathaniel [Kahn] and he was pretty sure. I lot of the things you take for granted stop you from making more objective use of your research and that is where you should pause, as soon as you think something too quickly.

Kenneth Frampton: ...I could tell you to cut six more slots into this thing, and it wouldn't make a difference. It's a negative critique of the project, but it's also a critique of the whole god damn situation. You have to have a principle, otherwise you can not communicate anything to anybody. Why should I invest my money in this, as opposed to some other project? You have to have a reason; otherwise the architects don't even talk to the society. Don't you see that predicament? These computer renderings produce aesthetic effects very well, seamless, very seductive, but they are not about anything. They are delusions! They are mirages! I'm sorry, it's very aggressive to say this, but aren't we going to start talking? It's just ridiculous to say, "Ok -- individual interpretations," "So on and so forth." One has to talk about something fundamental, otherwise we're never going to talk about anything anymore.
Demitri Porphyrios: I'm not sure what you're talking about.
Frampton: I'm talking about the fact that there is a total degeneration...
Porphyrios: Do you want some coffee?
Frampton: No, I don't. Sorry, I don't...
Porphyrios: Look, look, look. This is a disgusting situation. It's not right to get upset...
Frampton: It's something to get upset about. We always have polite discussions; we have to sometimes get upset, because otherwise we just don't talk about the things that matter.

Jorge Hernandez: I think this jury, this studio project, brings up this whole question of "history and modernity" and the confidence, or lack of confidence that this age has in its own capacity. There is uncertainty whether one believes in the capacity of this age to build like it intended to build. These are questions the architects have to ask about their own moment of working...That's what it is, and yet, the building gesture is not confident in its own epoch, it fiddles around with the past epoch, and doesn't assert its epoch. It is a manifestation of a lack of confidence in its own epoch. It's using the syntax of the epoch, but doesn't want to build at the full capacity of the epoch.
Peter Eisenman: Is that a historicist argument?
Hernandez: Why not, why not?
Eisenman: Is that what your argument is, Jorge, the spirit of the age?
Hernandez: The problem is this, when society loses confidence in its own capacity to build, it gets completely confused.
Robert A.M. Stern: It's not the spirit of the age argument. Kenneth [Frampton] was saying that the Victorians had a total confidence in their own time, they weren't trying to reflect the time, in the Gideon historicist way. The just had an assignment, they had a problem, and then went out at it full-bore. They used iron and glass and they made it in old forms or new forms - whatever they thought was right. They just did it.

And, finally, this comment on an Advanced Studio project:

Rafael Vinoly: I think it's great! [Long pause.] You know, one always feels obliged to say something past this point, so I hesitate to go on. However, I must say...

Needless to say, Mr. Vinoly goes on. You may hear echoes here, as I did, of dialogue by David Mamet, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and even (I'll go on) Harold Pinter. But unlike the work of playwrights, these are the kind of conversations that are almost always unrecorded and forgotten. There is real value to have them set down for the record. How many other spirited critiques - some even about graphic design, perhaps - have been lost?

Once I told a radio producer I know about my million-dollar idea: "Car Talk," except for design. A few quick-witted experts could take calls from people seeking advice on typefaces and color choice, directional signs and ballot layout, while the rest of us listened in to the supremely diverting proceedings. With a sigh, she said everyone had this idea: Car Talk for Opera, Car Talk for Grammar, Car Talk for Macrame, Car Talk for...well, you fill in the blank. But that was before I had my pilot episode. I'm sending her a copy of Yale Retrospecta: Car Talk for Architecture! The phone lines are open.

Posted in: Architecture, Education

Comments [24]

As a graduate from the architecture program at Tulane, I was lucky enough to experience that sort of conversation first-hand. I agree very much that the spirit and energy of a good review panel can be just as compelling and humorous as the Car Talk guys. Far too often in my professional life since graduation, I've felt a lack of the kind of deep personal involvement and passion for the work we do, and it's that passion which not only makes for lively and compelling discussions but also for lively and compelling design.

Michael seems to have overlooked the small difference between the Yale School of Architecture and National Public Radio. Everyone in America, except Ralph Nader, is interested in cars, but architecture??
I work at a medium-size land-grant university that houses the PBS affiliate station for the northern two-thirds of Michigan. Years ago I approached them with an idea for a design program on radio to be called DesigNation (Victor Papanek did something like this at KU once upon a time). My proposal was DOA and has never been mentioned again.
Perhaps I should have kept trying. One attempt does not an offensive make. Then again, past a point I think we need to admit that design just isn't the first thing most folks think about when they wake up in the morning. Whether it ought to be I'll leave to the mavens of design proselytization. Me, I have more things to do in this brief life than try to make the world safe for design.
david stairs

I thought "Car Talk" already was a design show! For those of us who, by curse of geography, spend a chunk of our lives in cars, the link between life, design, aesthetics, function, the love object and/or the appliance is all of a piece. Along the same line, I thought it was amusing how the media coverage from the East was confused when Dan Neil, the guy who writes about cars every week in the LA times, got the Pulitzer for cultural criticism this year. You could hear the "whaaa???" all the way over to this coast; and no mention in the design press of what was a rare celebration of a critic of the material world! I know this begs a whole question of the "high" and the "low" and probably many other sorts of unarticulated prejudices that inflict the world of design criticism, but it is definitely there, and one could probably expand the inquiry to include the many TV reality interior design shows too, "Queer Eye," etc., etc. (Of course, the really interesting thing about "Car Talk" is how they manage to do it all without visuals!)

And speaking of cars, I always hung out in the architecture crits when I was a student at Yale, and I thought that what often held the students in thrall to these dispays was akin to the "rubber-necking" that goes on when all traffic slows to check out a car crash on the freeway. Pleasure in checking out the damage, relief to not be the subject. I'll never forget watching a crit where two of the stars quoted above got in an arguement over semantics: was the project under review "merely stupid" or was it in fact "ignorant?" This war of wit went on for at least 10 minutes, while the student whose project inspired the "discourse"practically crawled under a nearby desk in humiliation. Ah, what a high points of pedagogy have been lost!
Lorraine Wild

yes michael, but can you laugh like tom and ray?

Could it be car problems have a definitive solution whereas designers can bitch endlessly and subjectively about a typeface, a finish or door jam. Click and Clack can offer a solution and move on but designers have a much hard time doing this because our problems don't have and never will have an answer as clear as a broken alternator.

I think we are so worried that nobody takes us seriously that we feel forced to prove, to everyone, including ourselves, that design is a very serious thing. As a Consequence a good deal of us are curmudgeons (honestly I just used consequence and curmudgeons). The third act of a This American Life episode says it better than I could ever hope to. Fiasco


"Everyone in America, except Ralph Nader, is interested in cars, but architecture?"

If it's design of single-family homes, you betcha! And that design would be much improved by the introduction of some architectural ideas, no doubt about that.
Randolph Fritz

Architecture Design Crits - between this article and the Archinect Schools Blog, it's all coming back to me! The all-nighters! The merciless slagging from tutors! The public humiliation! "I'm getting the fear!" - to quote Withnail and I.

My experience of 'crits' generally involve lots of post-rationalisation to try and justify your half-baked design for reasons other than you though it looked good, and generally involved large dollops of sophistry, a smattering of the cultural criticism du jour (a bit of Barthes, some Derrida, maybe some Foucault), and a light-dusting of historical references (eg Le Corbusier, Constructivism, Mies van de Rohe). It's always a good idea to take cover under the bellly of a few sacred cows like 'Mies' and 'Corb', so that if a tutor wants to attack you they have to think about taking on the demi-gods of architecture too. A good pop culture reference is also handy to show you've got your foot on the ball of the Zietgeist.

This post-rationalist spiel used to introduce your project became known as your "bullshit", as in:

"Got your bullshit sorted?"

"Yup. It's a semiotic deconstruction of the inherent dichomoties of the modern corporate headquarters, combining Corbu's Unite d'Habitation concept and a spatial mapping of David Brent in the second series of The Office, with respect to Foucault's Discipline and Punish".

I attempted to subvert all this for my final year review, by building all my display panels into a kind of lair, and putting a huge epilepsy-inducing strobe light I'd loaned from the physics department in the middle.

Great days.

Design being is inherently practical, a designer produces a product, it is not essentially a verbal activity.

It's funny how attaching words to it gives us an illusion of validity.

As one who has experienced both sides of the line between critic and project I empathize with review participants. There are two review dynamics that I have found interesting and it has a lot to do with the 'direction' of the comments.

Mostly, review comments move from the critic to the student/project in a sort of perpendicular diagnostic of "What do you mean by..." or worse "Where is the..." While this type of commentary is pedagogically important, it is also incredibly boring to read, much less listen to for those whose work is not the object of scrutiny....

More interesting (or at least more dramatic) though are the lateral conversations that occur in reviews between critics, which you excerpt... these are the times when the review format produces ideas and positions rather than policing the discipline. Depending upon the participants, these exchanges can be quite heated and controversial (read: entertaining); I've seen a few academic vendettas played out, indeed, students are not the only ones who are disciplined on reviews. I wonder if it is necessary to see the projects that yield the discussions above. I think so; projects act as prompts or triggers to these discussions, how they spiral out away from the project might be an interesting way to approach their inclusion in Retrospecta

One of the beauties of Car Talk is how they shift the direction of the discussion around moving deftly from geography, fraternal ribbing, the car's problem, the caller's problems(!), corporate thrashing, etc. I wonder if we might model architecture discussion on Car Talk, opening the format to special 'puzzler' sections, making the review more of a call-in show, that is to say open to the complexities of the world. I don't know, but I'm on a review later today and I will definitely try to work carburetors in...

What about Studio 360?

As others have noted, most people in America already think cars are an important topic. A show like Car Talk about design would have the job of showing to America that design is an important topic to them and that discussions about design can also be discussions about life. This seems reasonable, but a different project altogether.

The excerpts are interesting and entertaining if you begin with the premise that Architecture is important. If not, they may just seem like bickering. We need to identify with the participants enough to enjoy any self-reflection, to see the humor in our own enthrallment.

Is this topic another stab at "how can we show to the world the importance of design?" If so, I'm all for it. But I'm not sure how it will work.
Trent Williams

My suggestion that there be a radio program dedicated to design was actually slightly tongue-in-cheek. I agree that Studio 360 is already operating in this territory.

My larger question is: what's worth capturing in the kinds of conversations that happen between jurors at these kinds of critiques? Back in 1985, Rizolli published The Charlottesville Tapes, the transcripts from a sort of retreat that Peter Eisenman convened with the celebrated architects of his day (including Johnson, Koolhaus, Isosaki, Krier, Ando, Moneo, Gehry and Meier) at the University of Virginia.

Each participant presented a current project and the others discussed it, heatedly at times. As one of the participants, Jaqueline Robertson wrote, "Like school juries, it was a time of both high-minded objective criticism and the settling of a number of old and new scores." If you have an interest in this sort of thing, it is indispensible: the sessions provided a number of quotes and exchanges that have become legendary.

As far as I know, there is nothing comparable in the field of graphic design, outside of a few competition jury comments here and there in magazines like ID. Why not?

As a side note, Michael Sorkin later wrote a withering review of the The Charlottesville Tapes that took the form of a short play, with all dialog rendered in perfectly rhyming couplets. You can find it in his collection The Exquisite Corpse. It is without a doubt the funniest piece of design criticism I have ever read.
Michael Bierut

I work at an Architecture firm, and I have found discussing my design projects with Architects to be more fulfilling than discussing them with Graphic Designers. Part of this, I believe, stems from academic programs in Architecture being more rigorous in making students justify their designs, and part of this may stem from Architects being so well-exercised in design theory, yet at the same time relatively naive about Graphic Design.

I found Jorge's argument to be very relevant to today's Graphic Design, in that there are certain "schools" who can't seem to produce anything that isn't directly pulled from the past, and will glorify it while avoiding today's innovations. Maybe this is why an Architect untrained in Graphic Design is refreshing to discuss with.

Perhaps the reason you don't hear such fervent arguments between Graphic Designers is the relative lack of rigor in the average practicing Graphic Designer's training, but there seems to be something that lies in the inherent qualities of the respective disciplines. In terms of discussion that relates directly to life, do Architects have more influence over the general population than Graphic Designers? If it hasn't been so in the past, then Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas seems to indicate that there is a shift in the other direction. Maybe Architectural design is more focused on purpose than Graphic Design, resulting in potential for more concrete discussion - sometimes a column must exist for a building to function, but how can you justify the use of a rule or other ornament?

I think it's rather that architects are now trained to inhabit a world of far-reaching critical theory, as opposed to the mundane, Dionysian world of aesthetics. I've yet to meet an architect who even acknowledged that buildings even have a visual dimension, which I find weird; even the most hardened MFA graphic designer out of Cranbrook or CalArts, while comfortable thinking in structuralism and semiotics, isn't above stopping to admire a handsome logo.
Jonathan Hoefler

I've been exposed to some architects that have been "trained to inhabit a world of far-reaching critical theory" and who can barely utter three coherent sentences as a result. And, while I agree they seldom talk about the visual dimension of buildings, architects are well aware of architecture as an aesthetic experience; they simply choose to take it as a given, or not useful to talk about, particularly with clients.

Architects have an advantage in that there are so many many functional and programmic requirements to be resolved in even a very simple building, they can push aesthetic issues off to the side in preliminary discussions. Of course, they're always there: it's just that by the time the project goes into design development, most of the time has been taken about talking about the location of, say, the front door, rather than its shape or appearence. Suddenly the door actually looks a certain way, and it's too late to ask why.

Compare that to designing a business card. The functional requirements can be stated thusly: the card must bear all necessary information and be readable. Okay, with that out of the way, everything else is aesthetics. Thus it is with many forms of graphic design, which explains in part why graphic design is harder to talk (and write) about.
Michael Bierut

I agree that the functional and programmatic requirements in Architecture help Architects brush visuals under the rug, but in The New Typography, Tschichold showed that much more function and social and technological implications could be injected into business card design rationale. Maybe if Graphic Designers had more organized schools of thought, with enough dialogue, certain rationale behind design decisions could become perceived as "true" or "right." I have had Architect friends ask me to describe various schools of thought in Graphic Design, but I had difficulty, because we don't really have any.

I find it really odd that Architects would deny there being any visual aspect to Architecture, because if this is so, then why are there "dishonest" materials such as EFIS, colored-concrete, and "brick" walls that are actually concrete cast around brick faces. While these materials may be in Architecture to some extent what Signs-By-Tomorrow is to Graphic Design, they are still a part of Architecture, and I think indicate not only that Architecture can be visual, but that an Architect cannot always hide behind functional and programmatic requirements. A good example of visuals in non-Burger King Architecture is Michael Graves' Portland Building. You'll notice if you read his description, that he uses an important Architecture vocabulary word: context. An Architect's regard for context is probably the best example I can give of Architecture being visual in even the finest projects.

So, why don't Graphic Designers speak so eloquently (or incoherently) about their work? The lack of rigor in design theory discussion in Graphic Design's academic programs is probably due to the fact that Graphic Designers as a population are not as intelligent as Architects, and why would we be? It's probably not salary, because, due to the liability that comes with being an Architect, Graphic Designers make comparable wages to Architects (and even more than Architects, early in their careers). It could be that Architecture is a more demanding profession than Graphic Design. It's much easier for the average person to design a brochure than it is for them to design and build a house, and while neither product is likely to be considered "good" by members of the respective professions, the consequences of failure are far greater in the latter case.

Competition may be greater in Architecture (and thus intelligence higher) because the title of "Architect" has a more desirable status than that of "Graphic Designer," and this is due not only to the perceived difference in complexity of what members of those professions do, but it may be because Graphic Design, as a young profession, is still struggling with an inferiority complex that makes us question whether that is, in fact, the title that we desire.

Our work is certainly as ubiquitous in our everyday environment as that of an Architect, but the product of the latter seems to be perceived with more honor than the former. One reason may be the ephemerality of the Graphic Designer's product, and another reason may be that Architects are always beating us out in changing society in a positive way. We can be credited with the dishonorable accomplishment of creating communication systems that have assisted in turning the average American into a consumption zombie, and some Architects contribute to urban sprawl by designing strip malls and suburban "communities." The ironic thing is that the Graphic Designers who do the best job of corrupting the masses are held as heros while the Architects who "sell out" are ridiculed by their peers. The superior social conscience of Architects is evident in their spearheading of the "sustainable" movement. Just try doing a Google search first on "sustainable architecture," and then on "sustainable print design."

As long as we're making sweeping categorical statements about architects and graphic designers, I'll note without comment kadavy's suggestion that architects are both more intelligent and more socially committed than graphic designers, but throw into the debate my observation that graphic designers are much more effective at communicating the ideas behind their work. I have seen many architects -- well known ones too -- make presentations (both public presentations and ones to clients) where they simply strung together long passages of opaque archibabble. Part of this lack of interest in communicating with others may come from the arrogance engendered by the superiority that kadavy notes.
Michael Bierut

It's much easier for the average person to design a brochure than it is for them to design and build a house
You're telling me that Rem Koolhaas (or his ilk), personally given all the tools, can build me a house (like, say, my trade-schooled dad did for our family)? I await the evidence.
kenneth fitzgerald

"I have seen many architects -- well known ones too -- make presentations (both public presentations and ones to clients) where they simply strung together long passages of opaque archibabble. Part of this lack of interest in communicating with others may come from the arrogance engendered by the superiority that kadavy notes."

Alleged superiority. And please remember that architects form a large and very diverse class. Jeffrey Kipnis, cited above, might seem to fall into this category, but I believe he is still just a critic. With a Master's in Physics and several books to his credit. But his question about "public and private" leads me to believe he is still ignorant of much of the basis of architectural theory, and disdainful of an arbitrary starting point that he does not agree with. (In a review with him 20 years ago he went on and on about the "exculpation" which was so critical a part of the project. Kenneth - do not let this man near your lot with a backhoe.)

So we all might just as well talk about cars. Tom and Ray are very sharp, and knowledgeable of what they speak, but would car talk be anywhere near as successful were it not for their personalities?

Hello to all, as a frequent lurker and sometime design professror, I'd like to poke my head in here. It seems to me that what architecture needs, more than a platform to lecture from or a scribes to record its discourse, is charismatic critics(or practitioners) who can discuss buildings with the same level of personability, insight and common sense as the Car Talk folks. I, for one, have a hard time getting fascinated with Kenneth Frampton ranting about a lack of fundamental principles. It seems to me that to have a popular design show you'd need to produce criticism that engages with popular concerns.
-Where's Rayner Banham when you need him? no doubt rolling over in his grave at the suggestion that we need "Car Talk--except instead of cars its about Design." Let me emphatically agree and re-exclaim with Lorraine: Car Talk IS a design show and I can't help but think that the inability to recognize cars as design is direclty related to the fact that architects and graphic designers are not (generally) producing criticism that resonates with a general public. If we won't recognize "Queer eye" as design criticism, we have to ask ourselves why not and deal with the implications, no?

Thanks for listening to Architech Talk and remember don't build like my brother.

It seems to me that design criticism is about the process of design (graphic or architectural) where The Tappet Bros. are involved more in the use of cars. (yes they might get rapsical about the look of some old Studabaker but that's just sentiment.)

Brilliant practical advise: A woman called in about an annoying noise that her car was making. The Car Guys quickly determined the color of the vehicle, that the noise did not represent any safety hazzard, and that there was no cost efficient repair. Their advise - "Turn up the radio."

You may be interested to know about a project called Architecture Radio (www.architecture-radio.org); I'm one of the founding members. We publish audio and video recordings of public lectures on architecture online. The project is only a few months old, but we are picking up momentum.

I'm happy to tell you that there actually is an audience for this kind of material, and I have both the traffic logs and consequent visa bills to confirm that.

The reason this works where conventional radio doesn't is that clearly the Internet has a greater catchment area than a radio tower, and the distribution costs are low. If there isn't already an opera-talk radio, there may very well be one soon.

With respect to publishing academic crits, its not something we've discussed within our project. Right now, we're focussed primarily on the mainstay public lectures. However, if anyone is interested in talking about publishing an academic discussion, you are welcome to contact us through our web site. We'd be happy to talk to you about it.
Davis Marques

The architecture radio project sounds very interesting, it's nice to see people pursuing more expansive and creative forms of lecturing as well as discussion. Once the base grows for this program it will probably continue to be a very successful operation. In a world dominated now by the internet, it's nice to see more unconventional tactics, especially if it saves money, but also to reach people in a way that is not generally expected. The radio is a great idea. Good Luck
Josh Perlinski


Former Yale Architecture student Thomas Shine recently filed suit in Federal court against David Childs and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill for allegedly stealing his idea for a building in Mahnattan with a twisting stuctural grid. Mr Shine presented the design (which was created for the proposed 2012 Olympic Games) to Childs and others at a critique at Yale in 1999. The lawsuit alleges that the design for the Freedom Tower incorporates an identical structural grid and is remarkably similiar.

So I guess in between clever put-downs some of these guys are taking notes.

Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic. - Jean Sibelius
R. Rose

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