Are architects a bunch of playboys?

image: Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, Chicago.

Architects love to create head turning, commission leading buildings and other such things. OK the above is pretty cool; a huge fountain that shoots water out of the mouths of one of a 1000 local people, their image projected onto the tiled wall in turn.

Is it useful? No.

Does it contribute to the greater good of human kind? No.

Does it improve on our impact with the environment? No.

What happened to the architects sense of mission? The sense of the greater good?

Maybe they’re just a bunch of middle class playboys looking for a prize and a little cuddle from their peers.

Who knows!


image: By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

The above shows that there are serious efforts out there to bring smart eco-architecture to the masses. Twenty solar-powered houses built by university students and associates from around the world will open to the public Friday on the National Mall. More here.

Maybe it’s the bankers and the builders that need a shot of adrenaline.

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21 Responses to Are architects a bunch of playboys?

  1. Beauty, imagination and play DO have an important function. I would not want to live in a world without those.

    Apart from that, architects HAVE developed and ARE developing multiple good and usefull ideas about energy, ecology and affordability, the big problems or challenges of this time.

    Many architecture media focus exclusively on projects with ‘sex-appeal’ indeed. They render an image of playboys and starchitects, because sex sells. But it depends on which media or channels you follow, as there are others that focus on the types of problem solving innovations that you rightfully ask for. There ARE responsible, engaged and aware architects, with loads of good investigations, proposals and ideas. You have to look for them beyond the stages of the heros of mainstream. shows debate, proposals and answers to affordability and poverty. And it is also possible to build zero-energy homes. The technology is there and the plans are there. All of these were developed by commited scientists, architects, firms and engineers. Not seldom at their/our own behalve.

    The bottleneck so far? A zero-energy home will cost you 10-20% extra at the start and it is hard to sell such rational things, until everybody has it, until there is a real sense of urgency or until they are simply prescribed. The bottleneck with affordable housing? Real estate is run by investors and they earn more with more expensive buildings. Politicians are afraid to allow ‘cheap’ -but smart- buildings. In general, building is a place where people put all their money in, so they are conservative. Another aspect is that a home has huge emotional value, which leads to a conservative approach as well.

    All that you are rightfully looking for DOES exist. It is just not mainstream yet. Architects -not all of them, but the innovative and responsible ones- will definitely be ready to provide when the public is ready to receive.

  2. suburbanlife says:

    Yes, they are big boys playing in a big sand-lot and impressing all around with their cleverness. Wow, how did they ever come up with that? How did they uses their shovels and pails to get that to stand up? Whay can’t I do that? Will they notice me and play with me? What do I have to do to have them as friends? Will I too be special if they are my friends? etc. , etc,.
    Some things about us humans never change! G

  3. matt says:


    Excellent reply & thank you.

    You are right of course that there are very committed architects out there designing useful low energy buildings. They must be frustrated, as you allude to, with having to wait in the wings while globe trotting egotists like Rogers and Foster (for example) concentrate on conquering world cities with their trophy designs, rather than producing useful, environmentally important break through architecture.

    In the UK, with housing for example, we are now at a stage where we hear about the same ground breaking projects, over & over again ( e.g. Bed ZED because things just are not moving fast enough. Or we find weekend newspapers featuring people living in ‘eco-friendly’ mud huts that look no more suitable for the Tele Tubbies than they do families!

    Something has to give and OK, I accept that investors and yes, many house buyers, are a conservative lot with design & price. Maybe Scandinavia or Germany have the answer with their kit set approach to new build and zeal for environmental solutions. And the designs need not be boring.

    A debate recently on our Radio 4 station here had a chap who exclaimed that the UK needs to get away from the terraced housing approach and move up with more 4 story apartment blocks. The type that have surrounding gardens, play grounds, even swimmimg pools. This I think is increasingly the way forward for efficiencies to be achieved in a number of areas.

  4. matt says:

    Hi G

    Yes, they start off with a vision as boys don’t they; to throw sand in everyone’s face … and get paid for it! 🙂

  5. Pete Smith says:

    Well, there’s architects and architects. The work in your headline picture can’t really be called architecture, it’s a cross between a monument and a sculpture. It’s obviously a prestige project, the kind of thing that leads on to even bigger things. Architects have their greasy pole to climb just like everyone else.
    The small-scale stuff in your second picture, is that really architecture either? Bear in mind that one of the most successful and enduring urban forms, the inter-war suburb, was built by speculative developers without the help of any architect.

  6. matt says:

    > the inter-war suburb, was built by speculative developers without the help of any architect.

    True enough. In fact probably a good deal of Britain was built this way. I believe my area of London, most of it built in a hurry around 1900, was cobbled together under similar circumstances. Probably the professional of ‘architecture’ didn’t exist back then as such anyway. Some builders were better than others. They probably had a sense of pride; a key component.

  7. Pete Smith says:

    And some houses were better than others, catering for different markets and wallets. In my neck of the woods, houses by a local builder, George Spencer, are considered highly desirable, meriting a mention in estate agents’ details alongside school catchment areas. Spencer houses are solidly-built, well-proportioned, often with a few Arts and Crafts details to create an individual feel. And not an ‘architect’ in sight, just a good old-fashioned craftsman’s approach to building.

  8. matt says:

    Ah, good old fashioned craftsmen. Those were the days.

  9. I am getting the vague impression that this is an “I hate architects” blog, but that makes it only more interesting for me to reply. You seem to prefer developer-only or craftsmen-only projects. That is a remarkably nostalgic thought for a progressive blog like this. If you want to solve the big issues, you need overall/conceptual building intelligence, which is the domain of architects/engineers. Architects are building engineers that can do much more than talk about flashy aesthetics.

  10. matt says:

    Hey Hajo

    It’s OK. I’m with you on the need to encourage progressive environmentally aware architects.

    Some people around here romanticize the notion of returning to cave dwelling days. I don’t!

    When did the profession of the ‘architect’ begin (roughly)?

    Maybe builders and craftsmen of yesteryear did do all the hard work and fancy design before architects came along.

  11. suburbanlife says:

    Hajo – this is not bash-architects week. It is an unfortunate fact that the architects who get most of the press are the ones foraying into the glamourous pushing of the aesthetic envelope. I hope this changes as people desire to seek out liveable and affordable design. Beauty and functionality are not mutually exclusive. G

  12. Hi there Suburbanlife, I am glad to hear the Architect Bashing Week is not today, although I kind of look forward to it every year;

    Hi Matt, Architectural History goes something like this: temples, pyramids, palaces, forums, collosseums, cathedrals, villas for aristocrats, villas for rich captains of industry, then utility buildings and mass/industrial housing. So we are only since with our feet on Earth, while the roots are in sacral and elite buildings.

    I believe somewhere around 1850 there were established the first real schools/academies/universities for architects. There have always been two streams since that very beginning: Fine Arts academies (Beaux Arts) and Technical Universities (Ecoles Polytechniques). Or, probably the Fine Arts approach is a bit older actually.

    I think one century ago architects were much closer to contractors and craftsmen then they are today, due to the specialization that we see all around the world in every branche. Building is now teamwork with many specialists, while it used to be the architect and the contractor. So that is where you get disintegration of beauty, technology, making and pragmatic use, I guess. There are still architects with an integral interest, but is is rather in spite of the current situation than due that.


  13. matt says:

    Hi Hajo

    Thanks for the info.

    One of the other problems, which you have already alluded to, is that everyone’s in an almighty hurry these days with costs always at the forefront of their minds. Governments, at least the UK govt, have cottoned on to this idea of capping costs so that a main contractor quotes for a job and that’s it, no leeway on cost overruns are given. Wembley Stadium is a classic case of this. Multiplex Ltd lost money on the job because of Chinese demand for steel pushing up prices and labour always shoots up in cost too.

    Poor old architects have a hard time of it don’t they. Hardly a chance to flourish and express their inner desires. Sounds like the rest of us really. 🙂

  14. Pete Smith says:

    “I am getting the vague impression that this is an “I hate architects” blog”

    Hi Hajo,
    I guess I can understand how you got that impression, but I don’t think it was deliberate. People in general don’t understand what architects do. They become aware of them through the media, in coverage of prestige projects, such as huge developments or decorative items such as the Crown Fountain pictured above, which are largely irrelevant to the ‘man in the street’. Architects are also criticised for their contribution to mass housing developments, variously described as “cheap”, “unimaginative”, “homogeneous”, “boring”. Although as Matt points out, there are cost factors; good design costs money.
    I read the original post as lumping all architects together under the same label, and I tried to distinguish between ‘glamour’ projects and small-scale architecture that should be relevant to everyday life. There are parallels between architecture and the worlds of art and fashion. Would you want to hang a Turner prize winning piece on your wall? Would you wear the latest outrageous creation from Alexander McQueen to go to the supermarket?
    By the way, I wish your blog was in English, it looks very interesting.

  15. I am not sure about the irrelevance of Crown Fountain for ‘the man in the street’, as I thought Crown Fountain and the whole of Millennium Park is a big hit. It is sexy, it is human, it is playfull, it is empathic, so it is popular. The Roman dogma applies: we need Bread AND Play. This is Play. Bread is not enough.

    “…Architects are also criticised for their contribution to mass housing developments, variously described as cheap, unimaginative, homogeneous, boring…”

    I know. But again, I think the architects would agree (if they were honest at least). I am pretty sure that most architects have the desire to design high quality buildings, and quite a few of us also have the capabilities to do so, but it takes money and time, plus clients that are quality-sensitive, quality-dedicated and quality-convinced, in order to do that little bit more. The kind of projects that you mention -mass housing- is not exactly where you will find such conditions.

    I am afraid that Matt’s bottomline is right: “Hardly a chance to flourish and express their inner desires. Sounds like the rest of us really.”

    “By the way, I wish your blog was in English, it looks very interesting.”

    Thanks a lot! The irony is that it WAS in English. I just started translating it into Dutch (at this time there is still some 40% left that displays English text, under Dutch headlines though).

  16. Re. Millennium Park, Chicago.

    Is it useful? Yes.

    It brightens up peoples day and makes people feel good about their surroundings allowing them to identify with an area. The reason the architects got the press for this piece is because they’ve crossed over into art – art gets the press, its that simple. Call it PR for buildings.

    Does it contribute to the greater good of human kind? Yes.

    The artwork engenders a sense of social pride and as the projection rotates the everyday public are celebrated (and not the architects or designers as the author suggests).

    Does it improve on our impact with the environment? Yes.

    As an artwork, if this was painted or or tiled from kiln fired brick it would have a hundred times more impact on the environment. Projecting an image is a low carbon alternative for creating an impressive temporary artwork without the pollutants and cost of materials. This sort of temporary public art is a green alternative to permanent public artworks.

  17. matt says:


    Thank you for your comments. I respect them of course from a human centric point of view. The post is looking at what architects are actually doing to proactively lessen human impact upon our surroundings from an environment point of view. We’re talking wider issues here than just the human urban environment.

    As good as the Millennium Park no doubt is, it does nothing to concentrate on the environmental problems we all face. I see nothing there about renewables for example. Why don’t they feature, at least to educate the public.

    As I say, projects like the Millennium Park fulfil their role in regenerating an urban area but, on a wider note there are not enough architects out there breaking new ground with zero carbon buildings for example. Lucky however this is beginning to change. See the ‘Housing’ catergory in this blog and particularly this post about the Barratt green house.

  18. bruce says:

    I find your comments quite amusing. Do a search for more images of this “fountain” (I am sure you already have). What do you see?? People gathered around, amused, communicating, socializing, interacting, inspired… the list could go on and on. I agree totally that every architect has an environmental responsibilty, however we must not forget the sole purpose of architecture is not to simply shelter humans but to also create spaces that can inspire humans. The space you have been discussing does exactly that. Countless people stop and take the fountain in and use it as an excuse to break out of their humdrum lives and interact with other people in their community. To me that is for the greater good of man kind and also proves that it is useful.

  19. matt says:


    Thanks for your comment. I think what you say is fair and balanced. Open spaces and parks are extremely important, as are the design pieces that are chosen to ‘inspire’. Let’s hope the architects involved with this fountain have been busy with other environmentally inspired projects as well.

  20. John88 says:

    Unless the person who spoke is filled with hatred for Black people, their comments can not be decribed honestly and correctly as "hate speech". ,

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