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In 1943 Ayn Rand wrote the novel Fountainhead, the story of Howard Rourk, the disillusioned architect struggling to make a living practicing Modern architecture in a world of tradition. Ms. Rand’s novel illustrates her fiction of the ideal modern man, and how individual genius triumphs over collectivism. In the end, Howard blows up his final masterpiece to avoid having it compromised by his client.

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Gary Cooper as the tortured genius, Howard Rourk.

Today every student of architecture is expected to read Rand’s novel in order to prepare for a career of battles against the traditional collective (and no doubt also their clients)- of course, to illustrate to our future young architects that to compromise to tradition is to lose one’s integrity as an artist. Every student is taught that his or her genius will be the salvation of our society and that those who adhere to tradition would stand in the very way of that individual’s ability to change the world for the better.

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Old Harvard Yard

As I walked through Old Harvard Yard, populated with students and groups of aspiring students herded to their orientation, I anticipated my arrival at Gund Hall, Harvard’s Graduate School of Architecture, where I was to give a talk. I passed from the verdant space filled with people, through the ornate iron Harvard gates into a sterile modern plaza that led to a large concrete bunker that I knew as my destination. I walked across the open space, and crossed the street to the front door. Here, I found a sign that said, “This is not an entrance”. I then circumvented a concrete silo to discover a non-descript door several meters down where I could enter. Although comical, not being able to recognize simple things like an entrance is so commonplace today that it has given way to the new industry of “way-finding”. It is a industry made up of (surprise) architects telling us how to find our way through our new edifices- something that has for millennia been a natural function of the buildings we occupy and use. The simple act of finding a front door has never been an issue until just recently.Gund Hall, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design- Front door (not) straight ahead.

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Gund Hall, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design- Front door (not) straight ahead.

The rising profession of way-finding.

 

What is worse, is the assault on our cities and public spaces that we see today. With every architectural institution’s need to be different; with every architect who asserts his or her genius upon the common collective, we continue to diminish the public realm. It strikes at the very heart of who we are and who we think we are. As a society, we have allowed the narcissistic tendencies of a few to sever the continuum of our building history and all that it means to us as a people.

 

So we find ourselves challenged daily by the genius of others – those who wish to change our lives for the better, creating even greater challenges because, rather than trusting in human nature- the things that come naturally to us as functioning human beings, they have come to trust in their genius only. Someone recently directed me to the Latin definition of “idiot”, or Idiota- One who is concerned only with self-centeredness and has no regard for the public and refuses to take part in public life. I find the term humorously appropriate.

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Atelier Jean Nouvel’s $1.6 billion Sidney Building featured in this month’s Architectural Record.

Note- We are not normally given to academic rants, and have no desire to draw battle lines within our profession. However, given the so very strong response to our last blog, I felt obligated to follow up with a couple of more entries on the subject of a balanced and responsible approach to architecture; after which, we will return to our normal, more light-hearted programming! Comments regarding way-finding were inspired by a recent talk by architect Elizabeth McNicholas of MGLM Architects, Chicago.