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Architecture’s Two Cultures (AND a Crucial Third) May 1, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, books, collaboration, essence, function, pragmatism, questions, sustainability, transformation, transition.
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Architecture today exhibits a clear dividing line between the haves and have-nots.

Between us and them.

It’s not a matter of who’s on top and who’s on bottom – one being high and the other low – for they are both high-minded.

High-minded, that is, about different things.

The Two Cultures was an influential lecture, given just over 50 years ago this week, by scientist and novelist C. P. Snow about how the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and humanities — was holding us back from solving the world’s major problems.

Architecture’s two cultures, similarly, can be best described as “high design” and “high delivery”.

In other words, architects devoted to architecture as art, and architects devoted to serving clients.

This model owes something to Weld Coxe, founder of the service professions management firm The Coxe Group, who passed away last month.

You can find a clear description of their model, published 25 years ago, here.

For simplicity’s sake, I am clumping together service and delivery, for they have one big thing in common: a client.

For some this might be likened to clumping together Vitruvius’ commodity and firmness and pitting them against delight.

Whereas, for high art (paper architecture, etc.), while patrons are welcome, they aren’t necessary.


It’s almost impossible to describe the two cultures without making a value judgment.

Innovators vs. Perpetuators of the status quo.

Ideas vs. Things.

Form vs. Function.

Thinking differently vs. The standard of care.

Sophisticated urban architects vs. Prosaic suburban architects.

AIA members vs. SARA members (or any other so-called alternative-AIA organizations.)

Local office continuing education events sponsored by USG Corp. vs. Outlier office sponsored industry events by Big Ass Fans.

The Architect’s Newspaper vs. Architect magazine.

Dwell and Domus vs. House Beautiful and Fine Homebuilding.

You get the idea.

In fact, it was a magazine that got this whole discussion rolling.

At the AIA Committee on Design Knowledge Community, an architect started a KnowledgeNet discussion thread last month concerning the Record Houses 2011 magazine issue.

The argument boils down to one word: elitism.

Record Houses, the argument goes, is elitist.

Exclusive, exclusionary and undemocratic.

Various voices chimed-in, leaving messages that, generally, complained the houses awarded year after year exhibit poor construction decision-making.

Or are uncomfortable to live in.

Or aren’t code-worthy.

Or don’t use construction best practices.

Or are unsustainable.

Or they leak.

In other words, their comments seem to say, “they may be art but I wouldn’t want to live in one.”

Several mentioned that these high-design homes perpetuate the image of the architect as designing for themselves, for each other or to receive awards and recognition.

Anything, really, but for what the world needs from a home today: shelter, safety, solace.

That Record Homes, if viewed in a doctor’s office by a non-architect, may leave the wrong conclusion of what we truly stand for as a profession, of where our true interests lie, and of what we value and believe.

In defense of the Record Houses issue, one architect admitted liking one of the houses:

“Do I design this way? I don’t have the client, the budget or, let’s face it, the talent.”

Another added:

“There are some beautifully resolved and detailed houses in the article, why the hate? I will argue for the issues of safety in public buildings but to use that as a metric for the merits of design for a home is misplaced…”

One counterpoint sums up the opposing side’s argument:

“Great architecture should be based on more than art alone. Otherwise it is sculpture.”

Architecture’s Third Culture

Just as CP Snow’s Two Cultures were welcomed by a Third Culture 20 years ago, so are ours today.

Snow’s Third Culture was a group envisioned as “curious non-scientists who could bridge the gap between scientists and humanists.”

In 1991, literary agent John Brockman wrote an essay entitled “The Third Culture.”

Architecture’s Third Culture could also be best described as a bridge.

One that can bridge a gaping hole between design and construction.

Architecture’s Third Culture would bridge the gap by removing the “vs.” between the two sides.

Replacing “vs.” with an “and.”

Today, for the world we face, we need to do both.

We need to be both.

Both/and. Not either/or.

For a world in need we, as architects, need to be more.

Because the world needs more.

And we have what it takes – as individuals, teams, firms and profession – to rise to the occasion.

We cannot afford any longer to stand apart.

To emphasize one side over the other.

Or ignore one side altogether.

Yes, the world needs beauty as much as it needs our services.

We need, today more than ever, to integrate our predilections and capabilities and stand together as one profession, however diverse we may be as individuals.

And we can start by dropping the divisiveness.

Replacing “vs.” with a simple “and.”

Architecture’s Next Destination (AND)

Call it the Yes AND movement.

We commit, here on out, in our work and in our lives, to address both ideas and things.

Both form and function.

Technology and process.

Academics and practitioners.

Design and construction.

Both thinking differently and exceeding the standard of care.

Beauty and sustainability.

BIM and integrated design.

To creating sophisticated, urban places and the revitalization of the suburbs.

To belong to – and volunteer at – any organization of our choosing.

Despite our schooling and training, which may have emphasized one over the other.

What we ought to have been doing all along.

Improv Wisdom

It’s like the old improv “Yes And” game.

The game represents a vital rule of improvisational theater:

Never deny your fellow actor.

Take what you’re given, whatever line you’re fed, and say “yes and…”

Be willing and able to accept the ideas the other person conveys.

Then, it’s your turn to add to the scene.

This improv principle is known as “Yes And.” Here’s how it works:

At the beginning of the scene, Character #1 will begin by establishing setting and plot.

Character #1: What a terrible time to be an architect!

Following the “Yes And” method, Character #2 will accept the premise and add onto the situation.

Character #2: Yep and the boss said we don’t get no salary until this model is coordinated.

Character #1: Yes and ain’t he the meanest cuss we’ve ever worked for?

Character #2: Yep and it’s made me think about leaving behind this cowboy life and headin’ off for bluer horizons. (Learn more about the method here.)

Seated with the project team, someone tosses out an idea that troubles you.

Never deny your teammate. You respond by saying, “Yes and…”

Don’t like what the client has given you in the way of a program, schedule or budget?

Never deny your client. “Yes and…”

Don’t like what the economy has given you?

Never deny your circumstances. “Yes and…”

Or the site. Or the budget. Or the schedule.

Yes And: Not either/Or.

Yes And: A Collaborative Attitude.

Yes And: Architecture’s Third Culture

Yes And: Architect’s New Direction

Yes And: Architecture’s Next Destination

This is the message we want to be making to others.

Do you agree?

Watch for Architecture’s Two Cultures (AND a Crucial Third) Part 2



1. Randy - May 3, 2011

Add the duality Modern vs. Traditional. How did I miss that?

2. Marc Teer - May 3, 2011

I like the Yes-And idea. It suggests a new way to look at ones work.

I also think we all need to become ok with the either-or… By defining ones work as not this or that, it helps people understand their own work. Maybe the discussion itself is the most useful outcome…

3. Hollie - May 3, 2011

yes, and thank you for bringing this up… Welcome third culture!

4. Ted Pratt - May 3, 2011

Great post Randy! As my business partner, Fred says, “Let the right brain and left brain dance.” I take great pride in combing the intuitive with the analytical in my practice. Design and construction go hand in hand and to separate the two is taking a risk I find unacceptable. I want my design work completed and don’t leave it to others to oversee.

5. Andrew Abernathy - Tucson, AZ - May 3, 2011

I’ve long been a proponent of the ‘yes’ inclusion concept. As architects we have a ‘greater good’ to perform as part of our responsibility to our fellows.
‘Yes’ presupposed the act of inclusion and agreement. Yes is positive. Yes is powerful. Yes is active. Yes provides possibility. Yes is courage.

Yes should be the watchword of all design professionals to release the possibility of success in all those around us who seem to see no end of problems, issues and disagreement. It is our responsibility of leadership we agreed to when we took up this profession.

6. Anne Whitacre - May 17, 2011

I assume that I’m going to make a bunch of people mad with this comment but its simple: the best architects I know — the ones who relate to their clients, are creative and inclusionary — have had therapy.
a lot of it.
About thirty years ago, I was at a cocktail party and happened to be talking with the Owner’s representative for a health care organization and they had interviewed “my” firm. (the one I worked for at the time). They said “we really wanted them to win, but they kept telling us what they wanted to do, and never listened to what we wanted to do. We even had another round of interviews because we thought they would do better the second and third time around. They didn’t listen.”
I told my managing partner about this conversation and when I was done he said (really) “so. what’s the problem. We do know more than them.”
EVERY architect I have worked with who I thought was good with clients (and a good designer) has been in therapy. Not for the 4 months that was part of their divorce — but long term in the way that writers and artists and musicians have gone into analysis — to become more integrated in their thinking; more accepting of ideas not their own; and deeper artists.
In addition — it makes them better employers/business owners, too.

Randy Deutsch - May 18, 2011

As always Anne, an interesting comment and insight. One that will no doubt, in my case, lead to another post.

Architects have been accused of being a lot of things – and the common denominator, I believe, is due to lack of self-awareness. If therapy can help to provide this, it is worth the investment.

There’s the scene in Sketches of Gehry where we meet Frank Gehry’s longtime therapist, Dr Milton Wexler. I believe this scene came as a shock to many – that an architect has the time to meet with a therapist, that an architect has the funds to pay for therapy, that an architect can’t work out all of their inner turmoil in the pursuit of their passion.

I believe the perspective of a therapist is so important to those in our profession that I included an interview with a therapist and psychologist in my book, BIM and Integrated Design http://amzn.to/k33fvW

My guess is that architects reading your comment won’t get mad – but they may be surprised.

Anne Whitacre - May 20, 2011

Randy- that scene in the movie (about Frank’s therapist) was one of the reasons I went to work for him. I did a 10 year stint in Jungian analysis — because I wanted to be a better writer and thinker and the people I know whose minds I liked had gone through Jungian work. (I also had the requisite divorce therapy, and that other day to day stuff, but it wasn’t the same).

In my case, part of the issue was being a woman in such a male dominated world (35 years ago ) — part of therapy for me was learning to “translate” a male world view to a female world view. My career started in the mid-1970’s when there were still “women’s auxiliary” chapters of the AIA and CSI.

I also found it useful to take up a combat sport (boxing and fencing) for a while. There were times when I put the name of a project manager on the heavy bag hanging in my basement. Experience and age helps with some of those issues.

Architects talk a lot about being “artists” (as opposed to being business owners) but I think more artists are accepting of the idea of internal work — because their work tends to be so subjective in general. Architects seem to want the aura of being an artist, without doing the “artist” type internal work. At that point, they often default to being business owners and technicians and abandon the integration that comes with being an artist.

7. Randy Deutsch - May 21, 2011

As always Anne, very thought-provoking. Especially your last line, “the integration that comes with being an artist.” I absolutely love that – amd for all the writing I do on the subject (my teaching, other blog and book among them)I have not looked at integration from quite this perspective before. I’m sure, in time, this idea of yours will lead to another post… Thanks for the gift!

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