Page C3.2 . 28 June 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department



What is the Culture of Building?


Most architects see these contexts as affecting their work in specific ways. Architects' professional time is largely devoted to activities that are dealing with those other institutions, rather than the activity of design itself.

On one hand it is clear that the complexity of the contemporary building world, the size of the institutions within it, and the size and complexity of projects themselves all require a kind of activity that is quite different from the image of the creative artist that many people maintain in their minds when they think of architects.

In this light, many architects understand the importance of collaboration and of bringing many different points of view to bear on a problem. Often, careful solutions to architectural problems may come from the innovative bringing together of many different voices.

But at the same time, many architects would also agree that the current situation does not really do this in a helpful way. Much of architects' time is spent on the telephone or in bureaucratic meetings with contractors, clients, or building officials, in coordination of one kind or another, and in documenting these meetings and telephone calls.

Much of the result of this activity is symbolized by the mountains of paper that must accompany projects, and by costs that are questionable in their contribution to building quality. Much of this work is done not to make the building better, but to reduce legal exposure and to keep track of professional costs.

An important question is therefore how the quality of buildings is affected by the nature of the building cultureľ-how the building culture acts on the everyday activities of architects and many other players. In our view, the building culture, its institutions, and the kind of procedures that people within the building culture follow are all central to the question of quality.

For ArchitectureWeek, these professional issues are a window into a rich set of much broader concerns. It is not the intention of this section, Building Culture, to be like the "Practice" or "Construction Industry" sections of the typical monthly architecture magazines. The idea of the building culture is much more fundamental than as an adjunct to the "real business" of design.

Not that design is not important--of course it is. But building is fundamentally a social enterprise; the nature of this enterprise has changed over history; it differs from place to place; and in particular situations it controls the quality of the bulk of the buildings that are built. Most of the vast number of buildings in the world have had little involvement by architects, yet they form the settings for people's everyday lives.

Architects have never been as influential with respect to housing, for example, as they have been with other building types. Yet, the character of buildings is often not only an accurate reflection of culture, but the result of specific processes that allow building cultures to operate--with or without the participation of architects.

So the purpose of this section is to see architecture and buildings in context--to see the buildings that architects do in the context of all of the buildings around them; and to see the work that architects do in the context of the work done by all the other players--ranging from clients to building workers--they deal with. It is our contention that such a view is essential to understanding not only contemporary practice but how contemporary practice may be improved, and to understanding how cities themselves, which are the products of thousands of individual people, may also be improved.

Howard Davis is the author of The Culture of Building (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999) and professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.



ArchWeek Photo

Manufactured house factory in New England. In some places in the United States, manufactured houses represent a majority of new housing stock. The number of manufacturers has decreased over the last 20 years as their average size has grown.
Photo: Howard Davis

ArchWeek Photo

Center for the Arts in Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, designed by Fumihiko Maki. Many cities, even those like San Francisco which have strong concentrations of architectural talent, seek to bring in well known architects from elsewhere for high-profile projects.
Photo: Howard Davis

ArchWeek Photo

The last steel beam in the construction of a new building to house a law school for the University of Oregon in Eugene. The picture indicates something very old and something relatively new about the building culture.
Photo: Howard Davis

ArchWeek Photo

Typical suburban development in the United States is characterized by developers' perception of the market and by regulations which control such things as the width of streets, site coverage, drainage, building construction, and parking.
Photo: Howard Davis


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