When does architecture “count”?

There has been a dialogue going on over the last week between two of the blogs I regularly read. It’s a recent installment in a long-running debate on what “counts” as architecture. If you went to architecture school, you are already familiar with the lines of argument that have been discussed in studios for as long as there have been studios. If you didn’t go to architecture school, then you can catch up on those years of debate with these 3 posts without pulling any all-nighters.

The Life of an Architect post that sparked the debate, by Bob Borson

The Coffee with an Architect response, by Jody Brown

The Life of an Architect follow-up, by Bob Borson

To summarize, does architecture only count, or become real, once it is a building? Or is architecture real once it is drawn or, even more in the abstract, once it is thought of? Is architecture about the built product, or about ideas and process?

You can see why delirious and possibly tipsy architecture students and professionals like to kick this question around. There is no right answer. If architecture only counts once it’s built then a tarpaper shed is in, but carefully considered and fully formed designs lacking only funds to build them are out. If architecture is only the ideas and process then most of suburban America’s “vanilla boxes” and “McMansions” don’t count, but countless physically infeasible and half-baked sketches do. I’m being intentionally unfair to both sides here in order to make a point. A tarpaper shed, while unsightly to most people, is probably very functional to whoever owns and uses it. Likewise, a physically infeasible sketch (paper architecture) can open your eyes to the world we live in in ways that a “brick and mortar” building can’t (or shouldn’t). You can see why the line is so blurry.

With all due respect to the big thinkers, I have to come down on the side that “If it isn’t built, it doesn’t count”. Or maybe, “If it can’t be built, it doesn’t count”. I think that making something buildable is where the rubber hits the road. Planes of ambiguous materiality floating in space on strings from heaven look compelling on a computer screen, but if you can’t bring that same feeling and experience into the real world, then it’s useless to your client. I’m also reminded of a recent post of mine talking about the failure of top-down thinking in urban design. The countless architects who came up with their Utopian models of cities had nothing but the best intentions behind their theories. They worked on paper. But faced with imperfect reality, the cracks in those big ideas become evident, and require rethinking.

I know there are plenty of people who disagree with me. If you want to try and convince me otherwise, or if you want to back me up with some sweet metaphors, comment below.

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