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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Value-added Architecture

This is a continuation of the "Reconsidering Architecture" discussion posted on the AIAKnowledgeNet.It has been updated for this site on 1/18/2015 at approximately 3:10PM.
Mr. Ytterberg’s comments have given me pause since he is a professor of architecture and urban history, theory and design at the University of Pennsylvania. As such his comments are influential and they’ve stayed with me.

He makes two points that I didn’t address in my first response:

1)      That architecture is a “value-added” profession.

2)      That: “There are many designers of the environment – that is not the privileged realm of the architect.”

These comments are stunning because I believe architecture is a strategy to achieve a goal. I believe the unrecognized goal is to shelter growing populations within a limited Built Domain that protects their quality and source of life. This means that architecture has fundamental value that is not recognized. 

Shelter is essential to survival but can sprawl to consume its source of life. Sprawl grows one project at a time. A project is the realm of an architect. The goal is the realm of the organization. I believe the goal I’ve mentioned is essential to the public interest because we can’t survive without shelter, but it has an impact on the environment and our source of life. For instance, we could solve climate change and still consume the planet with sprawl.

The tools, concepts and knowledge required to address the goal I’ve mentioned can place architecture in a leadership position that requires its correlation skills, if it accepts the challenge. In other words, repositioning begins with an examination of the organizational goal in my opinion. We need shelter to survive and we cannot survive without symbiotic solutions. A foolish parasite consumes its host. Other parasites evolve to establish symbiotic relationships.

At the present time architectural goals are primarily dictated by special interest. Strategy is based on intuition and anticipation that is always influenced by emotion, but depends on intelligence and knowledge. Knowledge is accumulated from research referred to as intelligence by the military. As knowledge increases, strategy improves but contribution depends on the scope of the goal. As long as the architectural goal is limited to special interest, the population will consider the benefit marginal. Professional requests to introduce a public mandate for architectural leadership will be considered self-serving.

If architectural education is focused on bringing emotion and appearance to the need for shelter, then I believe full disclosure is long overdue; because the name of the education is entirely misleading.

The fact that architecture is not considered part of environmental design is another stunner. The “privileged realm of the architect” indicates a disconnection with the public interest.

It appears that the definition of architecture deserves further consideration as a first step in the effort to reposition the profession. Vitruvius offered a definition of excellent architecture to Augustus that was outdated long ago, but he avoided the definition of architecture. If you say that architecture is shelter designed by an architect the public may agree, but this will not improve their respect for the effort. This will require a sustainable, environmental focus; not justification based on value-added emotion, appearance and privilege. This is a contention that appears “out of touch with the mainstream of society”. I’ve borrowed this phrase from Mr. Ytterberg’s criticism of the current re-positioning discussion.

Previous Response to Mr. Ytterberg

Naiveté has gotten us to this point. A building is always a structure but a structure is not always a building. All buildings are shelter. It is naive to claim that shelter is not architecture unless it passes a litmus test of emotion and appearance. This argument says to me that only design award winners are architecture and only the work of practitioners is an issue. I think many architects will disagree.

This argument seems to miss the point. It is not just the work of practitioners that should be debated and classified as architecture or non-architecture. The support they all receive to improve their value and credibility to the community should also be discussed. To limit the discussion distracts attention from the leadership they need. I realize this is a heretical argument, but architecture by your definition is an artistic religion. Its tenets should be re-examined. The acolytes deserve more than an emphasis on emotion.

You can stifle my voice by preventing me from submitting blogs. This has already occurred since I'm not an AIA member. You may also ban me entirely, but this will not solve the re-positioning many intuitively realize is required. You may call it naive. I call it anticipation that will be refined. This is the true nature of design and the decisions required to create a strategy.

Mr. Ytterberg’s Comments

This entire discussion seems hopelessly naïve, a prime example of why architects seem to be so out of touch with the mainstream of society. Unless mandated by law, architects are a value added. Hence in most cases an architect's services are outside of the financial calculation most people make when a building is required. Do not all of us make that same calculation every day?

One needs to ask why there are two words in most languages to describe the structures we make, building and architecture. Though you may not find this in the dictionary, architecture is clearly building with something added. Pevsner famously tried to distinguish between the cathedral and a shed, but that overstates the cultural distinction that separates a work of architecture from a work of building. Society values the cultural component highly when that component is needed/wanted. That is the reason there are so many popular shelter magazines. Every object we touch in our lives is infused with meaning, and people are very willing to spend their hard earned cash on things that they find meaningful to their lives. Architects frequently find themselves in the position of denying the meaning of architecture in order to sell their desired approach as rational and beyond the realm of emotional decision making. But to take a technocratic approach and try to reduce architecture to a variety of engineering is misguided. There are many designers of the environment - that is not the privileged realm of the architect.

Michael Ytterberg AIA
BLT Architects
Philadelphia PA 

Original Submission to an AIAKnowledgeNet Discussion. Re-titled “Reconsidering Architecture”

The goal of medicine and law has been to improve the tools and knowledge used by its practitioners to protect the public interest. Architecture is perceived as serving private interest. It prepares a strategy to achieve an owner goal. Before you object, think about the struggle to accept building and zoning codes that protect the public interest. They have often been considered restrictions on creativity. Architecture needs a public goal before it can step into the same arena with medicine and law. A brief review of the architectural process will help set the stage for my repositioning comments.


An architect defines an owner goal with a programming effort, or asks the owner to provide a program of requirements. A strategy to achieve the goal is defined through a design and production effort. The result is a set of construction documents. They define a product that is a prototype. Bidding of contract documents produces an agreement to achieve a vast number of specified objectives with one or more contractors. These contractors are field commanders.

When a command strategy hits the beach in this military analogy adjustments are required to compensate for imperfect anticipation. The same is true for any prototype. In these circumstances a prototype strategy that hits the beach requires an adjustment budget. Every untested strategy requires adjustment. In automobile manufacturing this adjustment occurs before production at considerable expense. In architecture this adjustment occurs during production at minimal expense often referred to as a contingency budget.

Architecture is a prototype that serves a limited special interest. Its public benefit has been mandated but not embraced. An emphasis on public benefit will equate architecture to medicine and law, but this will require additional levels of awareness and expanded goals.


An architectural prototype is the responsibility of a practitioner, like a doctor’s responsibility to treat a patient. It is only an organizational responsibility when support to the entire profession is considered. This responsibility is to improve the tools, knowledge and concepts placed in the hands of a practitioner to improve the public benefit provided. I believe this distinction is at the heart of an architectural repositioning discussion. The question to be debated, in my opinion, is one of organizational goals and practitioner goals. I’d like to suggest five levels of awareness and four organizational goals that would involve repositioning.


1)      To recognize the presence of two worlds on a single planet: the Built Domain and the Natural Domain.

2)      To recognize that the Natural Domain is an unstable source of life in an infinite, unstable universe.

3)      To recognize that the Built Domain is slowly consuming the Natural Domain with design decisions that produce sprawl.

4)      To recognize that sprawl contains shelter capacity and intensity that is an aggregation of individual project design.

5)      To recognize that shelter capacity and intensity are physical conditions that require new measurement systems to assist and defend design decisions.

6)      To recognize that design matters because we must learn to live within geographic limits and function symbiotically. Form and appearance must follow symbiotic function. This is the message of hope from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a level of awareness that can lead to a Symbiotic Period. The period will be symbolized by its composition, context, capacity, intensity, function, form and appearance.


1)      To improve the design of shelter context, composition, capacity, intensity and symbiotic function for growing populations within a geographically limited Built Domain in order to protect their quality and source of life – the Natural Domain. Form and appearance will flower from the policies established.

2)      To improve the tools, knowledge and concepts needed to achieve the preceding goal.

3)      To expand private practice into the public domain and workplace by offering public benefit.
4)   To build a network (of professional organizations) to achieve the preceding goals through research, collaboration, education and practice. 

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