Architecture is Not Subjective

Architecture is not subjective. That was the concise opening statement by Richard when DMA University started on my first day on the job. For the record, there is no university attached to our studio, but Richard and Doris felt it was imperative that if I was to introduce myself to people on their behalf that I understand what sets us apart from other firms. I now know, that statement was not meant to be profound, and was quickly followed by sentences that washed over my head. Architecture is not subjective. Wait. What? I was hearing the words that were being spoken yet they were being drowned out by what had preceded them. Was I going to cut off my new boss in his first 30 seconds of speaking to voice my misunderstanding? Certainly not. I quickly figured that Richard, or Doris, would resolve my question in a few moments. However, the moment passed and we spent the next nine hours discussing processes, systems, target audiences, past and present projects, manifestos, hopes, dreams, and expectations for my first 90 days. By 6 PM, I was brimming with excitement, but my notebook still had one unresolved question. I could not fundamentally understand what they meant by that one sentence. I kept going hence and forth on this in my head. I like certain commercial buildings or homes, and I do not like others. Glass, brick, wood and steel are pleasing to my eye, while concrete, corrugated metal, plastic, and vinyl siding, not so much. Architecture is by definition subjective, no!? I had to ask. Richard took the question in stride and explained that while my point of view is highly subjective, great architecture is not.

It got me thinking further: is this statement true across all professions that ask for truly passionate individuals to dedicate themselves to years of rigorous study and must become certified or registered with a professional association? Would I argue that accounting is not subjective, or law, or dentistry? Perhaps those areas are easier to measure. If you pay someone to install braces on your child’s teeth because they tell you that will straighten them, and two years later their teeth are still crooked, you have evidence that the work was not done well. In fact, you might even wonder whether you had hired a dental technician and not the actual orthodontist. What about architecture – is there a metric one can use to measure whether a building or a home was designed well? Like any of the above examples, engaging a professional registered with a licensed body should be a minimum consideration, nevertheless it does not guarantee the outcome of a project will be satisfactory to the client. I liken it to the old joke “what do you call a medical student that graduated at the very bottom of his class? A doctor.” So, what makes great architecture?

In any profession, there are those who have honed their skills to a level that elevates what they do above their peers. They have been schooled, studied, trained, registered, and have created systems and processes that allow them to start with an idea yet not be constrained by it. They can color outside the lines, and eventually resolve their work with structure. It can be argued that anyone that excels at their job is most likely an innovator, and not a ‘paint by numbers’ sort of person. Indeed, work is not simply enjoying what you do, it is elevating it, breaking new ground, and helping others achieve their goals along the way. Otherwise, it is a hobby.

This is not to argue that everyone has to be brilliant at what they choose to pursue in life. However, it is an acknowledgment that there are some people who see their life’s work through that lens and when we are fortunate enough to experience that passion and talent, we immediately recognize it for what it is. We are constantly taught that we can do whatever it is we set our hearts on in life, and most would agree that statement is true. Though, it must also be accepted that just because we set our minds to achieve a goal, and are successful in doing it, that we are elevating anything other than ourselves and our egos. No doubt, fulfilment of a life’s dream is a goal, laudable and coveted. We become more well-rounded individuals, even better citizens, but we cannot proclaim to elevate society with our achievements. Fortunately, there are those that can claim to do just that with their life’s work. They can have a measurable impact on individuals, neighborhoods, cities, and even countries. What would Paris and her countryside look like without the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral, or Calgary without the Bow or our eponymous Tower?

As I wander around my new city I see so much that I love, and I also see much to be desired – new and old. There is a stark difference between good and good enough. There is nothing inherently wrong with good enough: personally, we all aspire to achieve certain goals and should be sufficiently happy when we get there. Yet, architecturally, as a city we may wish to challenge the idea that good enough is sufficient. We owe it to ourselves, and future generations, to create experiential, socially sustainable buildings that will still matter after we are long gone. It is hard to argue against architecture that is still cherished years later, no matter what your subjective point of view.

As 90 days’ pass, I hope that I have fulfilled the expectations set out for me on Day 1 at DMA University. More importantly though, I have become aware that architecture is not subjective.

Brendan Quigley, Business Development Manager
Davignon Martin Architecture + Interior Design

(Banner image: A juxtaposition of old and new – Cadence Architect’s new Dialysis Center, nestled into an ancient Indian temple in a historic neighborhood of Bangalore.)

Categories: Uncategorized

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