The Importance of What We Do

aalto-4Many of the conversations architects have with other architects are about our value. We know what we do is valuable and we know why we do it. It seems our recurring problem as an architectural profession and one we can’t seem to answer is “how do we get the public to understand why the work we do is so important?”

To increase the perceived value of architecture, increases the wellness, health, safety and equity within our communities and cities. But yet, we are a small profession (relative to law and medicine) and it is often difficult to share how architecture makes an impact.

Last week I visited the Alvar Aalto Library at Mount Angel Monastery outside of Portland, OR. We happened upon a monk whom was waiting to give a group a tour, but apparently hadn’t shown up. It was clear this monk thoroughly enjoyed giving tours of this beautiful building and was happy to do so for a group of architects that just happened to walk through the door.

What struck me most, outside of the architecture, was how appreciative this monk, who was not formally trained in architecture, was of this building. He expressed some of the design intent behind painting the roof orange (to change the color of the northern light entering the building) or how Aalto compressed the entrance only to release the visitor into the soul of the library. I wasn’t sure whether or not to attribute his depth of knowledge to a pure love of architecture or the fact that he spends day after day reading (presumably anything but more specifically architectural books) honoring his vow of silence.

It became clear by the end of this trip, that architects cannot be solely responsible for spreading the message of why architecture is valuable to our society and has an impact on many societal issues we face. Similarly, this was clear when the monk took out a coin from the rare collection dated 36 AD and told us researchers had tested and believed this to be a coin owned by Pontius Pilate. None of us on the tour were Catholic, but understood the weight of who once owned this coin and the impact that has had on world history. Clearly there have been powerful messengers of Catholicism.

After passing around the coin, this very jovial monk said very solemnly “What you all do as architects has never been more necessary and has never been less appreciated.” I took this as a charge to go back to my desk and figure out how to best equip those around me to speak about the power and importance of architecture. This isn’t about gaining more clients or building the next iconic museum. The very core of what we do is to create a better built environment for all of those living in it.

I challenge you, whether you are an architect or a friend/family of an architect to talk with someone about how our buildings affect our lives. Once we all become messengers, we have a better opportunity to build great places for all.

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