It is time to celebrate great architecture.
The United States is undergoing a design revolution. Led by consumer electronics, most notably the iPhone's introduction in 2007, the average citizen has been trained to expect thoughtful and sophisticated objects in their everyday lives. This revolution coincides with the reoccupation of America's cities -- cities now house eight in 10 Americans.
All this means that there are a lot of people who are smart about design living closely together in tightly packed urban centers. This is a perfect-storm for great architecture.
These conditions have already yielded spectacular results. In New York City projects like the High Line have demonstrated how great architecture can reinvigorate an area and transform forgotten spaces into urban gems. This translates to happy residents, crazed tourists and of course money. It is estimated that the High Line alone will generate more than $4 billion in private investment and $900 million in revenue for the city in the next 30 years -- quite a public return for the $170 million project.
As the economy rebounds, and developers and municipalities start to build again, these should be salad days for architects and their creations. And yet, architecture remains shrouded in mystery to the average person. For an industry that designs every school, hotel and office building in America it is hard to believe that most people can't name a single architect besides Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright and maybe Zaha Hadid. The first Frank started his practice in 1962, the second one has been dead for 54 years.
To state the obvious: architects are terrible at marketing. I can say that because I am an architect. We use big words, occasionally make up terms and frequently cut a forbidding figure in all black with silly glasses. Frank Lloyd Wright famously opined that "the only thing wrong with architecture are the architects." Despite the master's admonition, we can't blame this exclusively on architects. We need to consider how great architecture is rewarded. Every year the world waits with baited breath for the Pritzker Prize to announce its winner.
One architect. Once a year.
The model is broken
The Oscars have 24 winners. The Grammy's have 81 winners. The Webby Awards for the Internet has 141 winners. It's impossible to reduce an industry of $26 billion (firm billings in the United States alone) to just one winner. Architecture is so much bigger than that.
Architecture transcends scales -- which makes it difficult to completely comprehend.
Architecture is small and big simultaneously. It is the apartment we wake up in everyday and it is also the way that that apartment tower touches the street and shapes the skyline. It affects us intimately, and also on the scale of the city. Crowning only one architect a year disempowers architects and citizens alike -- we should all feel and exert an ownership over the buildings that shape our lives.
Opening up architecture to a broader constituency means better architecture for everyone, and more of it. It empowers people like Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, to fight for a liveable Las Vegas downtown. It compels people like James Ramsey and Dan Barasch to take up the cause of an abandoned trolley terminal at Delancey Street and re-invision it as a subterranean park dubbed the Low Line. It opens up the possibility for a trained architect and entrepreneur like Graham Hill to stump for smaller living with his Life Edited project which promotes living in 250 square feet.
In a city where 600,000 commuters at Penn Station pay a daily price for forgetting about the power of great architecture, NYCxDesign gives the perfect platform to celebrate the world's buildings and the minds behind them. Only by broadening architecture's appeal and reminding the average citizen that they have the power to demand better can we ensure that a tragedy like the destruction of old Penn station will never happen again.
Last week at St Patrick's Old Cathedral in Nolita, 1,000 people showed up for an event we called Pitching the City. Five teams pitched ideas for audacious architecture projects that will change the face of the city. A floating pool that filters the East River like a giant Brita won, but that is not the most shocking part of the evening. One thousand people showed up for an architecture event. One thousand people.
Everyone is a fan of architecture -- they just need it served to them in the right way. It's time for architecture to descend from the ivory tower and stop lionizing individuals. Its time to celebrate all of the world's great architecture. We know we will have done it when I am at a cocktail party and instead of someone telling me that they love Frank Lloyd Wright whose best work was built nearly six decades ago, they will tell me about the building on their street corner designed by a young firm in Brooklyn.