California Architecture California Architecture

California Architecture

Summer 1997

Architecture and the City: The Forgotten Background
by Edmund M. Einy, AIA and Craig Allen Jameson

Imagine a new building unveiled in the city. It is a building of exceptional serenity, balance and harmony. So seamlessly is this building woven into the city’s social and tectonic patters that it is scarcely noticed. It offers no shock, challenge or offense. No one writes an article about it. No one takes its picture. It is the kind of building the city needs more of than any other. It is a background building.

Though it is wonderful to imagine that such subtle buildings comprise a major portion of today’s cities, that is clearly not the case. Buildings today are not designed to provide a quiet support for people and their activities. They are designed to entertain. They are meant to confront our traditional expectations, to broadcast commercial messages or to transport us to fictionalized “theme” worlds. They are not conceived as background; they are conceived as foreground.

One might argue that such a trend should be welcomed. That this competition to create more stimulating buildings is making our cities more imaginative colorful places. Is this true? Or are cities becoming a bewildering shouting match of architectural showmanship? Would our cities be improved if architects were equally concerned with making more quiet restrained buildings in between those that deserve special significance? Since the answer to this last question is clearly yes, then why don’t more architects solicit, create and promote these background buildings?

Before considering this question, let’s clarify what is meant by a “background building.” The concept of background is used here in the conventional sense of “a setting.” The background is an inconspicuous field that promotes the legibility of figures in the foreground. It is the page on which the message is read. Buildings operate as background in two important ways. At the scale of the city, they act collectively to frame important community architecture, reinforce streets and define public spaces. At the scale of the pedestrian, background buildings provide a specific setting for people and their particular activities.

In his 1924 book, Good and Bad Manners in Architecture, English architectural scholar A. Trystan Edwards provides eloquent illustrations of the relationship between buildings and the city. He demonstrates how a city conveys a sense of order, identity and community when each building understands its appropriate relation to the others. The new theater acknowledges the pre-eminence of the city hall. The new shopping center defers to the old church building. Exercising “good manners” in architecture means knowing when to walk and when to dance, when to whisper and when to shout. It means realizing that background and foreground each need each other; that there is an ideal proportion of one to the other and that only specific types of buildings deserve foreground status.

In short, the more consistent background architecture there is in a city, the more pronounced her foreground buildings will be. Conversely, the more numerous the foreground buildings, the less any one of them will attract notice. The first case leads to an ordered environment in which people are easily oriented and important community buildings are emphasized, the second leads to a confusing environment in which buildings seem to be of equal importance and truly significant places are diminished.

The role of a background building at the more intimate scale of the pedestrian is to promote the appearance and activities of the people for whom it was built. Background buildings provide a setting in which people are the most important visual elements. To the extent a building draws attention to itself, it ceases to perform as a setting and becomes “foreground” – a principle that has nothing to do with what “style” the building has been rendered in. Though these points may seem painfully self-evident, it is clear from the visual clamor of our metropolitan areas and the bewildering visual complexity of many new buildings, that they have been largely forgotten. And sadly, they seem to have been forgotten on purpose. Background buildings are not accorded the respect they deserve in schools of architecture or in architectural journals. They do not stimulate architectural juries or magazine sales. Why should an architect waste time creating one?

Before architects are going to design more background buildings, there have to be incentives for them to do so, and in today’s competitive economy there are few, if any. Instead, architects have compelling motives to create visually aggressive buildings. A successful career depends upon recognition and recognition depends on being seen. Buildings that are controversial, eccentric, exciting or otherwise novel are much more likely to be published and talked about than works that are quiet and self-effacing.

One would think that, as thoroughly grounded professionals, architects would be above such grandstanding. However, there are two trends stemming from academic experience that serve to justify the creation of eccentric works. The first is the still-spreading conviction among contemporary architects that architecture should be practiced as a “pure art,” as opposed to an applied art. This view holds that a building’s poetic content is more important than its pragmatic responses. That functionality, technical economy and contextual appropriateness are less important than a building’s unique artistic conception and the aesthetic experience it promises. With this view, the pragmatic elements of architecture (structure, program, environmental systems) often become afterthoughts or mere scaffolding on which artifice is hung – artifice that is typically esoteric or fantastic.

The second trend is found in the history and design curricula of the architectural academics. Here students learn that the heroes of 20th-century architecture were the great iconoclasts. Students are impressed with the radical breaks in tradition achieved by the work of important architects like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Unfortunately, what students often find heroic is not the new architectural problem solving explored by these architects, but their radicalism. There is excitement and drama in challenging the status quo, and many bright young graduates go away thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” Whatever the existing architectural values of the day are, they must be challenged, or completely avoided, if the young architect is to be esteemed like his heroes.

Such students enter professional practice with a mission to become and “original.” Their self-inflicted burden is nothing less than to create an entirely new architectural language. To someone with this attitude, the idea of making a background building is unacceptable. Every commission, however small, is another chance to draw attention to their unique vision and promote their career.

Obviously, these two trends feed each other. The imperative that architecture should be practiced as a “pure” art supports the novice in his determination to create an original architecture. In turn, the novice embraces this belief for the obvious license and validation it provides his eccentric pursuits. Meanwhile, the public environment becomes a bewildering collection of private fantasies, and the number of serene, restrained buildings our cites need most continues to shrink.

Though the outlook seems pessimistic, there are still grounds for real optimism. Altering these trends and steering our cities toward greater coherence is a challenge that presents great new opportunities. It provides a chance to expand public interest in architecture, increase the influence of the architectural profession and increase the economic success of its practitioners. By embracing a class of buildings long considered unworthy of attention, and by demonstrating how beautifully they can contribute to the fabric of the city, architects can vastly expand their sphere of influence and reclaim much of the authority they have steadily lost over the previous decades.

To achieve this, the distinction between background and foreground buildings should be more clearly elucidated in architectural curricula. Special consideration should be given to helping students of architecture form criteria for judging whether a building should be background, foreground or something in between. In addition, successful background buildings should be singled out for applause as often as successful foreground works – both in the studio and in the media – as another rich form of architecture with its own complexities and virtues. Finally, practicing architects should promote their services to those who typically build without architects, not only as a means of expanding the market for their services, but as an additional way of leading the quality of the city’s development.

In the broadest sense, architects are the custodians of the background. By creating the settings in which people live, they exert a tremendous influence over our cultures collective self image. Architects have the power to frame man in a noble positive environment that dignifies his presence and honors his activities or to marginalize him.

The excessive emphasis on foreground work in our academies and our professional journals, the tendencies of practitioners to indiscriminately produce eccentric works of “pure art,” and the imperative of the commercial marketplace to make buildings that “stand out” lead to a disintegrated environment. Not only do these trends make the city a less gracious place, but they also limit the field of professional action for architects by implying that only foreground works are worth their efforts. By actively soliciting and promoting background architecture, the profession can expand and strengthen its leadership within the community while dramatically improving our civic environment.