The Death Of The Architect

Strict rules and sharp distinctions of architecture, as well as other disciplines and arts, have been criticized by thinkers and theorists of postmodernism. As a result of this, architecture today is considered multidisciplinary and is connected to other phenomenons such as politics, philosophy, psychology and sociology. It can be said that a common factor is human beings for these disciplines. However, how can people be involved in the design of buildings? Why and how are they essential? In general terms, architecture provides spaces to live, enjoy and maintain a life for human. Although architects are the most essential in designing spaces, it has been argued that inhabitants of buildings can be also effective as buildings are in the progress of design (Jencks 1977:9, Knevitt 1985:9). Architects, in this context, need to respond to inhabitants’ desires as well as practising their unique style. The relationship between architecture and human beings is so unavoidable that Churchill outlines the fact that “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”.

Figure 1. Human and Architecture, The Guardian by Sean Edward

Knevitt (1985:14) and Giedion (1976:432-433) claim that architects occasionally do not keep in touch with the people who are the users of their design, and therefore architecture had failures – even sometimes with very tragic results – over the last century. The aim of this essay is to focus on the triangle ‘people-buildings-architect’ in order to analyze how architecture is a kind of human art apart from being the art of building and how it communicates with people both directly and indirectly. The essay will firstly examine the ideas of some thinkers regarding the role of an architect in design and people as inhabitants of buildings then go on with an attempt of the argument: ‘the death of the architect’ with relevant examples of human-centred architectures.

In order to get civilized, Giedion (1976:431) and Le Corbusier (1954:111) state that architects – as building artists – are necessary since they can read and explicate the world again with their ‘symbols’ when it remained shapeless. Those symbols, in fact, are the feelings which establish a better and a new place to live, and through them inhabitants could have harmony between themselves and buildings. However, Giedion (1976:433) claims that architects became isolated after ‘modern industry’ and construction technologies suddenly grew due to ‘the abolition of all legal restraints upon trade’. Hence, the case of design turned to be purposed financial and many architects were awarded because they use the new materials of building sector while they tended to ignore both people’s desires and seeking new inventions.

Knevitt (1985:45) points out that the most substantial shift occured, even for many the epitome of the modern architecture, is the ‘arrival of skyscrapers’. However, he continues with the fact that though they are a source of pride for many cities such as New York City (fig. 2) and Chicago (fig. 3), the size of the human in design has been lost. Historically, tall buildings were only religious buildings and they are tall because, in someway, they make people realize that people are very small in front of God. Nevertheless, how come does a person feel comfortable, if he/she goes to such a tall building with too many other people to work everyday? This approach pretty much demonstrates that the human factor is ignored as skyscrapers are designed by architects, and the people have been forced to live the new life style of skyscrapers.

Figure 2. New York City

Figure 3. Chicago

In more detail, Knevitt (1985:15) asserts that one of the other failures of the modern movement in architecture is the huge scaled mass housing, he then argues whether very huge buildings are in fact ‘better-and-cheaper’. Consequently, he makes inferences that although ‘mass production’ brings out buildings of a scale never seen before, this newly idealistic attempt turned into “a monster beyond its creators’ control” because it caused a pessimist view against new ideas of architecture. To clarify the failure of modern architecture’s mass housing, Jencks (1977:9) and Knevitt (1985:109-110), as many other postmodern thinkers do, focus on the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe Buildings in 1972, which was constructed according to the ideals of CIAM (the Congress of International Modern Architects) and awarded by the American Institute of Architects in 1951. They also state the failures that the buildings had involved no contact with their inhabitants and therefore the inhabitants were affected by the lackings of the buildings such as ‘personal space’ and ‘tenant control’. Eventually, social problems and crimes began to happen in the territory. In spite of other issues, the most significant one was obviously the incongruity between the people and the buildings.

In order to comprehend the actual importance of the relationship between people and buildings, Derbyshire (2012) suggests architects participate more in the process of construction, rather than being only a part of planning process. By doing this, he aims to expand the role of an architect for the buildings and make architects be aware of construction issues. Due to the fact that construction is a more real action than planning and drawing, architects can much clearly see the disputes of design and understand whether or not users of buildings are going to benefit from the decisions of their design. He also states that the architects today who are doing so, achieve their goals easier and earlier. On the other hand, Jenkins (2010:20) asserts that people can also engage in the construction process of buildings. Although it is a little bizarre opinion, it may benefits for some users to declare their special desires.

It is generally agreed today that architecture is not only about drawing, but also a whole of society because you – as an architect – touch the heart of an environment. That heart is actually the space in which people do everything to live. Hence, Knevitt (1985:9-17) states that architecture is not a ‘fine art’ but a ‘social art’ because it also has direct contact with people and this makes it socially responsible. Space and people always affect each other. Since an architect is the last arbiter of this relationship, he/she needs to shape the space with a newly unique style by considering future inhabitants and their desires. In other words, architecture could be seen as a kind of human art.

Architecture is such a wide art that, as Giedion (1976:30-31) says, new perspectives are always needed even you already have made successful progress. In this expression, the perspectives are ‘not the discovery of any one person’; they are the voice of a whole epoch. Hereby, we can say that not only one person – the architect – but also others – users of buildings – are necessary in order to create complete and qualified spaces in which people can find a part of themselves. As a result of this enterprise, a city is built with the architecture of ‘the diversity of social relationships which have become fused into a single organism’ (Giedion, 1976:41).

On the other hand, Shepheard (1994:19) argues that “architecture is not everything.” He gives the perspective that there should be other things in life, which are not architecture or just related to it. Although everthing starts in a space that an architect designed, people somehow need to achieve other phenomena from inside of the space or they could rebuild the space according to their own rules. At this point, a best source of inspiration is Barthes’ Death of the Author theory. In his theory, Barthes (1977) creates a well-known idea that the death of the author brings the birth of the reader. If the authority of an author is stopped, readers can have the possibility of being a part of the text. The reason to reduce author’s authority is that a text needs many different understandings for each reader and it also never reachs its actual completeness without its readers’ depictions. For instance, the book Glas by Derrida (1974) has neither a beginning nor a finish. By doing this, the author directs his readers to make their own way to read the book. Therefore, willingly or unwillingly, the readers become a part of the book and even the author of their own way in the book.

The main argument of this essay is to adapt the theory of Barthes to contemporary architecture. If the authority of architects is shared, satisfaction of society could get more possible. As Barthes’ theory intends, in the argument of ‘the death of the architect’, the death of the architects’ authority causes the birth of the users of buildings and they become a part of their architecture by getting involved with the design of their own buildings. As a result of this, architecture reaches its real meaning and purpose because the relationship between people and an architect can be only maintained by this kind of an approach after a building was completely built.

As a first relevant example, Knevitt (1985:18) enounces the well-known term ‘community architecture’. By community architecture, he descibes an ‘architecture of democracy’ and suggests clarifying everything to other architects and people. In other words, he suggests that everthing needs to be clear and intelligible in architecture. To actualize this idea, Wates and Knevitt (1987:18) point out the community architecture working groups held by ‘professional institutes and voluntary organizations’ in which architects, city planners, academics, developers, builders, businessmen, finance providers and voluntaries come together and discuss what should be done on an architectural issue. However, they also state that although the first attempts at community architecture were welcomed initially, ‘the traditional development industry’ had an entirely opposite doctrine in the long run: that ordinary people are too insufficient to make decisions on buildings. Then, to put an end to this dogma, in Britain, the Prince of Wales gave a speech on the subject at Hampton Court Palace at the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and he declared “Some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country”. He finally mentions community architecture as a sample solution (Wates and Knevitt, 1987:38).

Community architecture, as Wates and Knevitt (1987:49-50) argue, in fact, has also dealt with “specific problems in specific communities and devised specific solutions”. Although this can be seen something outside of architecture, it somehow affects people’s daily life and especially the relations with neighbours. Wates and Knevitt (1987:71) report that people have become to know their neighbours closer than ever after the community architecture workshops. In addition to this, by having the experience of the programs, some ordinary people had job opportunities. For instance, “a housewife became the personnel manager for a construction site for thirty-two houses”. Furthermore, house values of some people increased ‘from £500 to around £20,000 each’ as they practice what they shared and learnt in the community architecture workshops.

Community architecture, in course of time, has had a political dimension – the support of local authorities. Some local councils made changes in their policies to keep in touch with their area’s residents. One of them is the Southwark Council in London. Attemps of the council include the following:

The council’s Planning Committee grant-aids two voluntary organizations (the North Southwark Community Development Group and the Rotherhithe Community Planning centre) to help local residents with planning advice and local campaigns. The Planning Department has established an urban studies centre to complement the local planning aid services. Its motto is: ‘Get together, get involved, get things done’. The centre was designed and built by the council’s architects to the specifications of a voluntary management committee drawn from a cross-section of the community. Southwark Council’s architects and planners have recently provided a local action group with all the technical support required to draw up plans for a seven-acre housing scheme and to campaign for its development in the face of private developers’ plans to build luxury homes. Architectural aid has also been offered to a Muslim association hoping to build a mosque. In 1981, the Planning Department changed the way it devised its capital-spending programme. A new Facelift scheme offered community organizations a chance to plan three years’ of environmental improvements and the opportunity to work side by side with the council’s architects, planners and landscape architects. A borough-wide participation exercise organized by the department’s newly appointed consultation team, produced over three hundred suggestions for environmental works (Wates and Knevitt, 1987:135).

Another simple version of community architecture, according to Wates and Knevitt (1987:122-123), is the ‘growth of housing cooperatives’. A housing cooperative is a community which is established by the people who come together in order to supply and/or maintain their own housing. Although they are normally used for financial purposes, at the same time, they provide a closer relationship between users of buildings and architects because the members of a housing community are both the employer and the costumer of architecs. In such cases, architects’ role has a ‘new dimension’ which benefits for both architects and the users. In a way, as Wates and Knevitt (1987:123) claim, some facilities to improve the quality of life such as ‘children’s playgrounds, swimming pools and saunas’ have been firstly mentioned to be put in designs in the meetings of housing coorperatives.

The development of the idea of participation, especially in the last decade in the US, has also generated a new concept: ‘sustainability’. Because people and architects have known the relationships between people and buildings enough, they have now started to investigate how they can sustain their own buildings (Jenkins, 2010:45). According to Jenkins, these new attemps build the chanced political, economic, social and cultural context for a community design. In fact, Wates and Knevitt (1987:24-25) define this new shift from conventional to a ‘flexible and social way of design’ and as well as ideologically from totalitarian, technocratic and doctrinaire (Left or Right) to pragmatic, humanitarian and responsive.

However, in a critical way, Sanoff (2000:17-18) states that while there are some people who think the participation in architecture is not necessary, in the past few years, users’ participation has increased rapidly. He then questions who should participate in architecture. In order to give positive discrimination to the people who are the most affected by a decision, he firstly suggests that “Public should be informed about an issue so that people can decide whether to participate”. He then argues that because the more an issue is asked different people the more different answers have gotten, people who want to participate can be classified by their knowledge and ‘expertise’ level for every different issue to have a more useful forum. It is also important that young people should be encouraged to the forums due to the fact that they will be more exposed to decisions of the forums. On the other hand, by doing so, the young people adopt their role in society earlier and they begin to realize what they are capable to make their environment better.

Another example for the death of the architect is an open architecture approach which basically refers to the design of a system in which many modules or components can be added, removed or replaced by users of buildings and after all the original concept of the design of architects never loses its value, on the contrary, gets more fertile with every new attempt. In other words, an open architectural project could be seen as an incomplete product which allows people to finish it with many different combinations. In contrast to community architecture, in a this kind of architecture, users of buildings are generally not allowed to contribute to the core idea of the system, but they are asked to finalize the system. By doing so, unlike community architecture, more than one final version occurres.

Figure 4. The Pompidou Centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers

One of the best representatives of the open architecture approach explained above is ‘The Pompidou Centre’ at Beauborg in Paris by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (fig. 4). Knevitt (1985:25-26) evaluates that despite its massy architecture – “each floor is the size of two football pitches”, it is a “place to integrate art into everyday life”. Although its structure is ‘more like a ship or an aircraft’, the building attracts people from all around the world. The building, in fact, has no shell, but pipes. However, the pipes both are the mechanical, plumbing and vantilation system of the building and are painted to represent each color for a different function of the building. In detail, the structure is located outside of the building instead of the inside and the tube stairs of the building in which one can quite clearly see the whole Paris city take attention of people. Apart from being a “fun palace – a multi-activity, multi-media centre which was never built” for the people in Paris, it is used for art as a museum and cultural centre. Because it is multi-functional and an open building, people use the building as they intended for such events inside and outside of the building. Despite about two thousand expected visitors a day in the design process, it reached twenty thousand, and two million people visited in the first two years (Knevitt, 1985:27).

There are also some other different examples which try to get users closer to the natural word. One of them is ‘The Threehouse’ design in China by Julia Mok and Lu Chen (fig. 5). It is, in fact, a modular design which “is located in between the gaps among the beach-side forest connected by an elevated pedestrian system”. Although the exterior design of the buildings are the same of each other and usually not changed, the interior designs of each are user-centred and can be decided by the users. Furthermore, they can also determine the places where their buildings are located. The default program of the modules is residential, but because their locations are quite far from each other, they are open to put other functions inside.

Figure 5. The Treehouse by Julia Mok and Lu Chen

In general terms, everybody needs space to do things and therefore they need architecture as well to build their own space.  The essential thing to bear in mind is that though it does not mean the only cure for all the architectural issues, the death of the architet could be a starting hypothesis to a more shared and satisfying life with benefits for the users of buildings. As if he looks for a purpose of starting of the participation idea explained above, Thomas H. Huxley states his well-known expression that “Try to learn everything about something and something about everything”.

Selman CELIK
Goldsmiths, University of London

Reference List

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press

Derbyshire, B. (2012) ‘Have Architects Lost Their Social Purpose?’ Plannig in London 81:1, 46-49.

Derrida, J. (1974) Glas. Paris: University of Nebraska Press

Giedion, S. (1976) Space, Time and Architecture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jencks, C. (1977) The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. London: Academy Editions.

Jenkins, P. (2010) Architecture, Participation And Society. London: Routledge

Knevitt, C. (1985) Space on Earth; Architecture: People and Buildings. London: Thames Methuen.

Le Corbusier (1954) The Modulor. London: Faber And Faber.

Sanoff, H. (2000) Community Participation Methods In Design And Planning. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Shepheard, P. (1994) What Is Architecture?. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wates, N. and C. Knevitt (1987) Community Architecture. London: Penguin Books


Figure 1. Human and Architecture, The Guardian by Sean Edward. [last accessed 12/11/2012].

Figure 2. New York City. [last accessed 12/11/2012].

Figure 3. Chicago. [last accessed 12/11/2012].

Figure 4. The Pompidou Centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. [last accessed 12/11/2012].

Figure 5. The Treehouse by Julia Mok and Lu Chen. [last accessed 12/11/2012].