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The Threat of ‘Genius’ to Truly Successful Architecture

For the truly great projects, architects are necessary, and can take credit for magnificent structures like London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Istanbul’s Suleymanyie Mosque. Nevertheless, most architects of the buildings we love remain anonymous, and those who designed the great Gothic cathedrals owe their achievements as much to the guilds of stonemasons as to their own astonishing plans. Moreover, by far the greatest number of buildings that we admire had no architect at all. Think of the medieval houses that compose the hilltop towns of Italy, the great stone tenements of Edinburgh, the backwaters of Venice, the thousands of village churches scattered over Europe, and just about every other building stitched into the fabric of those places that we visit because they provide the soothing experience of a deep settlement and a shared home.

Reflecting on these matters I long ago drew the conclusion that the first principle of architecture is that most of us can do it. You can teach music, poetry, and painting. But what you learn will never suffice to make you into a composer, a poet, or a painter. There is that extra thing, which the romantics called “genius”, without which technique will never lead to real works of art. In the case of architecture not only is the part that can be taught sufficient in itself, but also the belief that you need something else—genius, originality, creativity, etc.—is the principal threat to real success.                   

The pursuit of genius in architecture is what has most contributed to the unstitching of our urban fabric, giving us those buildings in outlandish shapes and unsightly materials that take a chunk of the city and make it into somewhere else, as Morphosis did with New York’s Cooper Square [1]or Zaha Hadid with the Port Authority Building [2] in Antwerp.

These buildings that stand out when they should be fitting in declare the genius of their creators, with no consideration paid to the offense suffered by the rest of us. China is now littered with this stuff, and as a result there is no city in that country that has the remotest resemblance to a settlement.

In response it will be said that we need to accommodate our growing populations, and to make efficient use of the land available for building, and how can we do this without architects? The refutation of this lies in the garden shed and the trailer. Almost all of us are capable of designing such a thing, and placing it in agreeable surroundings and conciliatory relation to its neighbors. The trailer park usually achieves a density of population far greater than the estate of tower-block apartments, and leaves the residents free to embellish their individual holdings with agreeable details, flower pots, even classical windows and doorways, along the edges of incipient streets.

In my experience the most poignant illustration of these truths is provided by the gecekondu (= built in one night) around Ankara. An old Ottoman law, inherited from the Byzantine Empire and therefore from Rome, tells us that, if you have acquired a piece of land to which no one has a proven right of ownership and if you build a dwelling there in one night, you can assume a permanent right of residence. When Atatürk declared the ancient city of Ankara to be the capital of the new Turkey he set the architects to work, building tower blocks and modern highways in regimented patterns that chill the heart and repel everyone who is not obliged by his work to reside there. Meanwhile all around the capital, on the bare hills to which no one had a claim of ownership, there arose by an invisible hand some of the most harmonious settlements created in modern times: houses of one or two stories, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood, corrugated iron, and tiles, nestling close together since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside and with tracks running among them along which no car can pass.

In time the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water and light their paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like grounded galaxies. They join together to form charitable associations, so as to build mosques in the ancient style and neighborhood schools beside them.

These suburbs are the most unpolluted (in every respect) that the modern world has produced, and contain more residents per square mile than any of the architect-designed banlieux around Paris. And they are produced in just the way that sheds are produced, by people using their God-given ability to knock things together so as to put a roof over their head.

Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’New Urbanism Fellow [3].

The New Urbs series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "The Threat of ‘Genius’ to Truly Successful Architecture"

#1 Comment By DennisW On September 6, 2018 @ 11:20 pm

That hideous Copper Union monstrosity should be bulldozed ASAP. Absolutely vile.

#2 Comment By TJ Martin On September 7, 2018 @ 9:42 am

” One man’s meat is another man’s poison ”

Along with the reality that you are not the appointed arbiter of aesthetics and good taste nor do you have the qualifications to fill such a post assuming one actually existed … suffice it to say .. Nuff Said !

#3 Comment By mrscracker On September 7, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Thank you so much for this article.
It seems a kind of personal arrogance when someone inserts a discordant building into a neighborhood. The building may be in private ownership but the view & landscape belong to everyone.And to succeeding generations, also.

Thank you for the kind words about trailer parks, too. We have a lovely, well maintained one nearby. People tend to their trailers & little yards & are good neighbors to each other.

#4 Comment By Jon On September 7, 2018 @ 10:54 am

It is apparent from the image above that New York’s contextual zoning laws fail to require builders to hold to the use of the same materials and keep to the same colors as neighboring buildings from over a century ago. This monstrosity, this horrific ode to modernity detracts from the historical significance of Cooper Union’s Great Hall where Abraham Lincoln addressed the public.

Alas, the zoning laws restrict builders insofar as setbacks, air rights, and FAR (Floor Area Ratios) but not on building materials and design. But then there are the exceptions, the loopholes, where builders obtain the advantage of winning a nod from the City Planning Commission as cash changes hands.

#5 Comment By Jon On September 7, 2018 @ 10:59 am

” But then there are the exceptions, the loopholes, where builders obtain the advantage of winning a nod from the City Planning Commission as cash changes hands.”
Should read, But then again builders will build with impunity gaining exceptions by winning a nod from the City Planning Commission as cash changes hands.

That emendation should make the concluding sentence read clearly about the shortcomings of regulating building in densely populated Manhattan as well as the remaining outer boroughs.

#6 Comment By Dominique Watkins On September 7, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

Great article, great point.

I judge Architecture’s value by whether or not it is a style that is embraced and repeated.

Frank Gehry’s music museum in Seattle for example is a technicolor turd that strains the eye to behold. Likewise Gaudi is praised as a great and certainly he is unique and not without merit.

But nobody picks up on these styles. They aren’t repeated the way the Belle Époque facades are in Paris which enchant so many who see them.

Beauty in architecture tends to obey certain rules of proportion, the Golden Ratio comes to mind. Humans are hard wired to recognize it and find it pleasing. Just as people like melody in music.

So what you get is a sort of egotistical visual violence that asserts itself and is quickly dated and left as an eye sore like old Soviet era buildings in Russia. They leave me Feeling depressed.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On September 7, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

If the Cooper Union site is the former parking lost across the street from the school’s main building, the building that this monstrosity replaced, which had replaced the parking lot, was also ugly as sin.

I am not opposed to properly sized and respectful “discordant” buildings being added to a neighborhood, or erected next to a beautiful neighbor. It’s the massiveness of so much modernist and now post-modern architecture that is so oppressive, overwhelming and offensive. There’s a small apartment building at, if memory serves, 81st St. and Columbus Avenue that adds a modernist touch to the corner on which it stands, but it is the same height as it’s neighbors, and blends in rather well, even with its small, triangular balconies, I’ve always thought.

The best example I’ve seen over the last two decades of a harmonious blend of radically different types of architecture are Albany, New York’s Telephone and Verizon buildings, several photos of which can be seen at:


The rear view seen in most of these photos isn’t particularly special because the bulk of the glorious old Telephone Building dominates its modernist, concrete brother. It’s the front views that impress me, because the height, width, vertical drive and sheer rectangular shapes of the two structures are so similar, while the materials and ornamentation are worlds apart. I think it’s the finest cityscape in Albany, and the Telephone Building the single most beautiful skyscraper in the city.

I found some photos of Turkey’s gecekondu, but a link to a site with a bit more detail on them than their English-language Wikipedia page would have been helpful. Otherwise color me a bit skeptical that they are much more safe and healthy than the favelas of Brazil.

I’ve been hearing good things about trailer parks myself the last few years, but a claim like “The trailer park usually achieves a density of population far greater than the estate of tower-block apartments” really begs for a reputable citation or link. I’ve lived in tower-block housing projects and along avenues lined with 10- to 12 to even 20-story apartment building after apartment building for two or more miles, so again, my skepticism meter went off when I read the above assertion.

#8 Comment By Youknowho On September 7, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

There is a problem with architecture as an art form, and it is this

If you do not like a painting or a sculpture, you banish it to an unused room and you hang insted somehting you like.

If you do not like a house, until you can unload it to be able to buy one you like, you just have to live in it, and put up with it You cannot escape it.

Architects should be reminded that people LIVE in houses, and thus their desires should be paramount

Julia Morgan’s works were passed over because she preferred to adjust her buildings to her clients needs and desires instead of feeding her ego. But she perdured.

#9 Comment By mrscracker On September 7, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

cka2nd ,
I enjoyed reading your comments, thank you.
I was thinking of “discordant” as referring to the size & proportions of a building as well as its style.

I’m not sure about the demographics of trailer parks vs high rise apt. buildings either. The ones I’m familiar with don’t seem that densely populated. Which seems like one of their benefits.

#10 Comment By I Don’t Matter On September 8, 2018 @ 12:10 am

Typical Scruton: a bunch of just-so arbitrary assertions (trailer parks denser than skyscrapers? does anyone go math anymore?), combined with the absolute certainty that his aesthetic judgements are the only ones worth paying attention to.
Then there’s the bizarre chip on his shoulder regarding architectural profession that is frankly tiring.

#11 Comment By cka2nd On September 8, 2018 @ 10:35 am

You’re welcome, mrscracker.

#12 Comment By Inspector General On September 8, 2018 @ 10:47 am

True enough: outrageous and outlandish architecture is often badly out of context and does harm to the urban environment. Also true that architecture itself is one of the most attainable of all skills. However let’s not dismiss the architects with an uncanny knack to design for human scale and function, which is very rare. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was all about context and harmony. His architecture nurtured the human in body, mind, and spirit. Underlying his designs were core principles that were often deeply philosophical. Okay, we don’t need every building to be designed by a FL Wright. And other big issues loom: zoning, affordability, public space, pedestrian access, etc.

Thanks for pointing out the nature of Ankara’s answer to grassroots housing. Maybe there can be something equivalent in the US someday.

#13 Comment By Alan Donelson On September 8, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

Anyone recall reading Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead? Thought not.

#14 Comment By tzx4 On September 9, 2018 @ 10:38 am

My father was an architect. My experience with him leads me to believe that architects tend to have big egos, and their designs can reflect that. A design that stands out like a sore thumb is a material expression of “ME!”

#15 Comment By cka2nd On September 9, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

Alan Donelson says: “Anyone recall reading Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead? Thought not.”

You couldn’t pay me to read it, but I love the movie and have seen it at least a half-a-dozen times. I like movies that take their ideas seriously, even if the ideas themselves are bat-s*** crazy like Rand’s.

The particularly hysterical scene, architecturally speaking, is the one early in the movie where Howard Roark accompanies his mentor (“Henry Cameron,” I think, and played by Henry Hull) to the hospital in an ambulance, and they mock a lovely skyscraper from somewhere between 1890 and 1920, I would guess, while showering love on one of said mentor’s own apartment buildings, the kind of plain, red brick structure that lacks any ornamentation or even structural shapes to make it look actually, you know, interesting or pleasant (Heavens forfend “pretty” or “beautiful,” as they do not serve the actual purpose, the purely utilitarian “function” of the building). I assume that anything Roark and his co-thinkers say represents Rand’s own opinions – she adapted her own novel for the screenplay – so it’s especially amusing seeing her dismiss buildings that are respected and in some cases beloved by the vast majority of the public and probably most critics and even academics (maybe?), while the ones she praises are dismissed by almost everyone, public, academic and critic alike, as generic and disposable.

Modern “genius” architecture seems to dismiss both form (beauty) and function (utility) in favor of “Hey, look what I can do!” showmanship. What I can’t tell is how many of these geniuses actually despise either the past of their own profession or the people who actually regularly use or see their masterpieces? I see some of them like I see some high fashion designers: only someone who truly hates women could design something like THAT for a woman to wear, vs. only an architect who really has no respect for other people at all could have produced such a monstrosity as Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (perhaps I am being unfair to Frank Geary, but am I?).

#16 Comment By Brian M On September 10, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

“Otherwise color me a bit skeptical that they are much more safe and healthy than the favelas of Brazil.”

The favelas certainly have problems, but given the realities of mass rural migration to escape the brutal rural poverty of the northeast, how else were the poor, unskilled populations supposed to be housed? Given the era (1950s through now) and the inherent…corruption…from top to bottom in Brazilian society, any “public housing” would have been brutalist monstrosities. Absent a horribly enforced “no migration” policy a la Communist China (which nonetheless failed at that) how was Brazil going to stop the migration? Given economic realities, are the Favella dwellers all magically going to have the incomes to live in Ipanema?

#17 Comment By Peter VE On September 10, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

A couple comments:
Ayn Rand is personally responsible for generations of architects who believe that they too are Howard Roark. The world would be measurably far better off if she had never published.
The Cooper Union building has the distinction of not only being an ugly POS, but the cost destroyed the school’s ability to offer a no tuition education. Peter Cooper gifted several very valuable pieces of property in Manhattan to the school. The income from the property supported the school, so they were able to attract all kinds of excellent students who could not afford a typical college education. Now they’re just another NYC art and design school awash in mediocraty.