Marketing Architecture: What Sells and What Is It Really Worth?

Why does it generally seem to be that architects are the only fans of architecture? I have to wonder when I visit most architectural landmarks if what we were taught to appreciate in architecture school is an utter failure. I always meet other architects in parks and cemeteries, and generally they are as fanatical as I am about the spaces, but the space often serves to alienate the majority of the public, at least initially.

I have to admit to liking several projects that have been considered failures, due to the fact that they are generally deserted: Moshe Safdie’s Chapel at Harvard Business School, Eero Saarinen’s Chapel at MIT, and Enric Miralles & Benedetta Tagliabue Park Diagonal Mar in Barcelona. I consider all of these projects great places for reflection, in a world where private space within the public realm is frowned upon.

The sense of social isolation created by Diagonal Mar has led the organization Project for Public Spaces to describe the Park as one ‘designed by lawyers, a place where no spontaneous, unforeseen event can ever happen. It’s a classic case of design run amok, where creating a place for human use was merely an afterthought.’ I do question all the use of bent metal in the park, I had a good time in this park, as evidenced in the pictures below. We met some American architecture students there who were really excited over the project and they interviewed us about what we thought.

An interesting article by Roger Ebert takes a reactionary approach to architecture, comparing the works of the organic architects in Chicago to the “Less is More” attitude to the Mies van der Rohe approach. Living his whole life in Chicago he has noticed the praise that the ornate older buildings have gotten from people who visited. Less seems only to mean more in the pocketbook of cost savings and these buildings. Less materials and less relation to the active and changing natural environment seem to foster buildings that are considered totalitarian, soulless and spirit-breaking. It is a problem that seems to be affecting virtually every career in our increasingly high-paced society. We want to get more bang for our buck, but often fail to consider the impact of our buildings over time or even on the current inhabitants.

Analyzing Recent Buildings Around Boston
Heralded as one of Boston’s greatest new buildings, the Institute of Contemporary Art moved into a deserted carpark area of the city and hasn’t seemed to change the surrounding environment in any way. It was very disappointing to me when I realized that most of this building is off limits, devoted to office space and an auditorium that is not accessible most of the time. To me it just seems just like something plopped down on a desolate landscape. The entrance is entirely confusing and I have seen many people climbing up a slope of rocks to try and reach the museum. The back outdoor landscape is interesting, but not as enticing as I hoped.

Similarly the Museum of Fine Arts expansion seems to be a major failure. This building shows that Less is More – in terms of more money to the pocketbook. The total cost of this renovation was a whopping 300 million dollars, and I have to ask, could a building be anymore gray?

It is interesting to me that the new wing claims to promote “improved navigation through the galleries.” From my experience, it looks like they had to hire tons of new staff to direct visitors as to which way to enter the neverending labyrinth of lines. The most logical entrance directly from the parking area to the building is now closed off. Given the pricetag of this place, these spaces should work a little better.

Just across the river, Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT was built at a similar cost. Even with all its problems and leaks, I am still torn over what to think of this building. In many respects I was trained to hate architects like Gehry in school. He plops down all these similar buildings across the world, often not considering climatic conditions or user needs. Famous inhabitants such as Noam Chomsky have complained of a vertigo feeling and the lack of straight walls to put bookcases. And in general it seems that the exterior is given more care than the interior spaces. Yet, this building really excites the environment and it is great to see how it unfolds as you drive down Vassar Street. It seems to be one of the few modern buildings in Boston that even non-archictects admire. Still, I wonder about all the exaggerated geometry is necessary, and I tend to be more drawn to the top floor gardens of the Picower Institute across the street.

Finding Beauty in Stark Environments
Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute is sublimity at it’s finest. His use of light and shadow, and the simple act of incorporating water transforms the whole space. Brutal environments like this make us question where our world is going. I can’t even ever imagine people walking around this area. It is interesting that architects often prefer that their spaces be photographed without people in them, which says something unto itself. It seems lately that architects do not like or appreciate things that aren’t directly under their control like people, change, and the environment.

So ultimately, my article has gone all over the place, praising unappreciated little known spaces that interact with their surrounding environment, criticisizing and questioning so-called “Starchitects” and what is valued as architectural commodity, complaining about modern buildings that don’t push the envelope enough, and questioning how architects can build and market ideas that are more appealing to the general public.

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About Meghan Dufresne

Meghan R. Dufresne, LEED AP is an architectural designer and writer based in Boston. Interests include sustainability, gardens, art, sound, touch, experience, and merging buildings with the surrounding landscape.
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