Conversation with Phillip Bernstein



Paprika!: Can you speak more about your response to Aaron Betsky’s recent article in the Journal of the AIA “‘Architect’ Goes to Jail, World Shrugs”? Betsky claims that as a fake architect, Paul Newman created work that was “neither better nor worse than what some architects produce on a daily basis” and that licensing entities are the real problem.

PB: There’s a circular firing squad that architects always form around licensure. “It’s a really bad thing.” “It’s exclusionary.” “We don’t need it.” “It’s expensive.” “How come I have to take that exam?” My argument, as I argued in my response to Aaron Betsky, is that if you get your way and anyone can call themselves an architect, then there would be no architects, because in systems of delivery there are all kinds of good reasons to involve an architect, but the main reason clients do so today is because they are legally required to do so. If clients didn’t have to build buildings around safety codes, they wouldn’t do that either. So the argument I’m starting to develop asks the question: In a world where lots of knowledge work will soon be automated, what is the purpose of architects beyond guaranteeing the public’s health, safety, and welfare?

Ultimately, a lot of the work of architecture, especially the technical parts, will be automated—so there will be a large existential discussion about the profession in general, and the conversation becomes about our value. If we believe there really is something there that’s important, then we need to go to bat and argue that the public’s safety and welfare is a broader concept than just safety, and you need architects to protect it.

I think people are barking up the wrong tree trying to get the AIA to change their Code of Ethics. That would be a PR victory of no value whatsoever. Because the architects who design prisons don’t give a shit about the AIA. What we should be doing is changing the definition of public health, safety, wellness. Imprisoning people in solitary confinement for 50 days in a row violates their human rights. And architecture should be about protecting people’s human rights, by law! Not because of some ethical canon that certain architects choose to abide by.

Licensure is about declaring a minimal competency standard, but the reason you got to the table in the first place is to ensure the public’s health, safety and welfare. So the question is, can there be a more expansive responsibility, legally? This intersects with another interest of mine. I think in today’s computational world, it’s possible to predict outcomes which you couldn’t predict before. Instead of saying, “This is going to be a really great building…” you can say, “This building will be delivered on budget, on schedule.” “It’s not going to leak.” “It’s going to meet energy requirements.” You can say, “It will increase the amount of time that doctors can spend with patients” or, “It will increase the contact time between teachers and students.” Being able to say that architecture is able to get specific, measureable things done (like improving health or education) is where the real value lies.

The other dimension of the argument, though, is that licensure is not some extramural thing over which we have no control. Who runs NCARB? A bunch of architects!

P!: But certainly quantifying a more cohesive standard for good design is not an easy task…

PB: It’s a multi-dimensional problem. One dimension is legally expanding the definition of the public’s health, safety, and welfare to something broader than just fire and earthquake protection, then changing the nature of training and experience to include those things. Then, changing the nature of practice to actually demonstrate the value of your new definition. Merely asserting that people are happier in cities with nicer buildings is not enough.
This whole idea of measuring things and demonstrating that things are actually going to happen is a big difference from how architects currently practice.

P!: What do you say to architects who claim that a BIM-centric workflow is limiting to design, or that it encourages a certain cookie-cutter approach to design?

PB: In the interest of full disclosure, I was the executive at Autodesk responsible for Revit and the creation of BIM as terminology (and, by the way, this was an investment which cost hundreds of millions of dollars). We made a commitment to build this weapon that architects could use to have more leverage in the design and construction process. When you hear from some in academia that it might limit their design process, I have to ask what about when parallel rulers were invented? Tools are just tools. You use them as you see fit. I was reading an argument recently that Modernism and its orthogonality was a function of the orthogonal tools of projection available at the time. What privileges that set of representational tools over another? The tool may absolutely have shortcomings, but to suggest that it constrains the freedom of the designer is really a limiting way of thinking. It suggests that you can’t use Rhino, a triangle, and Revit at the same time… and ultimately architects who are not very talented are going to be constrained by tools, and architects who are talented are not.

P!: But what about the monoculture of certain software? While every designer may have their own set of drafting tools and their preferred way of using them, there are few alternatives to a tool like Revit (and certainly no equivalent open source software). Isn’t there something worrying that the default parameters of a single piece of software are being used by 80% of architects in America?

PB: I don’t disagree with you, but I read a study from Stanford years ago that 80% of the inputs to all buildings are exactly identical. There has to be a logical progression in a profession like ours that has no agreed upon logic structures. I used to argue that Revit is not a piece of software but an epistemology. If you accept an epistemological view of how a building goes together and the advantages of using a certain tool, than you have to accept the disadvantages as well.

It’s also not an end state. New software is being developed at a very rapid pace. It’s an incredibly powerful weapon to use to advance a design agenda, but instead, everyone is obsessed with the fact that they can’t make a window exactly the shape that they want.

P!: How will software and automation change what gets taught in an architectural education? Will technological advancements lower the bar to contributing design ideas?

PB: A recent book I read on the machine learning phenomenon talked about this idea that technology de-skills people, that eventually there’s no one around who knows how to sew a shoe or thread the thread in a loom. But there’s a difference between de-skilling and not understanding what weaving is about. We teach you Structures so you can understand the structural dynamics of buildings, not so you can learn to be a structural engineer. I think it’s important to explore the specifics of each technological innovation, rather than trying to generalize about the profession and the effect of technology in the large.

P!: So what is the path forward for architects interested in thinking more about the nature of qualification?

PB: I just wrote an essay for an Architectural Digest issue that explores the degrees of freedom available to architects to explore a variety of issues. All the other essays explored what it means to make “good” architecture, but none of them address what our role is as architects in the systems that produce any architecture at all, whether it’s licensure or the supply chain. As if somehow “good” architecture or the ability to make “good” architecture exists independently from these things? It’s completely reliant on these processes. Either you understand and manipulate the system, or the system manipulates you—and I think licensure falls under that category. And it goes without saying that it’s not the design thinkers of the world who get involved in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day process of thinking about licensure today. Those same folks may be more interested in systems of delivery—the role of the architect relative to the contractor and other players like fabricatorssince those constraints more directly affect buildings. But, they are all part of the same context that we need to engage in, direct, and control.