Architecture in the Auditable World

The value of design–any kind of design–is that it doesn’t lend itself to easy quantification. Pretty much everybody accepts this but technicians and finance people. What designer hasn’t had to incorporate design ideas from Dan in Finance or Jack in Sales? How many lifeless beige boxes have been erected in the name of value engineering?

Alastair Donald urges architects and urban planners to stand their ground against the “bureaucratisation of design in this measurable, auditable world.” First of all, while there’s nothing wrong with using data to support design choices, sound data is hard to find. Second, good design and community concerns are sacrificed to social engineering interests and fiscal restraints. Finally, architectural criticism, like virtually all forms of professional criticism, has fallen into such disrepute that everyone feels empowered to make design decisions. Donal laments,

Not only do ‘experts’ enjoy a relatively free reign to set architectural agendas, but increasingly designers no longer defend their work on its own (architectural) terms. Yet blithely referencing ‘evidence’ is not the same as the systematic development of knowledge acquired through critical engagement with the world. Importantly, evidence does not tell us how to proceed. Research may show that building on the green belt reduces bio-diversity and increases transport emissions. But on reflection we might decide that solutions can be found. Or we might judge the downsides to be a price worth paying for building new houses in attractive locations.

Donald offers a glimpse of what a post-crash architecture could look like: not a return to sensible, socially-responsible design, as many have hoped, but an architecture made to serve ends extrinsic to it. In the future it won’t be enough that a building satisfies Vitruvius’s requirements that it be durable, useful, and beautiful. Buildings will have to improve students’ SAT scores, make people thinner, and force them to recycle. Now architects are responsible for making people happier, and measurably so, at a time when politicians, technocrats, and businesspeople can no longer offer people a quantifiable improvement in their lives.

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