An Architect Walked into a Starbucks . . .

The excellent architectural blogger John Hill chimes in on the controversy surrounding Christine Outram's essay at Medium, "What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don't: Or why I left the architecture profession," an article that has rattled a profession not exactly bursting with confidence at the monent. Outram claims that architects don't pay sufficient attention to the people who use the buildings architects design. Hall agrees, by not for the same reasons Outram cites.

So I believe that architects do listen to people, internalizing conversations and experiences so as to make better decisions about design. Often they don't follow through on those feelings and therein lies some of what Outram is getting at. I don't believe architects need to carry out online polls or data mine (what people in advertising, Outram's current gig, do) to create buildings and spaces that are in line with how people want to feel. Architects can interpret such data if it exists, but not at the expense of understanding themselves and the shared human condition.


Standing between people and architects are clients, usually developers or, in the case of Starbucks, giant corporations. "I'd wager that architects don't listen to what's inside," Hill writes, "because they're afraid of ignoring what they see as the client's wishes or of even losing the job." Nevertheless, Hill insists that it's the architect's job to balance the needs of developers with the needs of building occupants. Outram suggests data will bridge the gap between an architect's CAD system and people entering and leaving a structure. This sounds like a good idea, and Starbucks seems to have implemented polling data successfully. They could also have been lucky. Or the architects could have relied on intuitive judgment in placing round tables near the windows. 

In any case, Outram conflates two ideas that are very popular right now but, to my mind, remain dubious: designers' rediscovered interest in gathering input from lived experiences and the power of big data to discern the deepest desires of the collective will. As Hill suggests, data doesn't speak. It has to be interpreted, like any other text an architect has to consult. 

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