November 1, 2003
Put a Cork In It
How has the AIA’s New York chapter chosen to inaugurate its new space? Hold your ears.
The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects has long operated out of a vigorously designed but hopelessly becubicled office tucked in among the upholstery showrooms on a middle floor of a Midtown Manhattan trade mart. But now, $2.5 million later, the AIA has built, in the parlance of the institution itself, a new premises: the ground floor, basement, and subbasement of a random building on a centrally located but seldom-traveled Greenwich Village byway. The headquarters has room enough at last for the gallery, auditorium, library, and “resource center” the chapter’s board has always craved.
Everybody deserves a clubhouse. But in what strange way do these architects herald its arrival? One component of the weeklong celebration of this renaissance move was a full-day event called the “Design-In Marathon.” Beginning with an address by the executive director at 8 a.m. and wrapping up at midnight, 80-odd “top professionals, talented amateurs, and emerging voices in the design community” shared their “current thinking” on how they “affect the city,” ten minutes each, one theme per hour. Though I was not asked to participate in that important occasion, I have taken the liberty to prepare a brief speech of the type appropriate to that day. It is transcribed below. If you pause dramatically here and there it should stretch to fill the time allotted.
A Plea on the Occasion of the AIA’s Dedicatory “Design-In Marathon”:
Can we talk? Something’s been bothering me for a while, and I need to get it off my chest. It’s a tricky thing to discuss, especially here, because in the noise of discussing it you might think the emergency has passed. It hasn’t. Believe me: it hasn’t. This is too serious. Critical, really. Not something a few words can fix.
No, this drop is too small, and the bucket is too big. Please, please, don’t panic. The truth is an unsettling place. But I’d be shirking if I didn’t just state plainly that the situation is dire. The stakes are high. The outcome is in doubt. It may be saying too much to say that the future of architecture hangs in the balance and the continuum of human culture flirts with the abyss. But it has been said before. And when you take in the scope of what is happening around us, when you face down that onrushing void, it is terrible. Terrible in that old sense, the one that remembers terror. So it comes to this: How will we fill that bucket? How will we fill that bucket?
I don’t want to scare anyone. We need to band together now, link arms and rally for a final stand, raise our voices as one. Today is only a start. But I want to be clear about this. I understand that I am part of the problem. I only wish I could do more—say more, write more—to fix things. Because someone has to. It’s too quiet out there.
Let me just come right out and say it: I’m concerned that there is not enough talk about architecture. I’m concerned that its trustees—all of us—are spending too little time preaching about its role in the lives of the many and its debt to the genius few. I’m concerned that not enough has been said about its unique and fragile nature, its mysteries and powers, its transformative magic, its urgency. Are enough people being reminded that architecture—and architecture alone—can rally the otherwise idle energies of the engineer and the lesser designers, the bureaucrat and the citizen, the artist and the artisan, the poet and the priest?
I’m concerned that no one is pressing the case. Which case? There is only one: that architects and architects alone can save the day. What day? All of them! But we need to keep talking.
I know, I know. “What about the schools,” you say. “The problem’s with the schools.” Well, I’m concerned about that too. I’m concerned that too few teachers are piling the requisite load of theory on their students. I’m concerned that kids today might not be getting enough discourse. They say this is a visual generation. Well, we can’t have that. How will they live? How will they think? How will they write? God help us, they might prefer to draw.
It is a crisis.
How will the public go on? They still need to hear every minute or so that the world is architecture—spoon to nuts and soup to skyscraper. That the architect is central to the viability of society, that without him—without us—there is no culture. That in the absence of the architect’s imagination that enterprise falters, chaos sweeps all order before it, and our very way of life as rational agents on this sphere may cease to be.
Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist—certainly many more than will happen—but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to use this far-reaching imagination. Friends, we gather here on high in our proud new premises to unpack the riddles of the epoch and light that beacon of wisdom that the city’s wanderers, in their innocence, so diligently seek. And as we do, let us remember—no, let us shout it from the rooftops: Never shut up. Never shut up. Never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never shut up.
Friends, I yield the floor.