Architecture amidst other arts, certainly isn’t an exception to the contemporary insidious trend of eminence and elitism (Slessor, 2014). Ellin (1997) defines elitism in architecture, as the industry’s notion of portraying architects as the exclusive and ultimate authority in assessing the quality of the built environment. And, this paved the way for the birth of so-termed celebrated “star architects”, accounting for merely around 0.1% of the industry (Parman, 2018). Indisputably, the contemporary works of aforesaid architects garner attention, both acclaim, and criticism for simply ‘elitism’ in their works; aesthetics, innovation, and grandeur in scale and budget (Slessor, 2014 & Parman, 2018).

An overview of Architecture and Elitism - Sheet1
Gap between architects and general public_© Olivier Schrauwen
An overview of Architecture and Elitism - Sheet2
Fondation Louis Vuitton By Frank Gehry_© Iwan Baan
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Pies Descalzos School by Giancarlo Mazzanti_© Sergio Gomez

Elitism in Architecture: Acclaims and Criticisms  

Over the years, there has been literature both defending and disapproving of this elitist approach in architecture, simultaneously defining what architecture should look like on the grounds of the primary purpose of architecture. Nikolaus Pevsner once said, “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture” (Parman, 2018). Pevsner defines that it is the aesthetics of a human-scale building that makes it architecture, in a way, supporting the elitist stance (Parman, 2018). Contradictorily, Slessor (2014) appreciates a new primary school by Giancarlo Mazzanti in Columbia over Frank Gehry’s £100 million Fondation Louis Vuitton Museum and defines that architecture has to be “modest, socially minded and truly transformative” snubbing elitism in architecture.

Bingler and Pedersen (2014), accuse elitism in architecture for the under-appreciated work and ideas of ‘middle-rank’ architects and the prevalent gap between the general public and architects. Betsky (2014) denies Bingler and Pedersen’s accusation of architects and argues that architects aren’t responsible for the elitism in their works and it is this elitism that creates progress and keeps architecture alive. In the bottom line, Pevsner and Betsky appreciate elitism in architecture for it allows novel experimentation as a path to higher achievements, while Slessor, Bingler, and Pedersen are mainly arguing against elitism in architecture that could be termed “art for art’s sake”, as it ignores functionality and fails to understand the general population and their humble needs.

Elitism through Various Architectural Styles

It is quite interesting to know that modern architecture, though founded on socialist principles, is accused of elitism. Herein, Ellin’s definition of Elitism comes in handy. Modern architecture is accused of being elite as it ignored the notions of the local people and built structures that were beyond their understanding (Harper, 2017). Astoundingly, postmodernism which emerged contradicting the sameness and functionalism in modern architecture, also turned out to be elitist in another way (Bingler and Pedersen, 2014). Post-modernism advocates architecture as art and emphasizes the artistic freedom of architects, which makes it elitist again. Most of the movements or -isms in architecture including deconstructivism that emerged in response to modern architecture, were in some way or other deemed elite as they did not consider the public opinion (Bingler and Pedersen, 2014).

Aversion to Populist Pre-Modern Architectural Styles 

Though pre-modern architecture has acquired a position in the hearts of the general public, Harper (2017) claims that the profession’s dominant taste is modern or post-modern, and elitist, ignoring all pre-modern styles. Harper (2017) recounts a tale of his fellow undergraduate student to highlight that this prejudice starts early on in architectural schools. The student explored a pre-modern scheme playing on vernacular Welsh housing with hand-rendered drawings at a jury, however, the jurors were barely interested in assessing the work and accused him of his lack of commitment to the course. Harper (2017) also shows his concern over contemporary classical and traditional architects, who get mocked and spurned in the present scenario. This aversion to pre-modern architectural styles can be considered as one of the root causes for the elitism in architecture as pre-modern styles have the potential to please the general public. (Harper, 2017)

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Lagos tomorrow 2014 MoMA’s exhibition on Tactile Urbanism_ © NLÉ and zoohaus inteligencias colectivas
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Lagos Tomorrow 2014 transportation MoMA’s Exhibition on tactile urbanism_ © NLÉ and zoohaus inteligencias colectivas

Theoretical and Practical Scenarios

“If the public is the ultimate client for architecture, isn’t it elitist to consistently dismiss their taste?” asked Harper (2017). Bingler and Pedersen (2014) agree that it’s time to learn to listen to people, pushing aside the artistic freedom that current generation architects boast about. Like, Harper they also recommend revisiting pre-modern styles to study the intricate relationship between architects, people, craftsmen, and nature which elite architecture lacks. Moreover, according to Bingler and Pedersen (2014), as of now, it is crucial to reconnect architecture with the general public, rediscover the importance of middle-rank architects, and work collaboratively with people to ensure their understanding, as these measures are long overdue, rather than focusing solely on elitist groundbreaking innovations and advancements.

However, Betsky breaks the silence and reveals the actual practical scenario prevalent in the industry while Bingler and Pedersen advocate the theory of social architecture. Betsky discloses that architecture wasn’t made for “a wide spectrum of population” instead “it was made for those who have the means to commission it”, and this is exactly what few others in the industry term as elitism. However, Betsky rejects the lack of collaboration in contemporary architecture by quoting MoMA’s exhibition on tactical urbanism. In fact, collaboration isn’t a scarce phenomenon in contemporary architecture as much in the neo-classical architecture which Bingler and Pedersen term anti-elite, according to him. Moreover, Betsky reaffirms that innovative experimentation, though may look elite and alien in the beginning is the only way to progress the profession and also recalls that now-celebrated monuments were also once unpopular and overlooked as weird. (Betsky, 2014)

FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais renovation and extension by Lacaton and Vassal_© Philippe Ruault

Is Contemporary Architecture Merely Elitist?

It isn’t fair enough to criticize the architects or portray them as ego-driven when they actually don’t have complete authority over what they do. Architects are commissioned by clients and not the direct users and hence, come up with ideas that the client may desire, which more often than not is elite, as Betsky revealed. However, there is a significant shift in the thought process of architects, which is also appreciated by the industry. Indeed, the rising interest in designing flexible and adaptable spaces, modular design approach, and the participatory design approach of many architects and firms like SANAA, proves it. Architects intend to give the users some form of authority, while bending but not fully giving up their artistic freedom, by such approaches.

Moreover, Lacaton and Vassal Pritzker Architecture Prize win (2021) reinforces the much-needed shift of the values of wider architectural society. It is a move that solves the issue of Bingler and Pedersen’s concern about the socialist work of middle-rank architects going unnoticed. Indeed, as Harper quotes “It is a move that should pave the way for a better generation of architectural prizes less seduced by shiny new buildings and able instead to celebrate the underappreciated but ecologically and socially essential work of caring for and upgrading architecture over time: urban stewardship.”. Ultimately, architects intend to create a better world either by daring elitist moves or humble socialist moves, whichever is feasible, wherever and whenever within their limited authority.

References:
  1. Betsky, A. (2014). The New York Times Versus Architecture. [online] Architectmagazine.com. Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/the-new-york-times-versus-architecture_o [Accessed 7 Sep. 2023].
  2. Bingler, S. and Pedersen, M.C. (2014). Opinion | How to Rebuild Architecture. The New York Times. [online] 15 Dec. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/opinion/how-to-rebuild-architecture.html.
  3. Ellin, N. (1997). Architecture of fear. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  4. Harper, P. (2017). Phineas Harper: ‘To confront populism, all architects should become classicists’. [online] Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2017/04/26/phineas-harper-opinion-confront-populism-architects-classicists-traditionalists/amp/ [Accessed 9 Sep. 2023].
  5. Lacaton, A. and Vassal, J.P. (2018). Inhabiting: Pleasure and Luxury for Everyone. [online] aut.cc. Available at: https://aut.cc/magazin/aut-feuilleton/anne-lacaton-jean-philippe-vassal-design-approach-and-process [Accessed 9 Sep. 2023].
  6. Parman, J.J. (2018). The bike shed conundrum. [online] Medium. Available at: https://johnjparman.medium.com/the-bike-shed-conundrum-66beb0430bc0 [Accessed 9 Sep. 2023].
  7. Slessor, C. (2014). Editorial View: Architecture has nothing in common with luxury goods. [online] Architectural Review. Available at: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/letters-from-the-editor/editorial-view-architecture-has-nothing-in-common-with-luxury-goods?blocktitle=editorial-view&contentid=5292 [Accessed 9 Sep. 2023].
Author

Valliammai Tirupathi is a budding architect. She has an immense passion for research and writing, mainly in Architectural Theory and the History of Architecture. She believes that Architectural Journalism can bring about a change in the profession. She loves to analyze and break down heavy information and complex ideas into simple sentences.