PRINT February 1986


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MENTION THAT YOU WRITE about architecture and chances are that whoever you’re chatting with will want to talk about real estate. Chances are, too, that they’ll think you’re splitting hairs should you suggest that real estate and architecture are not the same thing. There’s nothing unusual about the mixup—it’s right there every day in the arts-and-leisure sections of our newspapers. All developers are wise to the idea that projects can be made more palatable when coated with a veneer of "good architecture.” A similar veneer occurs in the press, where much of what comes under the cover of architectural criticism is actually real estate reporting coated with informed opinion. No one should dispute the critic’s obligation to monitor real estate’s role in shaping our urban environment, but a chain of circumstance begins to link itself together when developers determine the subjects our most widely read architectural critics write about. That chain severely limits the idea of architecture as vision, reducing it to a crude polarity between the built and the unbuilt, the builder and the dreamer.

Certain architecture may end up as real estate, but architectural imagination begins with nothing and nowhere; this may be why some architects today have picked as their clients the down-and-out homeless, our experts in a world to which real estate contributes nothing of value. Mention the homeless and the hearts come sliding out on the sleeves. Continue the conversation and the hearts will be deposited, one by one, into the emotional collection box whose contents cover the span of social miseries—poverty, insanity, addiction, bad luck—that we can’t even define, let alone solve. “The homeless” are an architectural metaphor for the breakdown of civilization’s faith in its ability to solve problems. Homeless people aren’t always metaphors, of course; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a person at risk of dying from exposure can be prevented from turning into a corpse by being kept warm. Still, as objects of architectural metaphor the homeless inhabit the flip side of Adam’s House in Paradise, that symbol of the classical tradition’s eternal state of grace. The homeless are Adam and Eve after the Fall, the keepers of our disgrace. Such was the prevailing theological wisdom of the late 18th century, when the idea of poverty began to undergo a transformation from a condition to a problem. To the reformer Jeremy Bentham the problem of poverty, like those of madness and crime, easily offered itself to an architectural solution: his 1790 plan for a “Panopticon” building was designed to serve a variety of needs and functions—“houses of industry, work-houses, poor-houses, manufactories, mad-houses, lazarettos, hospitals, and schools. . . . Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, pub-lie burthens lightened. . .—all by a simple idea of Architecture!"

Some architects today know that it isn’t so simple. They know that shelter utopia does not offer a doorway back to Eden, that on the contrary Bentham’s utopian reform proposals led only to the construction of more efficient prisons, that the only instruction diffused within their walls is the kind that keeps the home-security industry in business. They know that the creation of the category of “the homeless” is a euphemism for failures, many formally outside the architectural province but all philosophically within its sphere, which is the general domain of how we do or don’t, can or can’t, live. And a few architects also know that as official custodians of our sacred imagery of the home, they should arouse their sense of social responsibility (asleep since the ’60s) and extend the hearth in their images to include those currently left out in the cold. But how can architects open the door to the problem of the homeless when they’ve been conspicuously unable to deal with the problem of the contemporary home?

Let us peer for a moment through both sides of the peephole in a door that rents for $1,500 and separates those who have homes from those who don’t. One side of the door is unheated, the other is warm. A bag lady slumbers on one side; on the other is an electrified, walk-in bag with plumbing that we call home. We go there to change before work and dinner. There’s a refrigerator with six ice cubes, a pull-out sofa, and a phone. There are pictures and mirrors on the walls to create the illusion that this rectangular Masonite bag is not just a way station hut an annex to the huge American dream house we inhabit in our imagination. We refresh the dream once a month when House & Garden arrives rolled up in the mailbox. Then we head out to the grand café for three hours of Eden—if we don’t make our reservations quickly, it may be unfashionable by the time we get there. The neighborhood will be unrecognizable next year, unless it’s been declared a historic landmark, but we didn’t sign a lease with the idea that we’d be moving into a museum. We’re on a constant course of collision between pride in our mobility and our dependence on security symbols.

When we feel like bailing out of the mess, feel that we deserve better, bag ladies, or anybody with a hand out, temporarily put us back in that state of there-but-for-the-grace. We are in a position to put something in that hand. We have some secret information that enables us to have a door. But that outstretched hand also has a secret to yield—insecurity has replaced the hearth as our daily fuel. We won’t grasp that knowledge if we imagine the newest apartment tower holds a more important lesson. It is commonplace to measure a critic’s strength by the willingness to stand up to a developer’s power, but perhaps the best response to a project like Donald Trump’s latest effort to erect the world’s tallest something would be to murmur, "How quaint,” and look for some taller visions.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Criticism Workshop at the Parsons School of Design, NY, and writes a column on artitecture for Artforum.