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Why so many left-wing architects?

Running your own business is a pretty good way of disabusing yourself of any lingering enthusiasm for state regulation and mandatory collective provision. That those in business tend to be capitalists is an obvious, platitudinous assertion but there remains one profession which is perversely immune to free-market reason and where public sector boosterism persists, my own: architecture.

If you take the most prominent prosperous ‘progressives’ subtract the entertainers and journalists, those cosseted in extravagant public sector sinecures and those endowed with a generous inheritance, you can be sure that there is a preponderance of architects among the ‘productive’ remainder. Take George Galloway’s podium partner and erstwhile Blair buddy: Richard Rogers. He is arguably one of Britain’s most celebrated architects and certainly one of its wealthiest, yet his political beliefs are barely more developed than the average student union firebrand.

The architectural media shares the same core assumptions about society, economics and the public sector as the likes of The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC and if you are unfortunate enough to wade through a turgidly worded missive from the Architect’s professional institutes – in Ireland we have the RIAI, in the UK, the RIBA – you will find little from which a Guardian-reading career bureaucrat would demur. Sustainability, Public Realm, Social Justice etc. etc.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that architects in the public sector or benefitting significantly from public sector work tend to favour an expanded public sector, there are a number of factors which explain why architects in general are often prone to left-leaning politics.

  1. Architects are romantics. What I mean is not so much that they will conjure up fantastical confections out of the most prosaic brief but that they romanticise their role as designers. Even the most talentless hack, plugging away in an overlit identikit box on an industrial estate churning out designs for yet more identikit boxes on industrial estates, secretly dreams of his life’s work being compiled into an Oeuvre Complete. Where everybody else sees his bland grey carpeted The Office, he sees a Corbusian atelier. One of the pre-requisites for the socialist mindset is the ability to post-rationalise, explain away or otherwise redefine the dogged refusal of real life to conform to marxist dogma. Architects have a head-start on everyone else in that they apply this process to the gap between their own self image and reality.
  2. Architects think in soft pencil. In the initial stages of any design, the most merciless, withering critic of an architect’s ideas is a finely sharpened 3H pencil lead. There is no room for ambiguity and no possible alternatives are suggested by a line which starkly delineates all the flaws and infelicities of your designs. A soft pencil flatters your proposals and elides – for the moment – the flaws. This is crucial for the design process but inculcates a propensity to fudge or avoid difficult questions, theoretically for later resolution. This way of thinking is excellently suited to designers and to subscribers of simplistic political philosophies.
  3. While most architects work in businesses which are subject to the same market forces as every other business there are two specific features of architectural practice which act to negate or at least deprecate the information the market is trying to impart. The first is the cherished notion that architectural practice is a vocation. This is drilled into students at architecture school and can be reinforced by the fact that, for many architects, architecture is a hobby as much as a career. Many architects hate to sully their relationship with a client by issuing a fee account and will often favour the client who offers them interesting schemes to design but consistently dodges payment over a stolid well paying but less imaginative client. The other is professional solidarity. In practice the world of architecture is no less prone to backstabbing than any other but in theory we imagine ourselves as “colleagues” and our professional code of conduct does not only apply to our relationship with our clients but also with each other.
  4. Architects are planners. Forgive me yet another obvious assertion but the point is that there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?

26 comments to Why so many left-wing architects?

  • toolkien

    From the Department of Generalities it seems that any profession that requires ‘soft’ creativity are likely to be inhabited by left-leaners. Their psyches are predisposed toward a feeling of creating and ‘progressing’ and are therefore ripe for the picking by any two-bit song and dance man with the Master Plan For Future Well Being Of All.

    As for it being a vocation, I practice accounting in the US, and we are taught of our obligation to the masses to provide accurate information to the public, not so much based on sound property rights tenets but on something more touchy feely. Yet, again being general, accountants tend to more conservative despite this.

    I think the difference is that professions like architecture tend to be abstract creatively with an open end while accounting drives toward gathering and focusing reality, though at times using creative thinking in capturing intangibles and making proper estimates. But the underlying drives are opposite. Those who want some abstract, esthetic gain probably tend toward architecture while those who want to get to as concrete a reality as possible tend toward accountancy.

  • Surely accountants are the sharp-pencil guys par excellence?

  • Andy Duncan

    I think your last point is the most important. In the University of Sheffield, where I drank heavily for a number of years, the architecture department designed the Arts Tower and plonked themselves at the top of it.

    The other occupants of the building are arts departments (or were), such as politics, english, philosophy, et al.

    I think this may indicate the mindset of your typical architect such that they ally themselves mentally with other ‘artists’ (ie. bachelors of arts), rather than with artisans (ie. bachelors of science), plus, as they put themselves at the top of the building, thereby giving themselves the inconvenience of long lift/elevator journeys, they may consider themselves both allied to other artists AND better than them too, therefore more able to plan others’ lives better, too?

    I do remember they could also drink rather heavily, and there did seem to be a disproportionate amount of architecture students in all the left-wing drinking holes I used to frequent.

    Couldn’t we send all architecture students a copy of the Fountainhead? One nameless British architect friend of mine, said the copy of this I lent to him, changed his life. Maybe it could do the same for others?

  • limberwulf

    Having grown up with a father who was a mechanical engineer, I was made aware early on (and probably in a biased fashion) of the conflicts between the engineering process and the architect process. My dad has since moved on to gunsmithing, which he aproaches in the same mental fashion.

    Engineers are typically strict logic, when they design they do so with the hard pencil, not the soft. They make stuff that isnt pretty, but it will do the job. Architects tend to be more artistic, artists are a proffession that is considered by some to be productive and not by others. Essentially tho, the artist mindset, speaking in broad, stereotypical terms, is not essentially rational.

    Most of the artists I know embrace ideals and have the ability to imagine beautiful things that can not exist in real life. Some do not engage their logical sides at all, some begin to, but try to remain disconnected from the “limitations of real life”.

    Art is a beautiful thing, I enjoy art, and I enjoy buildings that arent all super-space-efficient-structural-cubes. The tough thing to find in life is a fiercely logical artist. Creativity is beautiful, and seeing a great fantasy come alive in a peice of art is inspiring, and a break from the real world. Unfortunately we have to live in the real world, so those of us who spend our lives in it believe in realistic concepts of social and economic organization. It is those who can easily escape it that tend to lean on the fantasy.

    Like I said, I have an engineer’s bias, so I may be over-generalizing, my apologies to any architects out there.

  • Andy:

    The irony is, architectural students aren’t typically left wing. They are a solipsistic, tending to narcissistic, bunch and don’t tend to get involved in mainstream student protest. I think they acquire the leftwing mindset “soaked in” by osmosis, as opposed to “applied” indoctrination, which kicks in later. The problem is: “soaked in” is harder to shift.

    Nice photograph, by the way. I take it the tower looks a lot less like the Seagram building in the flesh?

  • Limberwulf:

    It would probably be unfair and inaccurate to dismiss architects as mere “illogical”, “irrational” creative types. In fact logic and rationalism are very important in the design process. Few architects are foolish dreamers and most are keenly aware of the various trade-offs in creating buildings. The problem is that the rationalism sits alongside wilful suspension of disbelief.

  • RonG

    I wonder if this is not a perception bias.
    Architects must know their customers. If a customer is practical and cost conscious, the architect has a set of boundaries within which to work. The architects who deal with such projects will probably never become famous, and no one will ask their politics..
    If a customer is impractical and the money is not his own, well then, the architect is only too happy to reflect the customer’s politics so long as the bills are covered. Since such a customer is often a leftist government, then the architect will become a leftist ( except so far as his own unbillable expenses are concerned ). Since they have the money they will then have an opportunity to come up with extravegant award-winning (and often unliveable ) designs. They will get the press.

  • RonG:

    Since such a customer is often a leftist government, then the architect will become a leftist

    This is the flaw in your argument. The customer is, more often than not, an ordinary “capitalist” business.

  • Andy Duncan

    Frank:

    Not being an architecture student, the only ones I met were the hard-drinking left-wing kind, being, as I was, a hard-drinking left-wing sort! ;-)

    [Incidentally, I now believe in some ways that if you are left-wing, you almost have to be hard-drinking, in order for your mind to hold all of those completely stupid and obviously contradictory thoughts at the same time.]

    I also didn’t meet many other architecture students, because most of them spent up to 10pm each and every evening, up at the top of the Arts tower, spending 60-70 hours a week, on their six year course, on drawings. Or whatever it was they did up there! :-)

    From all across Sheffield, at night, you could always see this band of light on, at the top of the Arts Tower. Needless to say, all the marxist politics students were in the bar, with me, from 2pm in the afternoon onwards, sometimes even earlier (having got up by 11am).

    From the pic of the Seagram tower you showed, the Arts Tower DID look a bit like that close up. But I should imagine less wide and less tall.

    Maybe the architecture department, knowing the difference, copied the Seagram Tower?

    It’s 19 floors, the tallest building in Sheffield, with the architects on the top 3 floors, at 255 feet tall, and completed 1966 (or so google says! :)

    Incidentally, there’s a Paternoster lift which goes the whole way up and down, turning over the top and bottom. It was always a great place to waste a few minutes in between philosophy tutorials, though I can’t recall ever ‘going over the top’, though a hazy memory does tell me I ‘went under the bottom’. That’s a very unreliable memory, though.

    Here’s another closer more detailed photo, here:

    http://www.xes.cx/archives/00000512.htm

  • Harry Powell

    Perhaps uniquely among professional people (with the possible exception of policemen) architects are prone to the folly of thinking that they can influence behaviour through what they do. I would go so far as to say that we could trace the leftward swing of architects as a group from the rise of the notion of “architectural determinism”. From Bentham to the Smithsons social engineering through the built environment has allied itself with “progressive politics” precisely because meddling in the organization of society is only possible when it is done with the backing of a coercive, collectivising state.

  • Julien

    Finally, bloggers writing about architecture! As an architectural intern in Chicago, I’ve often wondered about the question regarding the typical politics of architects and planners. Having adopted a libertarian perspective myself, I’ve struggled throughout my schooling and in my young career how to coordinate my politics with the general pro-planning views of my discipline. As it appears most contributors to the commentary above are from Europe, what really needs to be considered is that American architects aren’t quite the same. Actually, almost every architecture student I know here has read or at least watched Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. According to the AIA (American Institute of Architects) some architects do indeed run for office, usually as state representatives, congressmen and mayors. The proportion of membership to both Democratic and Republican parties is about half, though I get the impression there are slightly more republican architects in office. My theory on this difference between the American and European political attitudes has much to do with fundamental differences in business models. Many European firms seem to be run as workshops, with informal employee structures and little concern with profits, while being highly dependent on government projects and contests. American firms are quite business-like for the most part, with systematic accounting and office organization, employee benefits, and an almost total reliance on private clients. Also American government entities are rarely into innovative design as opposed to those in Europe. In any case, American architecture students who know better quickly become disenchanted with the idealism as well masochism inherent in architecture and drop out to seek better paying careers. Does anyone agree?

  • Shannon Love

    I think the economic need for novelty drives professions towards Leftism. Architects, like artist and academicians must continually produce new works if they wish to advance and thrive. New-ness for new-ness sake becomes an economic imperative.

    This novelty seeking culture in turn creates a systemic disdain for conservatism in any form. People who consume only established products constitute an economic threat and must be suppressed both politically and socially.

  • As it happens, Scott Tallon Walker did a much better job of copying the Seagram building for their Bank of Ireland HQ in Dublin’s Baggot street.

    most of them spent up to 10pm each and every evening, up at the top of the Arts tower, spending 60-70 hours a week, on their six year course, on drawings. Or whatever it was they did up there! :-)..From all across Sheffield, at night, you could always see this band of light on, at the top of the Arts Tower.

    The illuminati!

  • Julien

    Actually, my architecture school at the University of Texas resided in the most traditional and beautiful buildings of the whold huge campus. The buildings were works of French Beaux-Arts masters Paul Cret and Cass Gilbert. I don’t recall any students yearning to move to a modernist building, though we sure spent 60-70 hour weeks there…

  • toolkien

    Surely accountants are the sharp-pencil guys par excellence?

    It depends. There is much more abstractness to accounting than non-accountants realize. Contrasting accounting to bookkeeping (a subcomponent) is bookkeeping is the hardline keeping and totalling data, maintaining accounts and the like. Accounting oversees this function as well as all the principles of valuation, timing and recognition. All of these require judgement and opinion. Valuing an abstract, intangible asset can be difficult. Deciding when an asset has a value or not is not simple, and when a complete set of business circumstances are combined, and ‘materiality’ enters the picture, accounting is much less about hard pencils but soft pencils, but still trying to drive toward an understandable and translatable ‘reality’ that an investor or management can understand.

    I go on at length to try and show that accounting has quite a bit of ‘creativity’ in trying to represent the financial position of an enterprise, but is endeavoring to etch a ‘reality’ while architecture is creative toward an open ended outcome and is not bounded (except perhaps by ‘vogue’ tastes and gravity).

  • Julien,

    I briefly worked for an American architectural practice in London in 1989. Out of the American staff, I’d guess they were all Democrats, bar one. When it was revealed, behind his back, that one guy actually voted for Reagan, this was intended to be a devastasting assessment of his character.

    As for the European “workshop” model: this more accurately describes the rhetorical self-image than the reality.

  • Julien

    Frank,

    Thanks for responding. I don’t doubt your experience in the slightest, and I often have to keep my opinions in the closet. However I’ve been fortunate enough to have been spared of any political talk at the office, as it is something that is rarely if ever brought up. Yet, there are thousands upon thousands of architecture firms out in the U.S. and one can easily identify which are likely ‘conservative’ places to work as opposed to the more liberal ones. The more progressive the design reputation, the more leftist. The more technically specialized (and inversely less flashy) firms, who design golf clubhouses, healthcare, hospitality, laboratories, and ultra-efficient building types are full of people who tend to lean to the right. These firms are about profit, efficiency, and totally client-centered. If there was an American firm in London, it’s likely it was of the progressive design kind, and usually involved in public-focused projects as opposed to purely functional and private. It’s actually not that difficult to find yourself among people who talk about going to the shooting range, playing golf, and proudly displaying their faux-historicist designs.

  • PaulBubel

    Julien,

    I’ll second your original post.
    As a side note, I’ve worked for an Architecture firm after graduation (A&M) in both their Dallas and London offices, and the two could not have been more different. The Brit office was a complete sweat shop and set up in a more rigid atmoshpere then our Dallas based headquarters. Strange, no? (60-120 hour weeks were the norm) We were developing a new healthcare facility for the English NHS (hospital system) It was a bold design, and consequently, a real pain in the a$$ to bring to CD. I soon gave up the “suffering for my art” life style and started my own business last year, so I’m also an example of your last sentence. Hope this validation helps…

  • Guy Herbert

    What’s very interesting in the UK is that except for high profile, government-supported or big corporate projects it is very, very difficult for architects to do anything interesting.

    The planning system here is almost insanely conservative when private buildings (particularly private houses) are under consideration. New construction must often fit a bureaucrat’s check-box characterisation of the surroundings*, and if you do have an interesting building on your hands you’ll be lucky if it isn’t listed and hence frozen, unadaptable.** Local authorities themselves, on the other hand, can usually do what they like.

    There is a benefit for architects in this, but it is less artistic: no-one can expect to do anything without an architect involved in the planning application. No dilletantes like Vanburgh or Nash, or artisans like Cubitt, please, we’ll settle it between us professional experts….


    * See for example Stratford on Avon’s ludicrous array of hanging inn signs, even on McDonalds.
    ** Private Eye’s Piloti advanced the very interesting theory that the reason so much architecture in the City is so bland is not committee commission, but the realistic requirement of landowners to be able to tear down and redevelop office buildings–impossible if they are unfortunate enough to be listed.

  • Tim in PA

    Ahh, yes, this brings back some memories… Spending hours working over a drafting table, with the architect I was interning for playing NPR on the radio.

  • Tedd McHenry

    My experience as an engineer in Canada has been quite different from what limberwulf describes. I have found that a surprising (to me) number of my engineering colleagues hold views ranging from middle-class-demi-left to ultra-radical-eco-left (though their personal lives tend to follow a more conservative path). I have two hypotheses about this.

    First, I think left-leaning sentiments among the engineers I know are often compensatory. That is, they see their profession as white-male-left-brain-status-quo-centric, and feel they need to balance that out by espousing more politically correct views. I’ve found that male engineers are often very quick to buy into the pop culture stereotype of women-good-men-bad, which I suspect is partly motivated by angst over the proportionately low number of women in the profession.

    Second, the profession of engineering in Canada was very much built on accomplishments that were government funded in one way or another. So the status of engineers in Canadian society has been boosted by a heavily public-project-oriented approach to government, from the National Railway to the CANDU reactor. I think there is an unstated debt of gratitude among many Canadian engineers for the opportunity that government projects have given them for the advancement of the profession and of their own personal interests.

    I suspect that at least some of the leftishness of architects (which I accept prima facie, not having a lot of personal experience with them) is due to the same effects, rather than to a difference in nature or personality of architects and engineers. I don’t dispute, though, that there are general differences in personality type between the two professions.

  • Jacob

    When famous architects write gibberish like this it explains maybe their left leanings.

  • adam

    I think that Harry Powell is correct in identifying the legacy of determinism as part of the problem. Architecture students are imbued with a very particular history of the last 100 years’ developments in architecture, and much of that was bound up with ‘solving’ society’s ‘problems’ through design. Put simply, the ‘problem’ was identified in marxist terms as:

    1. Traditional forms of architecture contributed to ‘false consciousness’ – obscuring ‘the people’s’ understanding of their miserable true condition.

    2. The layout of traditional towns & cities reinforced class division/oppression through its heirarchy of public/private space.

    The arbitrary (leftist) pseudo-scientific architectural response to these ‘problems’ left a disatrous legacy, particularly in Britain’s mass housing projects. This was recognised in the 70s and 80s, but a period of sober reflection coincided with a halt in the building of such projects. In the meantime the creeping effect of PC and cultural studies etc in universities, and the triumph of the Guardian readers in taking over the UK’s architectural press means that once again there is a climate of ‘progressiveness’ in UK architecture.

    Clearly this has a good side, but it causes damage where architects fall in love with their creation, and use its newness/innovation as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that they are not addressing the real problems.

    The pseudo-science has now largely gone, and architects are taught to be creative more than to solve problems. At university their thought processes are often not subject to the same academic rigours as other disciplines, which they only ever dip into. The creation of a formal artistic object or intellectual conceit is the goal of their endeavours.

    This, combined with the positive outlook required to create and push these projects through can lead architects to assume that everything is bound to be OK once the lucky punters move in.

    The ultimate irony of Liebeskind’s self regarding rubbish about his atelier is that the one person I know who worked in that office discovered that it broke with convention to the extent of expecting staff to work until 11 at night 7 days a week for no pay for the priviledge of proximity to the master…

    Perhaps this ongoing relative poverty is the real reason for the persistence of left leaning amongst architects…

  • David Gillies

    There’s another profession that requires logical, scientific adherence to reality and cost constraints, allied with creative flair. That’s software engineering. I sometimes think of my creations as kinetic sculpture. A genuine aesthetic for design is essential for a software engineer, but we also have to be rigorous when it comes to bulding things that work in the real world.

    The funny thing is, as people like Eric Raymond have pointed out, software engineers are disproportionately to be found among the ranks of libertarians and even anarchists.

  • Julien

    Paul,

    Thanks for your useful insight regarding the difference between working in the US and England. Although I can’t claim to have worked abroad, my lengthy conversations with others who have seem to confirm my suspicions. It partly influenced my decision on where to work as an intern during grad school. At first I was willing to join a Pritzker-winning firm in Paris. Then after being informed by other students and professors what the experience was like there and similar firms in France, what with long hours, extremely low pay, inadequate equipment, and messiah-like star architect running the show, I changed my mind and decided to join a corporate international firm in Chicago. Among the reasons for choosing the latter was that it offered a professional experience that was highly respected around the country. Even though I would decide to work elsewhere in other firms, this international firm’s name-recognition helped put me at an advantage in any job market. The same would not necessarily be the case if I had worked for the boutique firm, as a surprisingly small number of architects actually look at our own design journals. You could have worked for Renzo Piano and struggle to find a job in Austin! Or the firm principal would appreciate this ‘star’, and decided not to hire you since you would could not be happy with the firm as you’d expect to be involved in high-design, not nuts and bolts architectecture that 99% of firms do here. European style firms surprisingly do not prepare you well for the American architecture market.