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Book Review: Keeping the Architectural Profession Professional: "Architecture from the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman" celebrates Gutman's legacy as invaluable outsider

Selected essays by a penetrating sociologist of architecture pose the kinds of tough-minded questions needed now to keep architectural professional on-track.

By Norman Weinstein
March 26, 2010


The literary journalist George Plimpton penned a hilarious and insightful series of popular books in which he donned the trappings of a “professional,” going through the motions of training with pro boxers and the Detroit Lions football team, trying out as an aerialist with the Beatty-Cole Brothers circus, and even winning a seat as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic. Too bad that George never tried his hand at working in an architectural firm.

 

Behind Plimpton’s posture of a curious outsider hobnobbing among the pros in various arenas was implicitly a respectful, but also sometimes irreverent overview of how “professionalism” gets defined. Plimpton’s books from the 1960s still work as lively reminders of an age when “Question Authority” widely penetrated the thinking of major contributors to American popular culture. It might be a stretch to call Robert Gutman (1926-2008), the distinguished academic who defined the sociology of the architectural profession, as the “George Plimpton” of architectural education, but I don’t believe that Gutman and his many illustrious former students would find the comparison inappropriate. Quite the contrary. Gutman had no more formal architectural education when he began his research into the meanings of architectural professionalism than Plimpton did about the inner workings of a pro football team. They both knew how to ask the right questions to the right individuals at the right moment, positing queries only a brilliant outsider to a profession would think to ask.

 

Architecture from the Outside In: Selected Essays by Robert Gutman (Princeton Architectural Press, March 2010) draws from Gutman’s 40-year career. Editors Dana Cuff and John Wriedt have done a superb job editing Gutman’s far-ranging essays into a consistently readable and provocative collection, beginning with 1977’s “Architecture: The Entrepreneurial Profession” that sets the tone for what follows:

 

“...what makes the architectural profession architectural? Certainly it is not the fact that it gets buildings up on schedule, or that it designs buildings which are economical to construct and maintain, or that its products may be durable and present a salubrious and convenient environment. Such tasks could be handled as well by good contractors and engineers. The architectural profession merits this title because it alone is expected to coordinate the achievement of these ends with an aesthetic element&hellip”

 

Yet Gutman refused the temptation to overplay the role of artful design within the large mosaic of the profession:

 

“The central illusion is that an architect spends most of her time doing ‘design,’ that is, figuring out how the spaces of a building will be organized and what the building will look like on the exterior and interior. In fact...we are dealing with...a lengthy, cumbersome, and complicated process whose successful completion depends upon technical knowledge, refined architectural understanding, and political and diplomatic skill in the office.”

 

Surrounding Gutman’s essays are “Dialogues” by his former students – and those architects who have been influenced by Gutman’s writing. Among them is Bryan Bell who amplifies cogently what architecture meant to the non-architect Gutman:

 

“Architecture, at its best, is not just a beautiful form, the arrangement of materials and space, but an enabler of positive change in day-to-day life, a place where identity, character, daily life, and even the spirits of the users are manifest.”

 

Gutman’s commitment to addressing public housing needs kept his examination of architectural professionalism politically engaged. And he was a lover of architectural beauty – most when that beauty revealed a deep layer of social conscience and sensible utility. But he could admit architectural beauty even without a trace of social conscience, though not without a rejoinder. Witness his trenchant demolition of Peter Eisenman’s “House VI” in the essay of the same name. Gutman writes: “As one comes upon it set among evergreens and open fields, House VI is literally breathtaking – one of the superb visual experiences of modern design.” Then transitions from sincere aesthetic pleasure to “...why should his (Eisenman’s) house make so many ordinary household activities so awkward?”

 

These essays, and former student-current architect responses, are absolutely relevant to most major ongoing issues among architectural educators and practitioners now. Yet how many architecture schools in 2010 continue to prepare students for primarily a design-centered practice? How many starchitects continue to design unlivable awkward spaces?

 

Nevertheless, I’d like to think optimistically about Gutman’s gift to the profession in which he was never a direct practitioner. In an eloquent essay by former student (now Dean of the School of Architecture at Rice University) Sarah Whiting, Gutman is hailed as one of the few people who thoroughly understood the intellectual discipline of architecture, “...the players, the histories, the precedents, the stories, and most importantly, the resonances.” She imagines that she could invite her graduate students in architecture to a banquet where they would sit among the major architects of our time, and become nourished through conversations with them. That fantasy seems apt for a former Gutman student. He was a sociological genius who might have dined and conversed with the geniuses of architecture, if only in imagination, asking them, daily, questions about balancing beauty and the public good no one else would think to ask.

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at nweinste@mindspring.com.

 

More by Weinstein:

 

Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
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An exhibition and book of photographs of Paris between the wars might just be the necessary correctives to the virtual sterility of digital imagery

 

Best Architecture Books of 2009 
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Book Review: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz

A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition – and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.

 

Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.

 

Book Review: "Everything Must Move: 15 Years at Rice School of Architecture 1994-2009" 
There’s a Texas flood of architectural ideas that gives ample evidence of an architecture school that unsettles pat assumptions. Who could ask for anything more?

 

Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.

 

Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.

 

Best Architecture Books of 2008 
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Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston

 

Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy.

 

 



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