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"Architects Are Sceptical Optimists"
"Architects are sceptical optimists"
This quote was first uttered as a passing comment in one of my university lectures, and it has stuck with me ever since. It was spoken by Nicholas Ray, a very thoughtful and intelligent architect and lecturer at my former university. Whilst he may have heard it somewhere else, I am happy to attribute its creation to him. It perfectly encapsulates two characteristics which in my opinion are vital in the making of an effective and creative architect. Through the use of two case studies, I am going to explore how these two seemingly contradicting traits can complement each other, why they are so important, and the potential of this quote in a context wider than architecture.

Architecture is all about solving problems, and more often than not this is done by the act of creation. Time is precious, and so to dedicate it to creating something new requires a belief that what you make will be worthwhile. This devotion to creation is amplified in the architecture industry where it is literally the architect’s job to create, and someone is investing money in their capability to do so. Therefore, it is logical that the most successful architects in the world seem to be optimists (or at least present this view at work) across the board. They are passionate and care about making a positive difference, and believe in their ability to do just that. Due to the social impact of architecture, I think it is the duty of the architect to be optimistic on behalf of the society they are representing. After all, what’s the point of putting so much time, effort and money into something that you don’t think will have a positive effect. So far I have met only one pessimistic architect, and their designs were uninspired, lazy and as miserable as their personality.
A fantastic case study to exemplify the optimistic nature of successful architects is the redesigning and rebuilding of the Chilean city of Constitución by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Alejandro Aravena. Located on the coast about halfway down the country at the mouth of the Maule River, the city was devastated in 2010 by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The earthquake was the sixth most powerful ever recorded on a seismograph, and approximately 350 people from the city died as a result of the event, a staggering number considering the small population of just 40,000.
Following the terrible destruction, a plan had to be formulated to rebuild the city and protect it from future tsunamis. Alongside various government departments and companies, Alejandro Aravena was tasked with the redesign. When first arriving in the city, the Chilean architect said “It was shocking. The destruction was on a continental scale”.
The design team gave themselves 100 days to develop a scheme, which is extremely fast by normal standards but an eternity for Constitución’s inhabitants who had lost everything. A community involved approach was key, and so the firm setup an open house in the city centre where anyone could go to could learn about the plans and suggest ideas. Alongside practical improvements, this would no doubt have provided some much needed hope and optimism.
Community consultations were also utilised, and played an important role in deciding how to limit damage from future tsunamis. Complaints regarding fishing and a public connection to the river arose in response to the suggestion of a wall, and prohibiting building on land close to the river and coast was out of the question as informal settlements would no doubt appear. This challenging situation prompted some creative genius from Aravena. From the devastation that lay before him, his vision and optimism allowed him to imagine a solution that would not only limit tsunami damage, but also improve the city as a whole. Currently under construction alongside rebuilding of the urban part of Constitución is a green belt that runs beside the coast and river. This belt will provide a wonderful, natural, public waterfront for the city’s inhabitants, and slow tsunami waves sufficiently to greatly reduce their power and height. Just 100 days after Constitucion’s decimation and in the face of extreme adversity, loss and pain, Aravena’s optimism and the skill of his team allowed him to envision a bright future for the city.

Whilst it seems contradictory to their optimistic streak, from my observations successful architects also tend to have a healthy dose of scepticism. This leads to them questioning their solutions and decisions, and those of others, to death in order to find an ideal outcome. Instead of limiting their optimism, this trait actually boosts it; they are aware that an optimum solution exists, and through their positive scepticism they know they will eventually work it out. This is demonstrated in the architectural value of working in design iterations, where with each new iteration more problems are solved. Most of the world’s most recognisable and celebrated buildings went through hundreds of iterations before the architect was satisfied with them. At the end of the day architects are the same as other designers, working to create an optimum solution to a distinct set of issues. However, the skill and value of an architect stems from their ability to deal with a wide and complex range of scales and perspectives.
The recently completed Victora and Albert (V&A) Museum extension in London by Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) exquisitely demonstrates how an acute self dialogue can lead to rich and creative ideas. The scheme is the museum’s largest expansion in 100 years, providing an alternative entrance through a new public courtyard as well as a new underground gallery space. Whilst the project seems relatively simple at first glance, when you look deeper layers of complexity reveal themselves, showcasing the rich background to the design.
One of the joys of AL_A’s design is its openness. Anyone can wander into the courtyard and pass the time there, and the views through the stone screen from the street draw visitors in. How interesting, then, that this feature only came to fruition due to the scepticism of the architects. The Aston Webb designed screen has a Grade 1 listing from British Heritage, and hence having any alterations approved was always going to be extremely difficult. When AL_A first requested the removal of the lower part of the screen, they received a resounding “no”. Reversing this decision was vital to the success of the courtyard, and hence the firm began questioning the reasons for the decision and searching for a solution. Miraculously, they found some competition stage drawings done by Aston Webb that featured a low balustrade and lush garden instead of the high wall. It turns out that the wall was a late addition to the design in order to block the view of some ugly boiler rooms that were moved from an underground location to the courtyard due to a lack of funds. With this information, AL_A were able to argue that they were in fact returning the feature to its original design, and hence gain approval to make the changes.
In contrast to its openness during the daytime, securing the complex at night is also key since the V&A has a priceless collection. Therefore, AL_A had to incorporate some kind of barrier between the stone columns of the Aston Webb designed screen. They considered a number of options such as bollards and electronically raised glazed panels, however they were sceptical of these solutions, stating “nothing worked for us, nothing felt that it had an enduring quality”. This quote is very interesting, because it reveals that whilst bollards were functionally appropriate, the architects knew they were a lazy solution. Their scepticism lead to a much more creative outcome, a set of aluminium gates whose angled perforations show and memorialise World War 2 shrapnel damage from the old stone wall that was removed. This creative solution came to them when they received a survey drawing of the Aston Webb screen, and it beautifully references both the modern aesthetic of the new addition and the important history of the site.

Writing this article got me thinking about the quote “Architects are sceptical optimists”, and made me realise it has a wider context than architecture. I would like to suggest an alteration, so instead it reads “Architects and everyone should be sceptical optimists”. Especially currently, there seems to be rising tension, distrust and fear within society, which is causing a distinct lack of hope for the future. Whilst blind optimism doesn’t help anyone, there are reasons to be positive. Global poverty is now a third of what it was in 1990, child labour and mortality rates are also decreasing, and in the fight against climate change the Paris agreement has established a solid international foundation to build on. Alongside a more optimistic attitude, I think respectful scepticism can go a long way in helping humanity develop. Questioning our decisions and those of others should not lead to confrontation, but instead a healthy discussion that allows everyone to be heard and the most appropriate solution to be reached. Scepticism has a negative perception, however now more than ever it is vital in making the correct decisions.

Nicholas Ray’s quote will stay with me for the rest of my life, and has inspired me to remain optimistic whilst also questioning each decision I make. As an architect, being a sceptical optimist results in more thoughtful and rich designs that have a bigger impact on society and leave the architect more fulfilled and happy. This is shown in the success of the Constitución rebuilding and V&A extension, as well as the success and acclaim of their designers. In life in general, these two traits can lead to a wonderful and rare perspective that is hopeful but also engaged and curious. Sceptical optimism seems like an impossible paradox, however, in reality this perfect storm of characteristics might just be the key to solving some of humanity’s biggest challenges.