Waiting for a prescription, I escaped the overstuffed aisles of my neighborhood pharmacy only to end up outside on an overly sturdy and uncomfortable park bench, confronted with asphalt. With unidentifiable stains on the beige plastic slats, I’m guessing most people pass on the implied invitation to sit here. Small metal angles at the ends deter even urban skateboarders from enjoying it. Useful to nobody, this seat is an ill-conceived sculpture, ugly in all deployments.
A vast overhang of EIFS looms over the bench. EIFS, pronounced EE-fiss, stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System, one of many inexpensive manufactured siding materials textured to look like something else, in this case stucco (see also: vinyl siding, aluminum siding, Hardie siding, cultured stone, manufactured stone, asphalt shingles, etc.). Sitting there, I could imagine this awful space being labeled “ARCADE” on some architect’s set of drawings, which is a little bit like serving Budweiser as an “APERITIF”.
How many times have I heard a variation of one of the following phrases? 1. Architects are too expensive. 2. Architects tend to overdesign and spend money frivolously. 3. I can’t afford an architect. 4. I don’t think I need an architect. While I don’t deny these statements may be true at times, I hesitate to condemn the profession of medicine simply because health care is costly.
We believe there is value to design, yet we admit it is not easily quantified in a market influenced by realtors, appraisers, home inspectors, and bankers who have understandably tried to rationalize the monetary value of property. I can’t imagine how one could analytically measure experience in dollars; yet I think most would agree taking a coffee in Piazza San Marco, Venice is more enjoyable than an outdoor corral adjacent to the parking lot of a neighborhood Starbucks.
Consider the photo above with the one here.
I could spend a week sitting in this space, considering the sunlight, the collage of colors, attention to detail and proportion, the curve of the arches, and the visual weight of materials. They all contribute to giving my visual senses a feast that can be consumed slowly or enjoyed while napping on an ancient chunk of timber.
Is it more expensive to build? Yes. Over designed? Frivolous? The arcade at Mission Santa Barbara has been embraced as worth saving for over 150 years, despite its mud-brick construction in an active seismic zone. Noone would lament the loss of my neighborhood Walgreen’s, built cheaply with ample understanding of market forces, yet this structure might stand for centuries.
Did the Greeks protest the expenditure of state funds for the Acropolis of Athens? Romans for the Coliseum? Parisians for the Louvre? No doubt they did, the same way I bristle at the sales tax for the construction of the new (beautiful!) Twins Stadium. Are we better off for them? Ticket sales and summer travel itineraries suggest many people think so. All four sites would not be what they are without talented designers, breathtaking architecture. That’s unquestionable value.
From small scales, say a bench, to that at the scale of a city, design affects our experiences. If our culture expects richness in those experiences, we should expect commensurate investment in thoughtful public and personal spaces. The returns may or may not be financial, but what is the worth of satisfaction?