The Problem With Famous Architects

Since this is my own private soapbox, I”m going to feel free to make a sweeping and weakly substantiated observation. Which is this: I think there”s maybe starrrrting to be an uptick of interest in architecture from within the IA community. The fact that I”m an information architect who”s been hyperfocused on architecture for the past year or so probably has a lot to do with my observation. And yes, there”s the nomination and election of classically-trained architect and amazingly awesome guy Andrea Resmini to the IA Institute Board which happened on the 15th. But the reason I”m writing about it right now is because yesterday I saw that Christina Wodtke”s talk at IDEA 09 earlier this week was titled Lessons From Radical Architects. From the looks of it with the slides she posted to Slideshare, she gave an awesome talk and made some fresh and ponderous observations about what these radical architects did and how we can learn from “em.

Let Us Now Praise Famous (Wo)Men

I”ll admit it – I get a little swoony around internet-famous people. Every once and a while I”ll get retweeted by somebody internet famous and I interpret this as a sign that this person also read my blog and looked at my Facebook and as a result has tacitly affirmed and agreed with all the stuff I do and say on the Internets. So you can imagine the joy I experienced when Ms. Wodtke tweeted something approving about my Now That I See It bookproject when I was pimping it on the Twitter several months ago. She”s a leader in the IA community and I love the idea of being noted by and aligned with such a person. I”m saying all this because I want to make sure that what I”m about to say doesn”t come across as being disrespectful. So with alllll that being said, here”s the thing: I have a problem with famous architects. And even while I admire them, and study their work, and learn alot from them, their practice and experience is only useful to the rest of us up to a point. But maybe no further than that point. Because famous architects get pandered to by their clients and co-workers. Their work isn”t scrutinized in the same ways that an unknown or garden-variety architect”s work is scrutinized. So looking to how they”re doing and talking about the practice of architecture … when we look to them, and learn from them, do we need to be selective with what we”re borrowing and internalizing? Case in point: Christina noted in her talk that Frank Lloyd Wright”s “Usonian” houses sometimes didn”t include closets. And that perhaps sometimes in our designs we could or should or might choose beauty over usability, just like FLW. Usonian or not, these homes were dwellings for people who wear clothes, right? I contend that if you or I were the architect, we”d have been required to include the closets.

So… when we”re tuning our practice with new tactics and approaches, and when we”re convening within our organizations, maybe we should be looking more or even first to our peers for advice and inspiration. The people who work on the sites and products we”ve never heard of. When Jesse James Garrett did his rant at IAS09 last spring, he posed some pointed and incredibly important questions about famous information architects. He noted that while many of us can rattle-off a list of famous IA”s, few of us could point to or name examples of these peoples” work. That”s one crucial difference between famous architects and famous information architects.

Regular-old Architects

But don”t get me wrong – I”m all about borrowing from and being inspired by all kinds of architecture and architects in the work we do as information architects. The other day I tweeted something that I believe is worth noting:

An unfathomable ocean of ideas, tactics and know-how from the world of architecture has been hiding from information architects in plain sight – due perhaps to the then-largely-inapropriate use of the A-word by the cybrarian taxonomists of web 1.0

On Monday I”m teaching a class about how the librarianship-flavored Polar Bear paradigm for and the very idea of “information architecture” became the foundational metaphor for the early, up-front organizational and structural work of web design. Those pioneering librarians and information scientists approached the early web as librarians … but they called what they were doing “architecture.” In their writings and in their practice they would perhaps make an occasional broad gesture toward concepts from architecture. And occasionally, a specific borrowing from famous and controversial architects like Stewart Brand or Christopher Alexander. But the nitty-gritty of architecture … the nomenclature of everyday architecture … concepts like parti and program … when information architecture was becoming the foundational metaphor for the structuring and organizing of information spaces and websites, none of the foundational elements of architecture were included in the mix! Somebody, possibly me, might do a modest service to the IA community by doing some work with and talking about regular old architects. And regular-old architecture.

18. September 2009 by dan
Categories: Duh About Architecture, Information Architecture Design, Regular Old Architecture | Tags: , , | 11 comments

Comments (11)

  1. Great observations, Dan. I’m a big fan of your work and I appreciate the perspective you’re contributing here and elsewhere.

    fwiw, the outgoing president of the IAI board, Jorge Arango, is also a “classically trained” architect…

  2. Be careful Dan…in writing this book, you run a serious risk of becoming a famous architect!

  3. My wife and I have been interviewing and working with architects to explore a possible renovation on our home. Being a small business owner AND an information architect AND a consultant, I’m finding the potential parallels astounding. Observing the client relationship, the design process, and the deliverables has been an education for me, and a bit of validation.

    I strongly believe that IAs design structures and spaces, just as physical architects do.

    BUT, I’m wary of deeper connections between the practices and outputs of each endeavor. The web’s increasingly complex experiences suggest that spatial/locational metaphors are no longer reasonable approximations for navigation and structuring information.

    SO, I can’t wait to see further thinking on this.

  4. Hi Dan, been following your work with great interest — and looking forward to your book!

    I’ve also noticed the uptick in references to traditional architecture among the IA community lately. (At long last!) There are clearly many areas in which both fields can learn and grow from the other. That said, I believe that the most crucial differences between famous architects and famous information architects is that the former exist, while the latter don’t — yet. (Ask any regular person in the street to name a famous information architect… the most likely response is bafflement.)

    Why do we need famous IAs? For the same reason that we need famous architects: to inspire, to outrage, to push boundaries. But most of all, to put a human face on a critical field that is (still) quite obscure to most people.

  5. I too have a problem with famous architects, but it is not “Because famous architects get pandered to by their clients and co-workers.” Even famous architects have to wrestle with demanding clients and slashed budgets (i.e. “value engineering”) My problem, is that the focus is always on the facade, what the building looks like, and not how the architect successful addressed the purpose of the building. For example the Guggenheim museum in NY. Very interesting, innovative facade but quite frankly a poor building to view and contemplate art (wonderful for people watching though!) IA, like typography, “exists to honor content” (The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst.) If we are going to learn from regular architecture let us look at examples where the purpose of the structure (and the needs and desires of its occupants and visitors) are honored.

  6. When you get a chance to check out Christina’s talk via video or podcast or whatever, you’ll see that in some places she’s actually having to stretch a good deal to make some of the ‘radical’ architectural choices relevant to IA in particular. Not so much a 1-to-1 logical relevance in all the examples. Which is fine … the examples are there to kick off interesting thoughts about IA/IxD/UX etc, not so much to serve as templates.

    The semantics behind “Information Architecture” have a convoluted history (some of which I cover in this pdf But it’s the term that has stuck, for whatever reason.

    I have a problem with famous architects too. I think many of them were highly brilliant, articulate people who ended up trapped in their own innovations as they hardened into orthodoxies. They’re fascinating to study, though. A lot can be learned, much of it about “what *not* to do.”

    I do think, however, that so much of what IA involves is truly *architectural* in the sense of structuring experience. But the metaphors only go so far before, as some have said in other comments above, they start to break down.

  7. Interesting. As an architect I would appreciate aspects of IA, but as a wholesale method, applied to architecture, it would fail. For one thing, as noted by Maureen; the Guggenheim has very little to do with facade, and everything to do with experience. Perhaps the irony in her statement is the fact that Wright hated the work Peggy Guggenheim liked, and wanted his building to be the work of art that the visitor viewed, thus making the art irrelevant.

    Needs and desires change, are subject to the whimsy’s of the current, and future occupants, and subject to the ever shifting demands of program and building typology.

    Consider this; how would IA look at 1920’s manufacturing facilities in that time period, knowing what we know now; those same buildings are now homes for affluent city dwellers. Or what about the “gothic” cathedral that is now a club for underground music, or big box retail establishments that only recently have become clinics, schools, work out facilities?

    As much as you’d like to “structure” behavior, it can’t happen in my environment, at least not as effectively as you’d like it to happen. Even prisons can’t control behavior like we think or GITMO detainees moving to America wouldn’t be such a “problem.”

  8. I’ve invited the users of a sweet architecture site that i’m a lurker on to look at this thread and engage with it if they’re so moved. One excellent comment so far, but it’s over there at the forum:

  9. Andrew: thank-you for linking to your piece on Context in the inaugural issue of the JofIA. I got to see you give a related talk in Memphis earlier this year (slides are embedded here: and I wonder what your thoughts might be about analogies or contrasts between an IA’s mastery and manipulation of context and an architect’s mastery and manipulation of building material? The architects are talking about it here:

  10. An interesting point in Jesse’s 10th IA Summit speech is when he asks the attendees, who in the room helps to create digital user experience’s and then ask them who helps to create non-digital user experiences. The point being (it seems to me) that user experience (design) is non media specific.
    If so it seems as if the last question could just as easily be applied to architecture/urban planning. For aren’t they too, just creators of a user experience. Sure, the experience is a physically/materially shaped one as opposed to a print or digital media but within the framework of this argument isn’t the user’s spatial experience just as “designed”??? Senses, emotion, the body, perception aren’t many of these issues the “traditional” domain of architecture?

  11. Of course I cannot control how my talk was received. But I’d like to note I chose to talk *radical* architects, because they changed the discourse. I had to start with Vitruvius, to set up the discourse, but I was really interested in the troublemakers.

    The tried things that had not been seen, and sometimes those things were far from successful but they tried new things!
    Why can’t a house have a wardrobe instead of a closet? Perhaps a person who wants to live in a usonian house because they like to acquire things might want closets, but maybe someone who lives there because they subscribe to a way of living that is harmonious with the house’s design.

    Of course closets? Why of course anything?

    And while I respect good old Mies, I prefer Venturi because of the questions he asked about naive architecture: ducks, hats and decorated sheds. Who are we to judge Myspace as ugly?

    And I love Gehry because he presumed ot make buildings dance. And asked “so what?” which is a question every single IA should ask every single day.

    And Andrew, perhaps it was a stretch sometimes, the lessons, but they point of the talk was to make people stretch. Even if I had to roll out a rack.

    Three years later, I think think there are key lessons in that talk IA’s should think hard about:

    I wish IA (and IxD) had radical architects to challenge more sacred cows.

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