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

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