While she was studying for her doctorate in architecture at UC Berkeley, USC professor Dana Cuff was intrigued by a question few designers seem to consider: How do architects actually imagine the people who will work, live and play in their buildings?
"It seemed to me that the gap between an architect's fond ideas about the people who use his buildings and the often violent objections the actual inhabitants have about the finished design is a major source of friction between professionals and the public," Cuff said. "Since architecture is supposed to serve the public, this gap struck me as somewhat amazing."
Now, with co-editor UC Berkeley architecture professor Russell Ellis, she has gathered a series of interviews with designers and essays by architects, historians and sociologists in a new book entitled "Architects' People," that explores this puzzling yet rarely studied conflict of views.
In researching the book Cuff discovered that most architects simply never bothered to ask themselves whom exactly they were designing for, beyond the immediate clients who paid their fees.
"Architecture is made by architects for themselves," said New York architect Peter Eisenman, designer of the new, critically acclaimed Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at Ohio State University at Columbus. "I do my work for me--there are no other people." Eisenman boldly dismisses a building's function as unworthy of consideration. "My work is not about convenience," he said, "it's about art."
Architect Richard Meier, designer of the planned Getty Center for the Arts in Brentwood, admitted that he has "no idea of who my audience is, (and) no image of the people that I'm building for." But he added, "you shouldn't be an architect if you didn't have faith that you were doing something meaningful. There are a lot of easier ways to spend your time."
If designers thought about it at all, Cuff found they tended to talk about people as if they shared a standardized shape, like the symbolic stick or balloon figures that populate an architect's perspective sketches.
When Le Corbusier designed the Unite d'habitation, his famous post-World War II modernist apartment building in Marseilles, he had in mind an abstract idea of a New Man. The idealized man was the Modulor--a heroic six-foot silhouette with a raised clenched fist whose proportions were based on the Greek Golden Section. All the physical relationships in the Unite d'habitation, down to the smallest details, were based on the blank personality of this mute abstraction.
But the Marseillais who moved into Le Corbusier's concrete "House Machine" hated its hard-edged bareness. Within a few years they domesticated his uncluttered interiors with velvet plush drapes and kitschy ornaments. They lined the building's cement ledges with leaky flowerpots and cluttered its base with messy tin storage shacks.
Some of the designers interviewed for "Architects' People," however, were troubled by the disparity between the oversimplified way architects imagine people and the actuality of human experience.
Manhattan designer James Stewart Polshek, who originally intended to become a psychiatrist, gained a more humane perspective while working as a premed student in a mental hospital. "It may seem odd," he said, "but watching patients struggling for sanity gave me an enormous appreciation for the inherent order in the human mind."
Out of this appreciation for inherent order Polshek evolved a design method that includes an imaginary walk through a proposed building. "It's necessary for people to know where they are, where they are going, and where they have been," he said. "For example, as people approach corners, they look for signs to encourage them to turn left or right so you make things more comfortable by providing visual clues about the next move."
Polshek dubs these patterns of human circulation through architecture "the path of the feet and the eye."
But whose feet, and whose eye?
In her interviews, Cuff discovered that few architects thought of actual human beings. Instead they concentrated on patterns of behavior. "They tend to design around people patterns, not people," she said.
Cuff believes that this fixation with circulation patterns overlooks the way people behave when they are at rest. "Behavior is only a fraction of the human spectrum of experience," she suggested. "It leaves out awkward elements like emotions and personal idiosyncrasies, particularly if these feelings are ones designers consider ignorant or unaesthetic."
But observing the way people actually use buildings can pay a designer big dividends.
While designing conventional shopping malls, Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde saw that these temples of consumerism had become social gathering places for urbanites who could find few other safe public venues. Building upon this observation, Jerde designed San Diego's Horton Plaza as a communal and cultural center where visitors may gather not only to shop but just to be together.
As a result, Horton Plaza is more than just a huge financial success. The project has triggered a revitalization of San Diego's decayed downtown, and Jerde's career as a designer of such innovative communal-commercial complexes has gone global.
Yet even Jerde admits he finds it easier to think in large terms, like community, than trying to focus upon individuals. "I was an only child, very solitary," he said, "so it's easier for me to conceive of people en masse than individually."
Jerde describes himself as a "practical visionary," echoing a commonly held belief among contemporary architects that their role is to see deep into the future. The architect as visionary is a notion that has sometimes allowed designers to intuit significant social and aesthetic changes. In many instances, however, this long-range perspective has encouraged architects to look high over the heads of confused human beings.
The result of this split between architects' often utopian visions and the facts of public taste is leading to a democracy in design. "Community design groups, review boards and regulatory agencies are increasingly attempting to control the design of buildings," Polshek complained. "(But) it's really very difficult to explain to a community planning board the basic principles of architecture."
To avoid such interference, Cuff suggested designers themselves might close the gap.
"I feel that architects should ask themselves how they might actually feel in the spaces they contrive," she said. "People are simultaneously private and social, active and passive, conforming and contradictory. The range is glorious."
Finally, architects should always be open to new experiences and information. "Thinking is often painful," she conceded, "and feeling even more so. But architecture, if it is the truly humane art form it claims to be, has to be vulnerable to everything human."