DON’T BE AFRAID OF NEW IDEAS
1887 to 1889: Eiffel Tower under construction (photo from eiffeltowerguide.com)
When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, it was criticized as the ugliest work of architecture and a horrific nightmare for Paris. Even prior to the completion of Gustave Eiffel’s iconic project—politicians, intellectuals, architects, and citizens banded together condemning the design.
Calling themselves the Artists against the Eiffel Tower, they proclaimed, “We . . . protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk . . . all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream . . . like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
These days, the beloved Eiffel Tower represents the pride of France, undisputed as one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, a marvel of engineering, and a landmark of architectural beauty.
One century later, the jury selected Maya Lin, only twenty-one years of age, as the winner of the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin’s design immediately sparked artistic debates and fueled controversy about her lack of talent, youth, ethnicity, and gender. Rather than the typical memorial of soldiers carved out of marble celebrating victory, Lin’s design was somber, morbid even. An ambitious concept of abstract art, the young designer envisioned a long wall of black granite cut into the ground—a wound in the earth expressing the thousands of lives lost in this war.
Despite many challenges and negativity, her design opened to the public with universal fanfare and tears of gratitude. Twenty-six years later, The American Institute of Architects placed Lin’s design on their list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”
Architects often deal with clients and the general public who might not embrace our creative visions. At least not at first. I am aware that not every design idea of mine is great. But I grumble here, because most people fear the newness of new ideas. The narrow-minded, the NIMBY’s, those who fear progress, and those with no ambition or imagination—all such members of this righteous audience stand ready to say no. They embrace a naive motto: if it looks different, it must not be good.
How do we explain to this kind of audience that we do know best? Regardless of an architect’s education and degrees, decades of apprenticeship and training, accolades and honors, media praise and client references, it doesn’t take much for a person to react to an architect’s presentation with, “No, nope, it’s not good.” Historically, this type of sentiment has been stated at the arrival of so many respected (later bestowed) works of architecture that has moved the needle of progress forward—from Gothic cathedrals to Chinese temples, from Frank Gehry’s masterpieces to heroic skyscrapers.
If you see a doctor and he says you have cancer, listen to the diagnosis and next steps. You are probably not smarter than your doctor. If you hire a lawyer, she probably has a better legal mind than you. Her experience has prepared her to be your best advocate. Pay attention.
If an architect proposes a new idea for a city park or a concert hall, an elementary school or a church—don’t have that knee jerk reaction, “I don’t get it. And I don’t like it.” Don’t be the establishment that proclaimed the Eiffel Tower as “monstrous, ghastly and hateful.” Keep an open mind to new ideas.