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Press May Ignore Architects, but So Does (Almost) Everyone Else

Assigning credit can get even messier and more mysterious when the design process is complex and problematic.

When the National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors last month, The Post gave it extensive coverage. Reporters credited Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal as the primary designer of the building. But there was not a single mention, in any of the stories I read, of the critical role played by Polshek Partnership Architects.

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Polshek's firm is the architect of record, having executed the project after the Smithsonian Institution terminated its contract with the original design team, GBQC of Philadelphia, and Cardinal. Asked to carry out Cardinal's basic architectural intention with modifications deemed necessary by the client, Polshek reluctantly accepted the task, which entailed refining and completing a revised design, preparing construction drawings and specifications, and then helping administer construction.

The articles also sometimes failed to mention other key design collaborators that contributed significantly to the aesthetic outcome: SmithGroup, Jones & Jones, and the landscape architecture firm EDAW. Meanwhile, feeling that he was unfairly treated and inadequately compensated for his work, and strongly condemning all the changes made to his original design, Cardinal has disavowed the project.

Sometimes architects themselves can mislead the press and public. When projects are designed and executed collaboratively, each firm tends to see its participation as the most indispensable. News releases, announcements, advertising or portfolios disseminated by a firm may give the impression that it alone was responsible for carrying out the project.

There is one other explanation for why architects often may be left out of stories. Unlike Europe and Japan, the United States does not have a fundamentally design-conscious culture. Most American consumers never interact with architects, and few care about architectural authorship, good or bad, associated with buildings they use.

By contrast, in Italy, France, England, Germany or Finland, architecture enjoys high cultural status. When European journalists write about buildings, they routinely identify the architects, who are seen as artists akin to authors, composers or film directors.

American architects are not disrespected by the media or the public. They just haven't had much effect on, or been able to influence, mainstream American culture. If people cared more about the art of architecture, I'm sure the press would report on it.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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