When buildings are featured in the media, often the architects responsible for their design and execution are not mentioned.
Architects regularly complain that their names do not appear in articles about their work. They assume that reporters and their editors, for some reason, consciously choose to disregard the architect's contribution. Unless an article or review specifically focuses on architectural issues, design authorship of buildings is frequently overlooked. And even when architecture is discussed, the architect still may not be mentioned.
For example, the new glass-clad, energy-conscious National Association of Realtors' headquarters building on New Jersey Avenue NW, near the Capitol, was the subject of The Washington Post's "K Street Confidential" column earlier this month. While the generally laudatory report included color photographs of the exterior and described in some detail the building and many of its aesthetic and technical features, it never cited Graham Gund Architects, the designers.
Why don't architects get credit more often in the press? And does it matter?
The most obvious explanation is that journalists may consider attribution of design authorship irrelevant to a story that, while concerned with a building, is not about architecture per se. Others who are key to the process, including engineers and construction contractors, also may not be named.
In writing a business story about a building, or a story about public controversy surrounding a project, a reporter understandably may think naming the architect is not germane. In researching a building-related story, the reporter may never even learn the identity of the architect.
Even when the architect's identity is known, a reporter may decide not to cite the designer because the architect is not sufficiently famous or considered a star. This reflects an infatuation with celebrity -- and helps account for why design attribution may be left out.
Reporting on architectural authorship also can be tricky. Today, many large-scale projects are designed by joint ventures in which multiple firms collaborate. Often one design firm is primarily responsible for establishing the basic design concept while another firm, acting as the "executive" architect, prepares detailed drawings and specifications, based on the lead designer's concept, and administers the overall design and construction process.
From a reporter's perspective, who gets credit?
The lead designer is clearly the conceptual author, the creative generator of architectural form visible to the public. But the executive architect usually can claim credit for project realization, for refining and detailing the design, and for doing much of the heavy lifting required to produce contract documents, coordinate engineers and other consultants, obtain building permits, and watch over construction.
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.
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.