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Operatic Methods to Make Architecture Accessible to Ordinary People

Photograph: © Rod Long in Unsplash


Reading “The Viralisation of Architecture” a few weeks ago, my attention was once again drawn to something we all agree on: the need to bring architecture closer to society.

That includes disseminating good architecture, explaining what it is and how it differs from what we might call mere construction (always assuming we ourselves are able to agree on that difference).

Viralising architecture is undoubtedly both useful and necessary for the profession. But it has to be done properly.

And it occurred to me that, allowing for the huge differences that are clearly involved, this problem is comparable to the challenge of popularising opera. As an enthusiastic participant in both undertakings, I can vouch for their similarity.

Reasonable analogies

Architecture is sexy, and so is opera. That’s why both appear in TV ads, movies, etc. But usually people only see their most superficial side, and 99% of what’s underneath is lost.

In this yin/yang duality between architecture and mere construction and between opera and humdrum, mushy warbling, the public at large is more accustomed to the second thing than to the first.

Sometimes, not even the architects or musicians themselves can agree on where the dividing line is.

Architecture and opera are miles away from ordinary people, who only see the tip of the iceberg because they lack any further information (and because what they do see is easier to for them to assimilate). Explanations are hardly ever forthcoming about what’s achieved by designing a courtyard in a certain way, or about how a leitmotif works.

Bringing architecture closer to ordinary people

Here are some key strategies which have proved useful in making opera more accessible to the public at large, and which could be adapted to do the same for architecture:

  • Use the numerous channels that are available: digital channels, traditional media, citizen participation…
  • Avoid trivialising things in an attempt to win over new fans. Go beyond TV programmes about twins refurbishing their house or the 3 tenors singing at megaconcerts in sports stadiums.
  • Humanise architects, treat them like opera singers . They’re empathetic people, capable of understanding a customer. Strip them of their finery (both architects and opera singers).
  • Convey the message that architecture exists without celebrity architects, just as opera exists without celebrity singers. Starchitects are useful but they don’t represent the whole profession.
  • Provide clear explanations for everything non-architects need to know. It sounds obvious, but it’s something we find difficult to do. In opera performances they use surtitles.
  • Stop obsessing over the final product (the building). Think too about the service being rendered to the customer (the spectator). Architecture is a mixture of production and servuction. The user’s experience is important.
  • Realise that the architecture of today is a collaborative profession involving not only architects (soloists) but also teams (orchestras), and engage those players in its dissemination.
  • Start with the less complicated stuff. If you want to introduce someone to opera, take them to a Bohème or a Rigoletto, not to a Wozzeck.
  • Accept that there will be people who simply can’t get into certain forms of architecture, just as today it’s difficult to get anyone to sit and listen to a Wagner opera for 5 hours.

Although good experiences do exist – (Escala Humana, for example – we need more channels, more formats and more content. (How about a podcast?)

It’s an effort that needs to be made. The future of our profession depends on it.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Arquitecto, consultor y coach. Cerebro muy amarillo. Wagneriano y fanático del rugby y el Taichí. Ayudando desde ARQcoaching a profesionales de la arquitectura a conseguir más y mejores encargos o un empleo y a gestionar su trabajo con efectividad.

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