A prominent architect whose work I love and respect told me recently that the term “lovable” has “a... problem with pragmatists” that can’t be resolved. He also said “you’re the only architect I know who can say 'lovable architecture' with a straight face.” And so it has been, ever since I started shooting for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places in the 1990s… time and again, it’s been obvious that architects find it impossible to use the word “lovable." This became more obvious in 2004, when lovability was proposed as an essential element of a living tradition, and intensified in 2007 with the proposal that lovability was the first essential characteristic of sustainable buildings.
Fortunately, that is increasingly not the case with people other than architects. Lloyd Alter alerted me recently to an article in Policy Innovations entitled "What Makes a City Great? It's not the Liveability but the Loveability.” The very next day, Kaid Benfield’s How to Make Smart Growth More Lovable and Sustainable appeared on the Huffington Post. Kaid’s article specifically referenced the Original Green, and I really appreciate that. The Policy Innovations piece, which was an interview of Ethan Kent, did not, but in some ways that’s more important because it means the idea is entering the general lexicon unfettered by an association with any one book, site, or person.
Let’s dig further into the pragmatic architects’ problem with lovability by looking at a completely different field. I recently saw this story on Bloomberg Business about the computer programming industry.
One would think that computer programmers would be about as pragmatic as they come, right? But they voted Apple’s new Swift programming language as “the most-loved language” in a survey of over 26,000 developers by Stack Overflow. Hard to find a more pragmatic publication than Stack Overflow. So how can programmers tap into the idea of lovability but pragmatic architects aren’t allowed to? Yes, the programmers also have their religious wars, as the Bloomberg article documents. But something, somehow, opens that door to pragmatic programmers whereas it is slammed shut to pragmatic architects. Why? What’s the difference?
My inquiry into lovable architecture began in a way I never planned. Wanda and I married in 1979, after my first year in architecture school. One evening in Third Year, she asked me “why do you refuse to design buildings that anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course you do!” “How do you know they wouldn’t love what I design?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us that we should educate the clients.” “Well, if you’d ever stop and listen to them, you might learn what they actually love.”
The point to this story of the origin of my use of the term “lovable” is that the term requires something many architects are completely incapable of demonstrating: humility. Listening to the untrained requires humility. The New Urbanism did this early on… Robert Davis’ legendary road trips across the South learning what the people love is but one example. And that’s the core reason, I believe, why so many in the academy hate us so: because we have the audacity to have enough humility to actually listen to the people. We really don’t need to lose that virtue.