Wise Choices

I’m an architecture student, gaining an education in the design of buildings and landscapes, not the design of choices.

But wait. The legend Álvaro Siza himself wrote, “Architects don’t invent anything. They transform reality” (Kamin). Indeed, the ability to control reality is a common theme in design school. A quick visit to the celebrated architect Steven Holl’s website revealed the following segment from a description of the Loisium Visitor Center in Austria: “Upon entering, the visitor perceives a wonderful volume of space and steps out to the vineyard and past a café” (Steven Holl Architects). From my perspective, this sort of description is the norm in architecture academia and practice. It is not uncommon to dictate the role of the “visitor” or “user” of a place. But is that all architecture is? If I thought so I wouldn’t find myself three and a half years into a Masters of Architecture-Masters of Landscape Architecture concurrent degree.

But the question remains: is architecture of any variety—landscape, building, choice—inherently paternalistic?

Thaler and Sunstein, in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, describe the Doer and the Planner inside each of us—our inner Dr. Spocks and Homer Simpsons (42). The Doer is not easily tamed, and is exploited with ease.

Architects are fond of bricks, human hand-scaled, tactile units for comprising a tidy whole. Likewise, economists enjoy equations and planners statistics. But are these our respective devices of control?

As Thaler and Sunstein explain, humans are inclined to find patterns, sometimes where none exist (26-31). Of course, Thaler and Sunstein see patterns just like the rest of us. In fact, their book cites many as evidence. I can’t help but mention entropy at this point in this conversation, because it seems to fit. As I understand it, and simply put, it is not unusual for organisms to try to create order in a world that is always moving toward disorder.

Our inner Doers are regularly exploited for the betterment of the exploiter. Think billboards and commercials. Thaler and Sunstein seem to condone, conversely, the exploitation of the Doer for the betterment of the Doer. But I’m not certain the prevalence of the former justifies the latter.

Thaler and Sunstein reference a study by Asch, in which participants agreed with a bold free speech-defiant statement based on the desire to conform with who they believed were cohorts. Asch was interested in the root of Nazism (Thaler and Sunstein 59). On this topic, Thaler and Sunstein also mention the events in Jonestown as a possible mark of the extremes that the desire to conform can take humans (59). Our inclination to “herd” can be devastating.

Yes, this is interesting material and undeniably true, but I cannot fully accept justified manipulation and paternalism (no matter how “libertarian.” An oxymoron?) by those in control that Thaler and Sunstein’s argument might appear to end at. In order to avoid our predisposition to herd, humans must be steered, even fraudulently, by leaders? I don’t think it’s that simple. Perhaps Thaler and Sunstein don’t either. But certainly we can agree that those two nouns—paternalism and manipulation—were present during the two horrific events the authors identify, Nazism and the events in Jonestown, in their section “Doing What Others Do” (59).

Rather, I suggest that the important and fascinating truths that Thaler and Sunstein identify in their book are substance for sharing and educating, not dictating. And their book does just that.

Architects of all kinds—choice, building, etc.—hold a great deal of responsibility. Earlier this month the UW community gathered in Alder Commons to learn from visiting Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt. In his discussion, he mentioned the anxiety that comes with being an architect. Relax in being anxious, he told us. Anxiety is an important ingredient.

Architecture is a weighty task, but not inherently paternalistic. Humans may be social animals, unrealistically hopeful (Thaler and Sunstein 32-33), imprudent, and averse to loss (Thaler and Sunstein 33-34), and easily tempted (Thaler and Sunstein 40-42). For these reasons and countless others, humans should have access to all known information, so that we can be the architects of our own choices, perhaps in the spaces architects design.

——-

Kamin, Blair. “Building On His Principles.” Chicago Tribune. N.p., 27 Apr. 1992. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-04-27/features/9202070472_1_alvaro-siza-pritzker-architecture-prize-modernist-principles&gt;.

“Loisium Visitor Center.” Steven Holl Architects. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://www.stevenholl.com/project-detail.php?id=85&worldmap=true&gt;.

Murcutt, Glenn. “Conversation with Glenn Murcutt.” University of Washington, Seattle. 13 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

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