Moments in Architecture: The Angry Mob

Here the architects come, soaring in on broom sticks, hats as pointy as ever. Gnarly fingers clasp magic wands made of Baltic Birch, sanded with care.

A spell is uttered:

“Ephemerality… Nuance.. Moment.. Materiality….”

Poof! Change!

Maybe a particular change is barely noticed, while another change provokes a full on sympathetic nervous system reaction. I’m talking pupils turned to pinholes, hyperventilation, adrenaline. Regardless of the reaction, change is an inevitable part of life that can be celebrated, but often not before an intense battle.

That is a challenge you will come across when practicing architecture: Considering you will be affecting change in communities, your work will not always be well received. Be prepared to face at least a few angry mobs over the duration of your career.

I’m not saying the mob’s anger isn’t valid – whether it is, or it isn’t, a negative reaction is just a part of this line of work. As strong as we may feel about our concept and method, at the end of the day it is all subjective and we can’t please everyone.

I had heard the horror stories before. The dreaded Community Open House Events… One moment the architect is presenting their work, the next minute the audience is flinging hate-filled feces… Oops… I mean obscenities.

Before you cringe because I just compared the audience to monkeys – No, I understand they are human beings and I completely respect their opinions and concerns. However, there is just something scary about that mob mentality. We’ve all seen it take shape in one form or another. It’s the energy that can turn happy-go-lucky citizens into a looting, car-flipping, fire-starting, mob – simply because their hockey team lost.

The reason I bring all of this up is because I recently had the pleasure of facing my very first angry mob.

My story begins with this incredible project that I am working on. The kind of project I have dreamed of having in my career. It has been about affecting real social change. Making a real and positive impact.

The eventual users of this new development are a group of people that have been forgotten by society. 99% of the built environment has evolved without considering a place for them.

Our client had identified this crisis and developed a plan. They found an ideal piece of land in an eclectic, inner-city neighbourhood and organized a team to help realize their vision. Their motives are entirely outside themselves and truthfully are an example of the kind of humanity that gives me hope for the world.

Not only are their motives beyond admirable, but they are just great people to work with. The kind of people I am happy to call my friends. We discuss the project passionately, we do fundraising events together, we go for beers, and we discuss the project some more. Their priority is ensuring the development meets the needs of this unique user group, while emphasizing good design in the process.

Months passed as our design team worked through the initial stages of the project. We spent hours with the future users of the space, soaking up all there was to learn about the unique challenges they face in life. Simultaneously, we poured over building code, bylaws, area structure plans, and any literature available on designing for this particular user group. Once a solid foundation of knowledge had been established, we began the iterative design process. We collaborated within our group, we reached out through an office-wide charette, we engaged the client and the users, we went back to the drawing board, and around again.

Early in this process, we began engaging with the community in order to incorporate their suggestions into the design. Initially the interactions seemed positive, however over time we sensed other forces had begun to take hold. We began to hear word of misinformation being spread about the project. False bylaws and codes were being quoted to support an image of the project that was not accurate. These rumours spread throughout the neighbours. Before we knew it, the surrounding community was incorrectly imagining a development that towered over their homes, caused massive traffic jams, and ultimately turned its back on the community.

Alas, the night of the official community open house had arrived. We braced ourselves for the potential abuse, and as we suspected – it came with a vengeance. Interspersed amongst the supporters, negativity came in clusters of people. Their exchanges reminded me of the bullies of grade school. Hate-filled adolescents still yet to wrap their minds around the concept of empathy. They had reached that point when frustration had stripped them of any sense of diplomacy.

As the night wore on, the supporters trickled out, but the bullies stuck around and coalesced in to the mob. A stand-off lasted for what felt like at least 30 minutes. Concerns over (false) bylaw and building code information soon turned into personal insults being thrown at us and our client. To our horror – the future users were caught in the crossfire. It was at that point that we knew we could say no more to try to reach an agreement. All we could do was shrug our shoulders and keep our mouths shut, smiling awkwardly as if to say “I do not have an appropriate response to any of this.”

Disagreements over design, logistics, or other technical details are to be expected. What I’m interested in, is the fact that the reactions can become so negative and so personal, especially when directed at people and motives that are incredibly genuine and admirable.

So, what did I learn from all of this?

Probably the most surprising thing I learned was that the angry mob didn’t actually get to me that night. I felt for our client and the users, but I also knew that my spirit remained intact. The thing is, I feel so confident in our project, our process, and our design team. The design is not a result of a few egotistical opinions. We have engaged so many different perspectives and I truly believe we incorporated as many of the ideas as possible.

As architects, we cannot please everyone. Though the negative reactions often manifest themselves as hate and anger, what lays beneath the surface is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Do what you can to stay calm, be patient, connect, and share perspectives. Ultimately, you might be able to break through some of that fear and have a real, productive conversation. One can hope.

Reacting to and dealing with opposition will likely be an entire series of posts, so stand by as those Studio Crumbs drop! In the meantime, do you have any angry mob stories of your own? Do any seasoned architects out there have some insights? Is it possible to turn a negative situation around, or is the mob mentality too strong once it has begun?




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