Architecture should serve real people

IN MUNICH: Architect Otto Frei’s Olympic Stadium sits under a mesh-like canopy.
IN MUNICH: Architect Otto Frei’s Olympic Stadium sits under a mesh-like canopy.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize, undoubtedly the most prestigious architecture award in the world, is having its ceremony in Miami this week. This year, the Pritzker Prize jury awarded the honor to Frei Otto, a German architect known for his tensile and membrane structures, most notably those he designed for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

The prize described his work as “lightweight, open to nature and natural light, non-hierarchical, democratic, low-cost, energy-efficient, and sometimes designed to be temporary.”

While his name will be recognized by few outside the architecture community, it is easy to look at his body of work and see the role he played in shaping modern architecture. His works were grand and intimate, feather-light and impossibly strong, utilitarian and inspiring.

While Otto’s structures were exceptional in their own right, his greatest achievement was creating architecture for the masses. His most important works were enormously public and welcoming, created for the many rather than the few. It is extraordinarily fitting that the prize should be awarded to Otto in Miami, for our city desperately needs more people who think like him.

Otto died in Germany on March 9. In one of his last public statements before his death, he said upon winning the Pritzker Prize: “I have never done anything to gain this prize. My architectural drive was to design new types of buildings to help poor people, especially following natural disasters and catastrophes. So what shall be better for me than to win this prize? I will use whatever time is left to me to keep doing what I have been doing, which is to help humanity.”

While everyone should aspire to embody the humanist spirit of Otto’s work, the city fails, unfortunately, to live up to his non-hierarchal philosophies. Miami is disconnected and divided, often serving the interests of the well-to-do at the cost of the poor and working class, a population that Otto hoped to serve through his architecture.

Although the city has experienced a significant population boom, there are few public spaces to serve its people. According to the Trust for Public Land’s 2014 City Parks report, Miami has just 2.9 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, which lags far behind other major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles (9.4 acres per thousand residents) and even New York (4.6 acres per thousand residents).

Moreover, what little undeveloped land is left in the city is largely going toward private developments. Developers have carved out public spaces in their projects that are open to all, although often these spaces feel as if they were created for the greater benefit of the developments rather than that of the community at large.

However, too often, private developments allocate little or no public space at all, either because that is what tenants want or because investors want to extract as much profit as possible.

While the city has more towering structures than ever, little of that is accessible to the majority of residents, and often these structures come at a steep price.

Much of the development that dominates the skyline are luxury condominiums. While many are eye-catching, these buildings can be best described as ivory towers that exclude all but the privileged few who can afford to live in them. Moreover, the lack of affordable and mixed-income housing has made rents and home prices among the highest in the country.

The community has spent billions of dollars on stadiums that are only accessible to those who can afford the price of admission and largely benefit already wealthy team owners. It continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on roadway expansions while its public-transit system remains second-rate. While the city has seen an influx of capital in recent years, homelessness and poverty remain pervasive issues that show few signs of slowing down.

Otto often questioned how his work could benefit mankind. When speaking with Icon magazine in 2005, he was critical of grandiose structures such as Buckminster Fuller’s vision of an enormous dome over Manhattan, asking to himself: “What does society really need?”

This question grounded Otto’s work, and it is a question that greater Miami’s leaders must ask themselves. As the city continues to mature, we must look at the road ahead and think critically about the direction in which our community is heading. What does our city really need and how can we create one that benefits all of its residents?

Ricardo Mor is operations and programs coordinator for the Miami Center for Architecture & Design.