Be more like Alfred, the butler from Batman.

Post written by Simon Droog. Follow him on Twitter.

Be more like Alfred, the butler from Batman

Frank Gehry

I just read a short quote on Arch Daily tumblr from the Frank Gehry: Playboy interview that got me thinking. In the interview Frank Gehry answered on being labeled a starchitect, and the celebrity image that comes with his success:

“The thing is, I hate the celebrity architect thing. I just do my work. The press comes up with this stuff and it sticks. I hate the word starchitect. Stuff like that comes from mean-spirited, untalented journalists. It’s demeaning. It’s derisive, and once it’s said, it sticks. I get introduced all the time, ‘Here’s starchitect Frank Gehry…’ My reaction: ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” (1)


I’m wondering why we all watch the starchitects out there? I’m really fascinated by the way these famous architects seem to effects us – the ‘less known’ architects. Every new building by these starchitects is discussed endlessly on architecture blogs and forums. Very interesting, if the discussion would be about something more than whether the building is esthetically pleasing or not. Architecture is an art, I totally agree. However, architecture is first and foremost about providing a suitable living/working environment for us human beings. Architecture is about functionality as well as about being esthetically pleasing or beautiful. Where beauty probably should end up in second place on this list.

We should evaluate buildings on the qualities it provides for the end-user, not by kissing the ass of some famous architect that tries to make buildings in the shape of letters that refer to the name of his office… That’s not what architecture should be about, but seems to be about these days. It just makes me sad. We’re just worshipping the wrong idols.

In a recent press release from TU Delft – Usability: companies would like to, but often are unable to [Editor’s note: in Dutch] I read a nice quote about the role of designers. Jasper van Kuijk (@jaspervankuijk on Twitter) says:

“Designers should try to be less like God and more like Alfred, the butler from Batman.” (2)

I completely agree with him on this. If architects would be more about serving the people we build for, like Alfred, and less about the fame and glory of the architect, architecture would become a lot better.

We are here to serve you

But how to be more like Alfred? How can we architects be more about serving? I think architects can be more user-centered by empathizing with them – by finding out their needs, wishes and concerns. We can learn a lot about finding out these concerns from the field of environmental psychology. Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field focused on the interplay between humans and their surroundings (see Wikipedia – Environmental psychology for more information on this interesting subject). (3) This niche in the field of psychology uses several techniques to find out the concerns I’d like to share with you – from the book Environmental Psychology (by Bell, Greene, Fisher and Baum):

Self-report measures

There are three different self-report measures you can use, being: Questionnaires, Interviews and Cognitive mapping. Questionnaires and interviews are the most commonly used. You probably already know what questionnaires and interviews are (asking your potential users questions in either written or spoken form), however cognitive mapping isn’t that well-known. Cognitive mapping is used to create ‘maps of the mind’. (4)

“Cognition integrates memory and experience with a judgment of the present derived from perception to help us think about, recognize, and organize the layout of an environment. Cognitive maps are our mental representations of this layout and can be analysed through a variety of methods.” (4)

Observational techniques

You can also use direct Observation as a technique to learn more about your potential users. With observation you watch the users and report their behaviour and interactions in a specific setting or environment. (5) This will give you more insight into how people behave in their environment, how they use the space around them and how they interact with each other without interfering in their daily routines.

Task performance

Another kind of method is Task performance. The idea behind task performance is that specific conditions in the environment might effect the performance of people in that environment. So by letting them perform a task that requires a certain level of skill and concentration, you can determine the influence of the environment by measuring their performance.

Trace measures

Finally, you can find out a lot about the use of a space by looking at the physical traces of specific activities in that space. This is referred to as Trace measures. There are two types or trace measures – “erosion measures if they signify something taken away or worn down (e.g. wear patterns on carpet) or accretion measures if they signify something left behind (e.g. fingerprints on a display case). (6)

In future posts, I’ll write more about these techniques – how to put these techniques into practice and what the pros and cons of each are.


  1. Playboy: Frank Gehry: Playboy interview
  2. TU Delft: Usability: companies would like to, but often are unable to
  3. Wikipedia: Environmental psychology
  4. Bell, Green, Fisher and Baum (2005) Environmental Psychology (p. 16, 95) – affiliate link
  5. Idem (p. 16-17)
  6. Idem (p. 18)

6 thoughts on “No more starchitects

  1. I totally agree with you. You make your point verry clear and the anology to Alfred is indeed a verry good one. Respectfull, service orientated and always there on the right moment.

    I think not only architects should be more like Alfred, I think architecture as a whole should be more like Alfred. Especially for community and ‘functionalistic’ buildings like schools, hospitals, offices, community centers etc. Always there, trying to serve you by guiding and helping behavior.

    I think a good building is a building that serves you when you need it without you knowing it. Offcourse this goes against the whole ‘architecture is art’ idea, atleast when you have the opinion that architecture is there to startle people and make them gaze in amazement. But we got other places for that, themeparks for example, and museums.

    I don’t underestimate the power and function of aesthetics. I think we cannot life without it. And I do like architecture that tries to be novel, to give emtions and feelings to a building. However, as soon as the architecture becomes more important than the user, the balance goes wrong. I believe Frank Lloyd Wright, in one of his countless essays, called this ‘taking the client hostage’.

    1. @Wouter: I must say you’ve written this down perfectly. I especially like your line about a good building is a building that serves you when you need it without you knowing it. The weird thing is when all seems to work fine, people don’t notice it consciously… only when something goes wrong they start to notice. Would it be important to realise that a building serves you well? This is a more philosophical question.

      As soon as architecture become more important than the user, the balance is definitely off! I’m off to read some more Frank Lloyd Wright essays right now :)

  2. “Architecture is a functional art – Steen Eiler Rasmussen” When the functionality part takes the back seat, it is no longer architecture. It can at best be classified as a sculpture. The need of the hour is we need more architects like Glenn Murcutt. His dedication to architecture in the words of the Pritzker jury: “In an age obsessed with celebrity, the glitz of our ‘starchitects’, backed by large staffs and copious public relations support, dominate the headlines. As a total contrast, Murcutt works in a one-person office on the other side of the world … yet has a waiting list of clients, so intent is he to give each project his personal best. He is an innovative architectural technician who is capable of turning his sensitivity to the environment and to locality into forthright, totally honest, non-showy works of art.”

    1. @Ravi: Thanks for your insightful comment! To be honest, I’m not familiar with Glen Murcutt. I’ll definitely look into his work and philosophy. Do you happen to have any resources I should look into?

    2. Justin, as an Architect of 20+ years I’ve worked on a wide range of prjoects, mostly in the healthcare, education and commercial markets (with an occasional branch bank, car dealership or residential renovation project in the mix). Most Architects have a passionate story to tell but simply haven’t ventured into the New Media. Blogging is a less formal and more interactive way to reach out to potential clients.

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