Sheesh. It’s never fun to hear that your beloved profession is “cratering.” But that was the gist of this weekend’s hit piece in Salon. Architecture, which seemed to have a bright future a few years ago, full of “starchitects” and flush with visionary ideas, is now facing killer unemployment, a skeptical public, and an uncertain future. Apparently.
Except that this death knell has been sounded before, like when I got out of graduate school in the early 1990s.
There’s no question that the profession has done itself no favors this decade. We’ve watched other disciplines like engineering, interior design, real estate, and (most insidiously) “building commissioning” all eat away at our traditional responsibilities. The AIA’s dread fear of liability has meant that much of this has been an own-goal. Calculating structural depths? Way too difficult, too dangerous, better leave that to the engineers. News flash–that’s not all they’re going to walk away carrying. Likewise, the article’s main interviewees, who seem to have been attracted to the glamour (???) of the profession without really studying what was actually involved, make the case that too many aspiring architects have read and believed The Fountainhead, when perhaps they should have been reading Archinect blogs.
Anyway. Like I said, this is a field that has been laid to rest many times before. The unemployment figures for architects right now–13%–are actually about on par, or maybe less, than in 1992 when a full 50% of architects in some cities (like the one I wanted to work in…) were either out of work or working part time. What happened then is that a lot of recent graduates, young architects, and even mid-career practitioners gave up. The ones that stuck it out were stubborn, pathologically energetic, and entrepreneurial. In other words, the kind of people who end up making good designers. Hustle is part of the gig, frankly, and it always has been. When the economy recovered, which it did then and which it will eventually now, the folks who stayed–and who stayed because they wanted to do the work, not to be famous or rich–ended up doing fine. Some of them had opened their own firms, even if it meant waiting tables while doing competitions. Some of them toughed it out in good offices that couldn’t pay more than half time, but that were still doing interesting work. Those folks rose to senior positions fast. Others of us went overseas, or started nibbling around the profession’s edges–contracting, product design, real estate, writing and teaching, even engineering. In other words, people who thought of architecture as a job self-selected out, and those who thought of it as a calling stuck with it. The result is that even though mine is often considered a “lost generation,” the classmates of mine who stayed with it are, as a rule, doing interesting stuff. And they’ve tended to do pretty well in the long run, since the competition for people of our generation has largely been eliminated.
The lesson? First, those of us who teach owe it to our students to remind them that this is a tough, unforgiving field. There is no glamour for all but the very top, and you have a better chance of playing professional football than you do of getting on the cover of Architectural Record. The only reason to do this for a living is that you really love designing and building stuff. You’re not going to be Frank Lloyd Wright, you’re not going to be Howard Roark. Let’s get that straight right from the beginning.
Second, in addition to that harsh message, we ought to be pointing out that what we’re really teaching is design literacy, and this is a really rare but precious skill out there in the world. Lots of my students have bailed on architecture–some of them while they’re in school–and found that studio in particular has taught them to think in ways that are useful elsewhere. Engineering, product design, environmental law, city planning, and business administration–these are all fields that I’ve had students go into, and all of them have let me know that a few years of design school didn’t hurt them. (The priesthood, too–in that case I think studio might well have prepared someone for a particularly monastic life). Three-dimensional problem solving turns out to prepare you quite well for grappling with complex problems in all walks of life. So, rather than an “ayatollah sending students into the minefield,” I sort of hope that I’m coaching students to develop their minds in particularly useful ways. Maybe, just maybe, if they don’t like the minefield, these abilities will help them in a laboratory, or a surgical suite, or a courtroom.
Finally, and maybe this is most important, we’re not doing students any favors by pretending this is a glamorous or traditionally rewarding profession. A lot of architecture graduates will spend some time at least under-employed. When you do get a job, it will be for much less money than your college classmates in engineering or business. And you’ll work longer hours and probably get less recognition. I tell students all the time that this is basically a blue-collar profession with white-collar trappings. You’ll look like a professional, but you’ll be tired like a factory worker. If you think for a second that you’ll be sketching on cocktail napkins and heading off to exotic locations for client meetings, you’re watching the wrong movies. You’ll spend most of your time at your desk, trying to come with solutions that people won’t actually notice, and you’ll solve more problems than design brilliant spaces. I try to make my studios feel like this, to reward the clever, quiet solution over the brilliant, slashing idea, because ideas are easy, and solutions are hard. It’s always been like that, whether you worked for Daniel Burnham in the 1890s, Mies van der Rohe in the 1950s, or Renzo Piano in the 1990s.
The most troubling assertion from the article, and one that rings sadly true, is that the comfortable, lucrative kernel that’s left is largely devoted to the skybox set–Prada stores, 15,000 square foot houses, and ego-driven commercial towers. Breaking into that market is a Faustian bargain, for sure, and the field’s eagerness to chase that market–and its inevitable tracking of the economy’s booms and busts–is surely part of our problem. If that’s the image we present in the press and in our own conversations, then we shouldn’t be surprised when fledgling architects come into the profession because they were “taken by the excitement” of the field, and who are shocked to find themselves struggling to find work. We might do better instead to sell a more realistic picture of the work that we do as diligent, often-inspired problem solving that genuinely makes people happier, more productive, and more fulfilled. And that rather noble calling, not the promise of any kind of financial comfort, is really the only reward we’ve ever had as a profession.