Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Architecture: 5¢ (Vision: $120/hr) ...Why the World Needs More Architects

Architects all over are preparing for lean times. With 20% of of them laid off since last summer, many are facing the stark reality that they may never return to the career (or pay scale) that made the grinding misery of grad school and their long slog of internships pay off. A NYT report about laid-off architects searching novel ways to find clients or strike out in new directions is stirring quite a discussion among architects in Charlotte (and I'm sure nationwide). So I thought I'd take this opportunity to add my own 2 cents to the discussion.

In Charlotte, the statistics of laid off architects are miserable. Last June, our local business journal reported the claim that a whooping 40% of Charlottean architects had been laid off since the recession started. When I read this I wondered whether the nation now had twice the number of architects it could employ. But I have plenty of reasons to think otherwise.

First off, hats off to the laid-off architects who are branching out from their traditional client base and putting their hard earned skills to work creatively in fields that may not be associated with "architecture". There are plenty of Design problems out there that architects can contribute to, even if a building is not involved. So kudos for going out and finding them. Thankfully, I'm a product of architecture graduate school, so I know what we were really trained to tackle from our earliest Level I studio. If your professors were even vaguely competent, they did not "teach" you architecture...rather they trained you to think like a designer. A designer deals with the world as we encounter it. This recession too is a problem of an architectural malaise, spurred by our own work or the work that left us, and therefore, architects need to creatively design the solution.

Secondly, architects need to be doing more to put their design skills to work in big infrastructure projects. Architects have something special to bring to the table that those more analytically minded people that tend to run governments and build roads do. Working with DPZ Charlotte on the Charlotte Streetcar Project last week reminded me of the great gifts that architects bring to all complicated projects as generalists (DPZ is a town planning firm that is led by generalist-minded architects). (More on DPZ Charlotte's streetcar work later.) (BTW, DPZ Charlotte are the creators of Habersham).

Large city projects need architects. Not just for visualizing what the planned transformations will be, but to actually help define and refine the task of transformation. If cities were smart, every big infrastructure project would involve an architect at the earliest stages, where decisions can have the greatest impact in the direction of a project. What you need architects for is to see the larger context with greater clarity, to understand the potential for unthought-of options, and to frame the vision.

I often wonder what many projects would have been like had their task definition not gone first to in-house bureaucrats or analytically minded consultants who apply a decision branch tree approach to things... defining a project's scope with narrow circumstances in mind and not seeing that perhaps the basis of the project’s approach to addressing the needs is partly the problem. Ever notice that architects like to poke around guts of the project definition list first, before they trust the scope items as defined, asking a whole bunch of why and what if questions (and not just because they are fee curious)? They are big picture minded. Architects are folks that gauge things from the broad perspective and from the particular, simultaneously. They then tend to interrogate each piece of the project wonderfully for its "potentialities". More than the project task matters to them, and their design work will pull from a broad range of precedents (globally) and address those transformational steps that the project will undergo in its context long after their services are warranted. After all, they are on the hook for the long-term success of the building.

What makes architects good “generalists” is what they do. Architecture is difficult. This is why it often takes until late in life before they become masters. Architecture requires a lot of knowledge, thought and experience. It also requires Vision. The creative yet practical and circumspect kind. An architect’s work forces her to jump in and out of a number of scales constantly. She has to keep in mind and to juggle an immense array of pecuniary demands in the messy soup of moving parts that is the building process (a degree to which us planning types are not experienced with, trust me). Yet she is always aware of the building in its completion, the goal that must be attained to meet its aesthetic and social purpose. This adds a layer of cultural demands other professions do not have to bother with in the forefront. Architects think about the intangibles and their sensitivity for the aspirations of the community need to be listened to. The mode of thinking that the architectural design process cultivates can be a gift to any complicated project. Yes, planners and engineers complain that the architect’s proposals may overshoot pragmatic concerns, yet architects are extremely competent at responding to limitations because they are daily finding novel solutions to problems that don’t sacrifice design goals, project unity and quality. Actually, architects train themselves to overshoot because they distrust limitation. They definitely do not want limits to set the tone. This mentality they take for granted. Indeed, competent architects typically find much more goals for a project and obtain more solutions to limitations than their clients are ever aware that they need.

So…Even if an architect peddles his “architecture” services for 5¢ at the village market, be aware that the rest of the fee he will charge you for is his broad-banded Vision. Architects are consultants of Vision. And every project requires Vision (and corrective lenses). Please hire these guys and gals for more than just for “architecture”. ‘)

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