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Architects: Take Eye Off of the Ball January 20, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.
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On this date of the inauguration of America’s first African American chief executive, architects from two firms gathered in our company lunchroom to watch the events projected on the big screen in prolonged anticipation and silence. On some level it felt like an architect’s inauguration as well. So today begins our turn, as architects, to try and reinvent ourselves before history forgets us. When Obama addressed all Americans today with perhaps his speech’s most memorable words, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” one sensed that the gathered architects took heart. Because remaking America is in the most literal sense the work of architects. But more so because architects everywhere deep down know, that in these times of economic uncertainty, they need to remake not only America but themselves as well. Before urban renewal there has to be self-renewal.

Not part of congress’s economic stimulus plan, architects everywhere feel left out, marginalized, on the outside looking in, not invited to the ball. Bit players, they ask, Don’t bridges need bridge houses? Highways need toll booths, right? We can do the toll booths… The palpable fear is that proposed projects will go directly into construction, bypassing the design stage altogether. Getting our hands busy at the expense of our brains. At the expense of the long-term vision of the architect. AIA’s original message to congress last autumn was geared to get architects designing again. Their most recent plan to stimulate the economy and create 1.6 million jobs (including 14,000 for architects) addresses five key policy areas for immediate attention: 21st century schools; green buildings; historic preservation projects; transit-oriented mixed use development projects; and tax relief for businesses. It is good that architects speak-up for themselves, defend their turf, and fight for their slice of the pie. But there is something about our timing that feels reactive instead of proactive, a little too little, a little too late. As though we’re asking “Hey, isn’t there something in it for me?” Instead of pleading for opportunities to design and construct 21st century schools, architects prior to the economic crisis could have built stronger strategic alliances with educators and advocates, the modern-day equivalent of when architects played golf with the school district provost in the off chance that the topic of a school project arose. Architects are often accused of being product- or object-oriented (if not –obsessed) instead of process- or relationship-focused. If ever there was a time for architects to take their eye off the ball and turn their attention to where the ball needs to go next, and how the ball will get there, it appears to be now.

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