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What We Talk About When We Talk About Design March 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, collaboration, creativity, essence, IPD, management, marginalization, problem solving, questions, software architects, technology, the economy.
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Design. Noun or verb?

Building design? Noun.

Architects design? Verb.

So why do architects keep treating design like it’s a noun?

What architects talk about when they talk about design – is mostly buildings.

Design strategies, initiatives, options?  Design criteria, benchmarks and objectives? Leave these for MBAs.

 “Hiring an AIA architect,” says the AIA website, “could be the best decision you’ll make for your design project.” Yet no client considers their project a design assignment. That’s framing it as an architect sees it.

Design – the noun – is a tool architects use to plan and solve a client’s or owner’s problems: they need more space, they need to move and they need to attract more students or customers or retain the ones they have. They don’t have design projects – we do.

And note: the emphasis is on action  –  not thing.

To a client, an architect may help you to realize, recommend, guide, clarify, define, orchestrate, and help you get the most for your construction dollar. All verbs.

If that’s what we mean by design – then why don’t we say it? Why don’t we remind others that that is what we do?

And with the 2010 AIA Convention on the horizon why don’t we remind ourselves of this meaning of the word?

That said, if design is our core competency – what distinguishes us from pretenders –the act of design takes up a relatively small part of our day.

Over the past 25 years I have worked on several projects where I might design the building in a day – and then spend the next 3-5 years fleshing it out – and everything else that’s required to see to its realization. Some would say fleshing it out is someone else’s design development and another person’s iteration and still another’s level of detail. Sure – there is a great deal more design to do once the client says go. But again – the emphasis is on action – design as a verb – and not on the building.

One of the advantages of the new technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) – the collaborative work process enabled by it (the subject of my other blog www.bimandintegrateddesign.com)– is that design occurs early, involving many stakeholders, and can come from just about anywhere. Yes, the architect may orchestrate the effort – and may be the one person qualified to do so – but she’s still applying for that position, it has not been awarded yet. Design in the near future will happen sooner in the process, by many – including considerable contributions made by non-designers and designers alike.

In fact – architects have been threatened by the role of the “designer” that has been appearing more and more in industry diagrams illustrating construction project teams. Where in these diagrams is the architect? The architect’s very survival instinct kicks in when this happens and what ensues can be unnerving. I have seen chairs fly and voices rise. Someone else is moving in on our territory and the instinct is to attack.

When we talk about design – who is our intended audience? By calling attention to design are we thinking that this will remind others on the construction team who really has the corner on design? Is this the meta-message for making this the year of design? “Don’t forget – architects design, too.” By calling attention to design, are we primarily reminding others that we design? Or – and at the same time – are we reminding ourselves?

Because many architects haven’t designed a building since the immersive studio experience in school and are in need of reminding. All but buried in building codes, zoning regulations, contractor’s RFI’s and change orders, lean construction, green building rating systems –  not to mention BIM, IPD, VDC and a hundred other acronyms that come our way – it’s almost as though instead of announcing to the world who we are, we are announcing it to ourselves. It’s almost as though we’re experiencing a form of professional amnesia or Alzheimer’s – and can’t remember who we are and what we do.

Design: Who we are. What we do.

Part of the problem is that the word design has become ubiquitous. Architects, of course, don’t have a corner on the design market.  Yes, architects design, but so do web designers, product designers, urban designers, environmental designers, business designers, set design, packaging design, game design, exhibition designers, landscape designers, graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers, fashion designers and all the other T-shaped designers to name but a few.

If design is the planning that serves as the basis for the making of every object and system in the universe, then what are we talking about when we talk about design?

How can our purpose, our heart, our core – as design professionals – be such a small part of what we do?

And – if the new technologies and work processes have their way – we’re about to do even less of it.

Or do more of it in our heads.

Or conceptualize in the monitor, using the program’s built-in metrics to ferret out the most cost effective options.

The problem with the word design isn’t that it too narrowly defines what we as architects do. The problem is that the word design is overused, vague, appropriated by too many industries and domains – from MBA’s to makers of medical devices. I can understand the need for a convention to have as its subject a sweeping or enveloping concept to allow for the myriad specific entries and presentation-. As the convention material puts it, the weft through which a number of threads—sustainability, diversity, professional practice, technologies, leadership, communities, typologies, and others—will be woven. Last year’s was diversity. Next year’s – you can imagine – will be selected from amongst the remaining threads.

That design is not enough of a differentiator, whether building, city or global design.

To go from diversity to design isn’t to return to our roots.

Better we should ask ourselves these questions:

  • What distinguishes the architect?
  • What is unique to the architect?

Is it design or is it design thinking?

Is it design or is it problem identifying and problem solving?

The word design has too many connotations and is appropriated by too many industries. Earlier, I did my best to answer these questions here in Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect.

10 Questions Architects Need to Ask Themselves

So, before heading off for the AIA Convention in Miami, ask yourself: What do we talk about when we talk about design?

  • Are we talking about design as a competitive advantage over our competition, namely design-builders and construction managers and other design professionals?
  • Is design enough of a differentiator? Others on the construction team see themselves as designers – including some owners and fellow design professionals.
  • By separating design from the rest of the process are we reinforcing others’ firmly held notions – however erroneous – that architects are elitist, arrogant, isolationists, rarified in some way.
  • Will architects who gather to celebrate design – and celebrate themselves – be accused of navel gazing, reinforcing the scourge of being labeled out-of-touch aesthetes?
  • Will architects be seen by others – disenfranchised and disillusioned architects among them – as reinforcing their already perceived irrelevance in the construction process, by meeting to talk about design they’re proverbially rearranging deckchairs while the rest of the profession goes down?
  • Will meeting to talk about design further sharpen the architect’s already considerable edge by playing-up their cool factor and wow factor?
  • If design can’t be taught and is something you intuit – that you either have it or you don’t – why meet to talk about it?
  • By talking about design do architects risk alienating teammates by remind them of their increasing irrelevance?
  • While the rest of the world is knee deep in design thinking will architects be perceived as focusing on design without the thinking?
  • By talking about the design of buildings as objects as opposed to systems, flows or solutions, will architects – with the Wal-Marting of the world and Targeting of design – reinforce the commoditizing of their skill-sets?

Thomas Friedman perhaps brought this point home when he wrote

If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use Amazon.com to handle fulfillment. I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.

Are architects talking about design like fish talking about water?

A San Francisco architect, Ted Pratt, Principal and Founder of MTP Architects, wrote to me today

The idea of Design Thinking is really taking hold here with business.  Last week I attended a panel discussion focused on the topic of Design and Business.  The event was held at Swissnex here in San Francisco.  All of the panel members were business people.  I commented to my business partner that we needed to be on the panel alongside the persons from Clorox and Nestle.  There was an administrator from the California College of Arts’ MBA program.  They have an MBA focused on Design Thinking.

Architects are already seen by many as the makers of pretty pictures. By getting together to talk about design will we be perpetuating this perception?

As Ted wrote, we needed to be on the panel.

Architects – working at many scales, from GIS to doorknobs – are first and foremost design thinkers. Design thinking is a term that some feel is the latest buzzword and by the time you read this will already be past-tense. But the truth is – whatever you call it – design thinking is something we as architects have done for centuries. You can learn more about it here.

What should our message be?

In the AIA’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, under Vision, it is written:

The American Institute of Architects: Driving positive change through the power of design.

Sooner that contrarian author and Design Futures Council board member, Richard Farson, author of The Power of Design, should speak at the convention.

And under Goals:

Serve as the Credible Voice: Promote the members and their AIA as the credible voice for quality design and the built environment.

Quality design. There you have it. With the focus front and center of the product and not the process.

The planet will always need quality design. But what the world needs right now is not more buildings but the creativity and ingenuity that goes into their design applied to the problems and forces at hand.

We love buildings – we love architecture – that is why we became architects: to be part of their design and realization.

But, as IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez says, Stop Treating Design as A Noun.

Is design even the message we need to be sending? At this time in history, shouldn’t our message be on collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, making our teammates look better, improving the process for all involved, playing well with others and our trustworthiness?

Design for the new decade

The 2010 AIA Convention has as its theme Design for the new decade. Design, a return to design. Getting back to our roots. Reprioritizing. Do what we do best. Which is namely,

Cool buildings, innovative form and materials, sustainable design.

With the selection of Dan Pink as keynote, the message appears to be that we have been spending too much time in the left hemisphere – with all of our focus on the left-brain thinking required of practice – and seek some Florida solace in the sun and respite in the right.

Once architects leave Miami, their brains newly balanced and their hemispheres aligned, perhaps we ought to consider the fact that what distinguishes the architect is the mercurial interaction of our left and right hemispheres. Design is not the domain exclusively of the left or right brains – but the back-and-forth interaction of the two. Our real value as architects occurs in neither individual lobe but in the space between.

Architects already do what the world needs most right now – they don’t need to emphasize one hemisphere over another – they just need to get the word out there a little louder in a world that’s already screaming for attention; that this is what we already do, this is who we already are.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Pink. He spoke back to back at the Design Futures Council’s summit AND my kid’s middle school last Fall. He’s moved on – driven – past design onto more intrinsically motivated pastures. And we ought to take a clue from him and follow his lead.

So it should be clear by now. Design isn’t what we do or who we are. But instead Design thinking. Design deliberation. Design countenance. It’s not design – that’s shared by far too many to have any meaning – but what we do with it. Design isn’t a skill but a modifier for who we are and what we do. We ought to start acting more like it and let others in on the secret.

So go ahead – re-commit yourself to design as the architect’s primary mode of thought and action. Just don’t be fooled by the siren song of designed objects be they places, projects or things. What you are re-committing to is making design thought and design action a priority.

Design thinking and design doing: who we are and what we do.

This is the crux: for the present time – to reinforce the notion that we are team players, that we are relevant, that we are necessary – we ought to emphasize our positive impact on the process, not the end result.

We are designers in that we are design managers and design leaders.

We are designers – we are design thinkers – gathering to re-commit to helping to define and solve our clients’, city’s, community’s and neighborhoods’ problems.

That is design for the new decade.

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Reports of Architect’s Death have been Greatly Exaggerated March 17, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, collaboration, marginalization, questions.
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The knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor.   Aldous Huxley

 

A number of prominent architects have sadly died this month: Bruce Graham, an architect who designed several of the most prominent buildings in Chicago, Frank Williams and Der Scutt, architects who designed several of the most prominent buildings in Manhattan, and Herb McKim who pretty much did the same for the entire state of North Carolina, are among them.

But this post isn’t about any one architect’s death – however important a role they might have played in our lives, cities and industry. This post addresses the increasingly prevalent pronouncements calling for the end of architecture and death of the profession. This post is about whether our profession will still be around to tell our grandkids about.

Only the latest along this line of thinking is the current debate taking place online, entitled Will the Architecture Profession Still Exist in 40 Years?, between RIBA President, Ruth Reed and self-proclaimed provocateur and naysayer Austin Williams, Founder of mantownhuman and writer at Building Design online, The Architect’s Website, found here with comments and also here.

Without stealing their distant thunder, suffice it to say that this debate doesn’t really solve anything. But the comments, as usual, bring up several decent points. Some of my own observations:

  • Architects will continue to be valued for their expertise – unless that expertise can be tapped into and proffered outside the profession in design-build outfits, wherever architects find employment in the years ahead
  • The gist of RIBA’s argument follows this line of logic: Architects, as custodians of the built environment, are beholden to both paying clients and non-paying (society at large) and for that reason will always be valued for the beauty, judgment, ingenuity and delight that they bring to a project. That said, most architects have found that it’s pretty difficult to state this outside the relative privacy of a blog, while maintaining a straight face. While this remains largely true – architects must represent both because it is what they do, it is why they went into the profession in the first place, because it is  the right thing to do and because the world needs them – whether or not the world recognizes this, recognizes them, remunerates or rewards them for their efforts. Just do it.
  • The gist of William’s argument states architects are toast because…architects are allowing their environmental agenda to dominate architectural practice. Say what?
  • By incorporating new technologies and collaborative work processes. By being the change they want to see – and not wait for someone else (Owners) to tell them to do it. More on this here. 

For Austin William’s co-edited book, The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated, look here.

Commenters mention the usual bromides: others have trodden on much of the architect’s territory and until they are squelched architects will just have to be their own best advocates. As some would have it, architects excel at two things:  fighting over what scraps of work there is or congratulating each other on how well we have all done. As one commenter so aptly put it: The recession had made this failure in the profession to assert itself more clear.

Several other commenters’ insights worth repeating here:

  • As long as people want buildings, they will want them to be poetic.
  • Sustainability goes beyond a carbon footprint. It needs to bring in factors such as happiness, tradition, continuity and society.
  • If the “profession” was to disappear…talented designers and creative thinkers will remain
  • The best architects at any level are those that listen to others and take onboard their ideas, then giving them a twist to turn them into something special.
  • The arrogance of some architects who dismiss the fact that anyone else working in the built environment can be creative and have good ideas brings the profession down.

What is made clear by these comments is that an acceptance is needed on the architect’s part that almost anyone can have the big ideas: architects give these ideas, whether their own or from others, give them a twist and help turn them into reality. Read more comments here.

The State of the Profession

In reference to the title of this post, Mark Twain’s famous quip – the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated – I would like to report that the architect is alive and well and living in denial.

Our death is perhaps exaggerated – but we’re in deep convalescence – so there’s still an outside chance.

The architecture profession has had some serious symptoms and it is perhaps time we saw a doctor.

In a biological model for the profession, I think it’s worth looking at some of the hard-to-miss signs: an increasing forgetfulness on our part, and what appears to be a cancerous growth within the profession.

As expected, the forgetfulness – to always play well with others, to share our information with teammates and empower those we work with – is age related. Architects have a case of amnesia where we’ve forgotten where we come from. It’s as though architects have Alzheimer’s and have forgotten who we are and what we are here to do.

A Focus on longevity

In terms of longevity for the profession, is appears that our resveratrol will be the adoption and complete embrace of new technologies, our daily glass of red wine will be to acquire the necessary mindsets and attitudes, and our calorie restriction diet will be a newfound determination on our part to collaborate with others.

Keeping the profession-as-human analogy going, in medicine, there’s this state – between good health and decline – called senescence. You might have heard author and nutritionist Andrew Weil MD talk about it in Healthy Aging. Senescence is marked by these common characteristics:

  • The period of decline, called senescence, is different than what came before
  • Senescent cells still perform many functions of life – but they cannot reproduce
  • When researchers take cells from healthy organisms and put them in new environments, senescence overtakes the cells and the cultures die
  • Senescence equates with the period of functional decline that precedes death
  • Most cells senesce after a fixed number of divisions
  • The number of times senescent cells can reproduce is coded in their DNA
  • Health depends on a balance between stress and defenses; the presence of senescence represents the body’s inability to cope with the stress

Thinking what I’m thinking? Allowing for some poetic license, the architecture profession is in a period of decline – this we have known for some time. In fact, per Robert Putnam and others all of the professions are to an extent. So, following  this logic:

  • The period architects find themselves in is different than the period that came before
  • Architects continue to perform many of their familiar functions– but due to circumstances they cannot employ, hire, educate or remunerate emerging talent
  • When architects are removed from their familiar workplaces and are placed in working environments outside their host domain, architectural culture dies
  • Architects are operating in a period of functional decline that precedes the death of the profession
  • Most architects decline after a fixed number of career moves
  • The number of times architects can renew themselves is coded in their make-up
  • For architects, survival depends on a balance between stress and defenses; the current presence of decline represents the profession’s inability to cope with the multiple stresses placed on the architect today

As with all analogies taken too far, this one is no less farfetched.  And yet there seems to be something there when you consider that – due to the unprecedented circumstances architects find themselves in today, due to their own choices as well as others out of their control – the architecture profession is not yet dead but does seem to be in a state of decline. Of, if you will, senescence – architects are in a state of senescence.

Those still interested in longevity, I write more about the architect’s so-called fountain of youth at my other blog.

Architect’s routine physical results

Should the architecture profession go for an annual physical examination? While this annual ritual has been largely discarded as unnecessary for healthy patients – one wonders over the past couple years how healthy is the state of the architect?

When you sit down with your doctor, what things should the architect discuss? What things determine the architect’s risk?

  • Heredity – What have architects inherited from our predecessors? What habits – good and bad – have architects inherited from our favorite professors and practitioners? From role models and mentors?
  • Lifestyle – If your client gives you a call 5PM on a Friday demanding that you deliver results by Monday morning – how do you respond? How balanced is your work and home life?
  • Your Medical History – Working in silos, holding back information, an unwillingness to share, or prolonged use of certain attitudes – will these play a big part in determining what has to be monitored or watched out for?
  • Age and sex – Are emerging professionals who are architects in their 20’s are more likely to be impacted by burnout and disillusionment than their midcareer colleagues? Do men have career-shortening events earlier in their careers and more frequently than women? Are women at greater risk for leaving the profession? Are midcareer architects today the target of layoffs?

If the architecture profession was a sick patient – and went to see the doctor – what do you think she’d diagnose?

What recommendations for cure would the doctor make?

What will it take for the architecture profession to be declared the picture of health and fit for duty?

Letter to a Discontented Architect March 9, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, creativity, function, identity, optimism, problem solving, survival, the economy.
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Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress.

Mohandas Gandhi

Dear Architect,

Thanks for writing – now it’s my turn. I know it’s particularly hard out there right now and it’s hard for even the most diehard optimist to come up with the words you need to hear without sounding either glib or out of touch. But I understand your restlessness and discontent with your situation and may have a suggestion or two on how you might turn things around for the better.

First, let it be said, to be discontent – with our profession or the built environment, with your lot in life or the lot you’ve been given to work with, the cards you’ve been dealt and position you’ve been put in, the state of the economy or the way government is handling it  – is a natural, healthy state to be in. Like stress – it is a critical part of what it means to be human and, to a point, our dissatisfaction with the way things are keeps us focused, energized and motivated.

As an architect, you in fact need to remain discontent for as long as you can stand it. For to be discontent means you are alive, have a pulse, blood is running through your veins – all good.

You just need to be sure you are discontent with the right things.

By nature a discontented lot – architects look at what is and envision the way it can be. They not only create the built environment but see their interventions as improving the world around them – both the natural and the manmade. Yes, you heard that right. Most architects believe and have it ingrained early, that their work actually improves upon nature. Consider that! Most wouldn’t bother doing what they do if that wasn’t the case.

Architects are a discontented sort. They don’t like the way empty sites just sit there – so they look for or create opportunities whereby they can fill it with something. They don’t like the way existing buildings go underutilized – so they propose new uses for them. They don’t like the way others design their buildings – so they improve upon them by proposing their own. They don’t like the way clients stingily give them one building at a time to design so they go ahead and give their clients – for free – a value-added master plan indicating the unasked for, strategic placement of backlog for years to come! They don’t like the way developers maximize the gross area to reap the maximum reward irrespective of what needs there might be, so they propose buildings that meet the needs while making more efficient use of the site.

Architects improve upon whatever they see. They are always looking for ways to make things better – to the chagrin of our clients – even when they don’t necessarily need improving. They don’t like the way things are done and – action-oriented, creative, energized as they are – they do something about it.

That is why it is important to remain discontent – and sustain a perpetual state of restlessness – for as long as you can. For architecture – and becoming an architect – takes a long time. And you need to be there for it.

Discontent with those content

It’s a strange, contradictory and even a bit snobbish truism that architects who are content with everything are held in lower esteem by peers and even seen by some as sell-outs. It implies a serious lack of critical judgment, ignorance and worst of all, curiosity. Strange and unfortunate, but true.

To be content with something is seen as a sign of weakness. If you are OK with something it either means you have no values, you have no guts, you have no morals, you are too easily pleased, you’re a push-over, you’re ignorant or you have no ideas of your own. You’re made up of lesser stuff. Not up to snuff, there’s a place for people like you and, well, it’s not with us.

There is a great deal that needs improvement in our world and contentedness implies self-satisfaction when there’s still much work to do. Always is. As though to say, to be dissatisfied is to be alive. I’ll have plenty of time to be satisfied when I’m dead.

This is just to say I understand your discontent with your situation. You put in a lot of work and expended a lot of energy to make your way through school, to land your first positions, only – you say – to be handed this.

The Art of Being Discontent

So be discontent. A little discontent is fine and to be expected – this is what we are and who we are. Its par for the course for architects as we make our way through school into our careers as designers and custodians of the built environment to be a bit disgruntled with what lies in store or just outside our window or within our purview.

We need to be a bit discontent to be motivated to put up with all we have to put up with on the road from concept and visualization to realization of built form, whether we’re designing our careers or buildings.

Buildings made from contented architects would be a little bland. The world does not need more blah.

That said, choose wisely the things you are discontent about. Know the difference between supportive, constructive words and a rant. Less screed, more helping each other to succeed.

Criteria for healthy discontent

The allure of skepticism is its exoneration from obligation: if nothing works properly why try? If everyone is insincere why be honest? How can we trust when deceit is rampant, when cultural heroes are routinely toppled? – Baruch Epstein

But also like stress, like anything taken too far to excess, discontent turns into something vile and largely unhealthy to the body politic, and starts to appear less as a natural and understandable dissatisfaction and more like sarcasm and cynicism. Discontent becomes unsustainable as an operating procedure – bitter to be around, alienating, undermining our very efforts at communication and progress. Discontent becomes dour, corrosive and regressive – adding little but bile to the conversation. When like that you become disbelieving in the very possibility of sincerity of human motives.

Architects and cynics alike design and build protective walls to stand behind and contain. Skepticism and irony, sarcasm and cynicism are merely barriers to protect the deeply emotional expectations architects have for themselves in these uncertain times. This is entirely understandable – it’s scary out there. And yet, it may seem that without cynicism, architects have no place to hide. But as enclosures go, cynicism is the drafty, unsustainable, energy-wasting kind. Don’t go there.

As important as it is to be discontent – it is just as important to not be cynical. Cynicism will eat away at you. Know the difference between cynicism and sarcasm, discontent and skepticism. Only the latter two will serve you well. The former will make you dispassionate; you’ll come across to colleagues and clients alike – however unintended – as snide and angry and obtuse, standing in the way of the very progress you profess to perpetuate. Go on ridicule sincerity – when sincerity stands in your way of accomplishing great deeds.

Building designers – and for that matter bloggers and others who start and contribute to online discussions and forums – are content providers while, dissatisfied consumers of these have largely become discontent providers. Before adding your two cents, ask yourself these three things. Is, what I’m about to write nurturing? Is it growth promoting? And does it work (for others?)

If not, perhaps it doesn’t need to be said.

This criteria, it would seem, doesn’t allow for humorous, ironic and sarcastic responses and asides. Bringing more humor into our lives is always welcome. The question again is one of intent:  is the jibe intended to hurt or to help? Because right now, we – as a profession, as colleagues and co-creators with one another – need a little less sarcasm and more support.

As you may know, I recently posted “81 Reasons Why There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be an Architect.” Unabashedly optimistic, positive, uplifting – and asking for trouble. An outpouring of responses followed. Most of the positive ones were lengthy, while those less enthralled identified themselves with just two initials, posting 3-word screeds as though to say it wasn’t worth the time and effort (i.e. what is?) So, perhaps understandably, yk wrote “this is a joke, right?” and kh commented “Feel good fluff,” some more mean-spirited than others, one implying maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation “if your posts were more concise.” One comment perhaps spoke for everyone else: “I’d trade all 81 reasons for work.”

While contrarian views such as these are targets for concision, some of the comments that were left were downright accusatory, as though to say: all things considered, you really ought to be less content. You ought to be less happy and a whole lot less optimistic.

Architects comment on industry forums angered at the fact that they cannot call themselves architects while unlicensed technologists can. Standing on the sidelines back against the wall, design architects are deciding whether to bow out or wait out this dance. Cynical? Absolutely. Sneering? Sarcastic? To be sure. But also fearful. They’re afraid. Very, very afraid – about their future, about the fact that their hard fought education – not yet paid for – may have been for naught. That the initial inroads into the profession was at best a misfire, spent on the sidelines or behind the scenes cleaning-up other people’s mess. And yet, and yet we needn’t worry until we start to see the language of fear verge toward the language of anger. And this seething anger is, I’m afraid, something we are starting to see.

The content of discontent

There’s an inherent optimism in an architect’s discontent, as though to say: “I don’t like the way things are and I’m going to do something about it.” In this way, the act of architecture is one of healing. Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, healing the earth. There is always the initial recognition and awareness that something is wrong that needs to be righted, something is broken that needs to be fixed.

One fallout from the current economy is that under- and unemployed architects are subjected not only to the prospect of having less work but having seemingly less opportunity to make positive outcomes from their critical stances. In addition to the indignities of our current state, we remain discontent without the apparent creative outlet or opportunity to introduce change. To right what has been wronged.

But to believe this is wrong. We can tap into and turn our natural abundance of discontent toward the improvement of so much in our world that needs fixing. It may not be the occasional fire station, student residence or library for the near term. We will have to find other subjects in need of our healthy discontent to address in the interim.

A prelude to progress

Thomas Edison said that discontent is the first necessity of progress.

What are the right things worth being discontent about? Here are a few important things to consider:

  • Global warming: Improving the environment while using less energy
  • Education: Teaching future designers and architects what they need to know to succeed in the future
  • Our future as designers: Explaining the value of design to the unaware
  • The natural environment: Explaining the real meaning of sustainability to those who can do something about it
  • Sprawl I: Identifying ways to contain sprawl and present them
  • Sprawl II: Devote yourself to the improvement of our suburbs
  • The profession: Create a viable, win-win value proposition for architects in the age of BIM and IPD
  • Stubbornness, stagnation and unwillingness to change: Become a change agent for those unwilling to change
  • Construction: dissatisfied with the amount of construction, time and money waste and want to do something about it
  • Collaboration: with the way team members withhold information and work at odds with each other
  • Professional organizations: want to feel that members are better served while helping to serve yourself
  • Value proposition: frustrated with owner’s expectations about how/how little design professionals are paid

I’m sure you have a list of your own. If not, this is the time to take note.

What are some of the things that we shouldn’t bother being discontent with?

  • Trivial things, minutia
  • Things we have no control over
  • Situations that wouldn’t be improved despite our intervening and attention

In these cases, they need a whole lot of care from someone else – namely themselves.

Your Turn

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. George Bernard Shaw

The world needs you even if clients or employers don’t seem to right now. As an architect you have always had two clients – a paying one and, in the public-at-large, in building users and surrounding communities – a non-paying client.

Now it’s your turn. So go on – be discontent, dissatisfied with your situation. Turn it toward positive results. Turn – this negative energy toward something constructive and productive.

Turn – the collective frustration into a major rebuilding effort.

Turn – your anger into something productive.

Turn – your frustration into improving the profession

Turn – your experience into something helpful and positive

Turn – your attention to what needs fixing

Turn – your unending creativity toward building up rather than tearing down

Turn – your words around and ask what you could be doing for your community, for your industry and your fellow professionals in need – right now.

This may very well indeed be the winter of our discontent. If so, use it to improve one small corner of the world. And then get out in front of it. Our good works aren’t a bastion against anything – but rather a backdrop for what, ahead, is sure to be more a promising time of it. Together – if each of us takes our one small place – we will in time create a better world and lives for ourselves and for those around us. And that is nothing to be discontent about.