Reports of Architect’s Death have been Greatly Exaggerated March 17, 2010Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, collaboration, marginalization, questions.
Tags: aging, death, doctor, longevity, midcareer, profession, senescence
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?