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What it Means to be an Architect Today December 26, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, career, employment, identity, possibility, questions, reading, the economy, transformation, transition.
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16 comments

I saw the best architects of my generation destroyed by idleness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the vacant-lotted streets at dawn looking for an angry commission,

angleheaded architects burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

What does it mean to be an architect in 2011?

For every architect putting the finishing touches on a set of construction documents, or starting a design study for a prospective client, there’s one thinking outside the bun.

And another reading this for free at the public library.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says between 6 and 13% of architects are out of work.

The 53% of architects who are actually out of work believe these numbers are accurate.

The vast majority of working architects are severely underemployed, focused on getting work, marketing their own or their firm’s services.

The vast majority of architects, in other words, are now working in marketing.

Taking-on work outside their comfort zone.

Whether beneath them or above them, work of an altogether different caliber.

Like an actor, architects are awaiting call-backs. Waiting to be called back by the firm that let them go.

In the mean time, architects are driving cabs, working at Lowes.

Masters in Architecture now means we’re becoming masters of another art: the art of losing.

Tracking unemployment is logistically difficult, requiring a great deal of manpower, according to AIA chief economist Kermit Baker.

47,500 unemployed architects hired full-time by AIA and NCARB to track unemployment in the industry. 

Finding themselves in new, unfamiliar situations with people they hardly know and – digging deep into their bag-of-tricks – making the most of it.

Architects in retail hawking e-readers and housewares.

Architects moving across the country, or out of the country away from their families, to help pay their kids’ expenses.

Asking not what the AIA can do for them; asking what they can do for the AIA.

In the midst of such astounding lack of loyalty, remaining loyal to their calling and their muse.

Getting used to being “between projects” and any of a dozen other euphemisms for having been – for a loss of another euphemism – shitcanned.

Not waiting to see who will take the lead in the green movement.

Asking not what the world can do for them; asking what they can do for the planet.

Would-be architects turning their eyes and education to the gaming industry.

To pay back their student loans.

Notwithstanding, with 12 high school applicants for every 1 undergraduate architecture slot, it would seem that architects are gamblers from the start.

Architects working for food conglomerates, driving forklifts, putting furniture together.

Architects working for food.

Applying for positions that will go to exact matches – down to the hair follicle color.

Or to no one.

Job applicants asked to undertake DNA testing – to see if they’re an exact match for the position.

Architects who will gladly work “pro-bono” just to stay in the game are still rejected because they’re “too expensive.”

Questioning the wisdom of being a generalist.

Architects of lakefront manses taking-on basement renovations.

Gladly taking-on basement renovations.

Questioning the wisdom of being a specialist.

Or the wisdom of having sought and ultimately attained that Theory of Architecture advanced degree.

Is it possible that they don’t know that the phrase “pro-bono” means “free?”

2008 tested your mettle. As did 2009. 2010 tested your mettle. So will 2011.

If architecture is a calling, how come the phone doesn’t ring?

Maybe there’s an opening for mettle-testers?

Architects selling life insurance to other architects.

Who void their policies by killing themselves.

Who kill themselves by losing their sense of humor.

Who lose their sense of humor from dealing with former colleagues who are now selling insurance.

While women are getting paid 75 cents to the dollar, architects are getting paid 25 cents to the dollar.

Women architects are finally getting paid the same amount as men.

Justice after all.

Trying to find a way to monetize 30 years of professional working experience.

Otherwise known in the industry as a job.

 To be hit when you’re down by those who belittle what we do.

To lay there flailing and writhing.

And they still don’t hire you.

You still owe money to the money to the money you owe.

You remember being so busy a few years ago that you might have committed some lines to paper, or said some things to a colleague, that you now regret.

You remember thinking at the time that you would change when things finally slowed down.

 Coming to the slow realization that what you had been practicing all these years was a luxury that few could afford.

Or need.

To be an architect means to be at once both fragile and all-powerful.

To go from under-utilized to over-committed on a dime.

Or for a dime.

Wondering how on earth we – at this time in our lives – are supposed to reinvent ourselves.

Where to start?

Who, to be competitive now, must consider themselves certified-virtual construction-lean-accredited-design/build-BIM-IPD-VDC-LEED experts.

To be experts at everything means that we’re…generalists?

Find yourself humming Eric Clapton’s Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

To be an architect today means to start over. Every day.

Able-bodied, talented, smart and eager young interns sitting this one out in the penalty box in perpetuity, for the sole reason that they are able-bodied, talented, smart, eager and young.

I get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins.

Starting over means to see with beginner’s eyes – because we’re reentering a new economy, a new profession, firms with new organizational structures.

To be an architect today means to consult, to borrow space, workstation and another’s air.

To be a product procured by means of a purchase order over being retained as a professional service.

Wondering if you’d be better off moving to Canada where there are purported to be more jobs (and where it is also purported to be warmer in winter.)

Or get up and move to NY or CA because it seems that these are the only places with job listings.

To understand that the current decline is the most severe and will probably take the longest to recover, but that the profession will recover nevertheless if the past is any predictor of the future.

And to wonder if the past is any predictor of the future.

Where design architects find themselves for the first time in the minority of all “architects” including computer, business and IT.

To adjust expectations so that pay, benefits and seniority are no longer primary drivers in your job pursuit.

To be wary of the easy temptation of cynicism.

To be underrepresented, ill-prepared and overlooked.

Always the bridesmaid. Never the bride.

For whom the phrase “the gray hairs are the first to go” used to mean you’re going bald.

It is as much about who you know now as what you know.

Network, reach-out, get involved. But to make any inroads you’re going to have to pave your own way.

Notice phrases such as “skeleton staff,” “trending downward” and “where’s dinner coming from?” have mysteriously entered your vocabulary.

And words like “salary” have disappeared.

All the tools in your toolbox. And nowhere to use them.

Beating against the current of a veritable ocean of regulatory design requirements.

While taking-on water.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Otherwise we sink.

To be an architect means to persevere.

To do all one can, each day, to hold on and not let go.

Learning to persevere from American Indians.

Learning from cancer survivors.

To not give up, no matter how bleak.

To maintain your sense of humor.

To keep things in perspective.

To remain resourceful.

Ready to take-on whatever assignment you are offered.

Whatever comes your way.

To not lose heart when you find that you have lost rank.

To work hard at creating communities: of practice, of hope.

But also just of belonging.

That’s what it means to be an architect today.

 (Apologies to Allen Ginsberg)

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Design in the Open December 4, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, collaboration, identity, IPD, questions.
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8 comments

Shortlisted for a major project on the west coast, I’m going into a project interview in a couple days.

With little interest in giving a dog and pony show, I want the meeting to be a working session.

To give them a taste of how we – as a team – are to work with.

And to make good use of everybody’s time.

Get some real value out of our brief time together, whatever the results.

We’re not going to pretend we have all the answers.

So we’ll ask a lot of questions.

And answer some of their questions with questions of our own.

Not to be difficult.

But to engage the client in a dialogue.

An Identity Problem

Participatory design is a design approach that seeks to actively involve all stakeholders (employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to help assure that what is designed meets their needs and functions well for all.

It involves cooperation and collaboration, and the attitudes and mindset necessary to allow these practices to flower.

Prior to its popularity in the 60’s and 70’s, participatory design was known as Cooperative Design.

Now we have Crowdsourcing and Integrated Design.

And would you know it, Co-Creation, too.

In The Power of Co-Creation: Build It with Them to Boost Growth, Productivity, and Profits, authors Venkat Ramaswamy and Francis Gouillart explain how to tap into ideas, design  and build products and services by engaging directly with employees, stakeholders, clients and suppliers.

Even with competitors.

The applications to, and implications for, Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) – especially in terms of how co-creation can help to lower risks and costs – are readily apparent.

“Participatory design always works.”

And like IPD it involves a democratization and decentralization of value creation among other benefits.

Participatory design is a far more democratic approach to design than most architects today would be comfortable with.

And that’s too bad.

It’s one that requires relinquishing control of the very design process that the architect struggles with to lead.

The American architect Charles Moore – a successful proponent of participatory design – had flippantly said that, in his own case, his oversized ego allowed him to relinquish his reigns on design.

This is an accurate statement in that Moore alone among architects at the time (1980’s) had the self-awareness and self-belief – the confidence – that he could take any form the masses came up with and turn it into an exceptional work of architecture.

And he was almost always right.

Charles Moore, an incredibly intelligent and creative architect and entrepreneur, late in his career said that the only architectural truth that he discovered was that “participatory design always works.”

Plain Modern: The Architecture of Brian Mackay-Lyons presents the work of Charles Moore’s internationally acclaimed, California-based firm Moore Ruble Yudell, whose unique expertise in community involvement and participatory design has profoundly influenced the course of contemporary architecture.

Moore’s advocacy of user participation in the design process influenced a whole generation of designers.

One of these was Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons, whose mentor was Charles Moore.

A Design Process by any Other Name

But in changing names of this powerful design process over the years have we inadvertently thrown the baby out with the bath water?

Today we may talk about building social ecosystems, designing engagement platforms and expanding scope and scale of network interactions, but what we really mean when we say transforming enterprise operations through co-creation is…participatory design.

Whatever name you give it, participatory design is fast replacing traditional thinking that viewed design innovation as a proprietary activity.

Changing names on such a regular basis has led to books such as the unlikely (and awkwardly) titled “Crowdsourcing: Neologism, Independent contractor, Outsourcing, Crowd, Participatory design, Human-based computation, Citizen science, Web 2.0, … intelligence, Distributed computing.”

Architectural collaborator Dave Premi reflects on participatory design as a highly creative and evolving process when he looks back on his experience collaborating:

“I have been involved with MacKay-Lyons’ participatory design process on a number of buildings. Each time we created a new process, since every client has its own requirements. You have to mold the process each time to suit the requirements. It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method.”

Other take-aways from Charles Moore and his protégé MacKay-Lyons’ on participatory design:

  • To succeed, the architect can’t have his mind made up before working with the public on the design
  • No preconceived ideas
  • The secret to making it work: don’t get defensive
  • Have the conviction that you can make a nice building out of anything anyone comes up with
  • In the participatory design process, “the public define the shapes, we refine them.”
  • Refining building form is up to the architect; their sole domain
  • Participatory design is somewhat similar to advocacy planning of the 1960s where architects acted as midwives for lay people’s visions

Design in the Open

Architects, upon being asked a design or building question, can no longer say let me go back to the office and study it.

Because it’s all integrated and participatory from here on out.

It’s all open source.

Today we have science in the open, theater in the open, “out in the open” with CNN’s Rick Sanchez.

But design in the open?

To succeed, get buy-in and move projects forward, architects and other design professionals will need to design in the open.

Learning from Participatory Design

Take this exchange from a recent interview in the Huffington Post between Guy Horton and Witold Rybczynski:

Guy Horton: In your opinion, can architects reclaim more of a public role? This is something that is discussed in professional circles. There is the perception that they are more insular and out of the loop and have ceded much of their power to developers. What can architects do to elevate the visibility of their role?

Witold Rybczynski: I just watched an interview with Charles Moore on YouTube. He was talking about how architects should listen to the public, rather than dictate to it. It was quite compelling. That was in the 1980s, and neither postmodernism nor Moore’s vision of participatory design caught on. Not many architects had Moore’s confidence to share design decisions with their clients. Moreover, architects tend to be persuaders rather than listeners. Success in the architectural profession–realizing one’s vision in something as large and complex as a building–requires a strong ego and a single-minded, almost obsessive, attention to detail. These qualities can easily turn to arrogance. It is, as the French say, a déformation professionelle.

If the result is an increase in participatory design, here’s to a déformation professionelle in 2011.

Watch the interview.

And read this book: one of the best books ever written on the subject for those who want to encourage full participation in their own work, universally esteemed and revered,the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al. Highly recommended.