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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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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)



1. Anne Whitacre - December 26, 2010

This post sounds unusually depressed — did the author get enough serotonin with their holiday meal?
I graduated from college in 1975 during one of the various “urban crises” that this country has gone through and my first job was doing secretarial work in an architect’s office — for free — and working another job in a lab at night for pay. I did that for the first 18 months of my “career” until the economy improved enough for me to actually get a job. I heard later that only 23% of the graduates of architecture programs in 1975 and 1976 actually ended up working in architecture.

Because of my specialty, I hung on during the “severe downturn” of 1980-81, when the firm I worked for was laying off 1 or 2 or 5 people a week — as projects finished up, the teams were let go. By the time I got to 30 years experience and very specialized, I figured I was home free… until 2008-2009 when two dozen of my 35 year experienced colleagues were laid off across the country. No projects were going into construction documents; and we were too expensive.

I’m seeing a turnaround, but there is a half generation of people who will probably never work in a firm again. I’m in my late 50’s, so I have another 12-15 years ahead of me; my colleagues in their early 60’s are probably done… 8 years before they intended to be.

And a week ago, to attend a cocktail party with a couple of small town developers who ranted about how all architects were overpaid, and didn’t bring any value to the project. If the party had been at my house, I could have gladly tossed each of them down the stairs and into the yard — since my office-in-home insurance would cover that little bit of “slip and fall”.

2. Jeremiah Russell - December 27, 2010

Anne, was this meant to be an optimistic reply to the depressing rant above? I think you may have undershot your mark. 😉 But you make some good points/observations. Currently architects have been pushed nearly to the bottom of the food chain when it comes to construction projects. We’re ranked somewhere below the guy who carries shingles up the ladder but above the guy who installs the silt fence. Our worth is almost nothing in the eyes of the client and even less in the eyes of the GC who thinks he can do a better job than us….he may be right. The next generation has an uphill battle for sure, and it won’t end soon. But we are necessary to the industry and will make our value known one way or another.

3. Randy Deutsch - December 27, 2010

Thanks for your comments Anne and Jeremiah. Perhaps serotonin’s in short supply on a vegan diet! The post gets more uplifting, ending on a 14 line high note (sonnet?) That is, if anyone makes it all the way to the end! Thanks for visiting.

Jo - October 21, 2011

I like the post, its great! It is realistic and I like the author’s sense of humour and I wish more people had such a distance to themselves and to what they are doing. Thanks Randy.

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5. Tiziano - December 29, 2010

Wow, Great post Randy! And yes I actually read it completely.

6. Randy Deutsch - December 29, 2010

Thanks Tiziano for visiting and for reading the post all the way through to the end! I am getting some flack for the post being unnecessarily depressing, but it is all based on real people, real architects, that I know, have worked with or have read about. I hope you have a remarkable 2011.

7. Alan Mays, AIA - December 29, 2010

Anne, while I admire your drive to work in the field of architecture, I also find your early start in the business the sad part of architecture. You worked for free. That has gotten architects today to where they are in business. It is a sad statement for a profession that requires the effort and training that they take advantage of the beginning professionals. Even back then, it was a violation of labor laws and common decency. Today, I am finding an upsurge of this in a different way, but again differently. As firms in all businesses laid people off, they demanded that others pick up the pieces and do more for less. It is not uncommon for people to be working 60+ hours a week since the let go of others. I know of someone who was reprimanded in writing for going home to take care of his 2 kids as his wife had to be at the hospital since her mother was in ICU and was not expected to live 24 more hours. She lived, thank god, but it shows the distastefulness of what can happen. He was reprimanded for not putting enough time “for the project”. What has happened to the 40 hour work week? Welcome to the new norm…

The other point that you bring up is that owners point of view. While I find the comment on overpaid unjustifiable, I also see how they get this frame of mind. Architects today are expected to bring knowledgeable staff to the process, but instead, sadly, many architects do not hire them. They get people to work for free with little to no common experience. Anne, I would not have thrown them out. That is one of the very reasons why they feel that architects do not bring any value to the project. We ignore their opinions. I would engage them and discuss with them why they had that opinion.

Randy, this is a good post and a thougtful one, but I also agree with Anne, it does start out being a depressing one. I do understand it either way.

8. Richard Becker AIA - January 29, 2011

Yeah, that pretty much nails it Randy.

Randy Deutsch - January 30, 2011

Thanks Richard. Given our circumstances, I wish I was entirely wrong about the way things are.

I hope you and your firm have a fulfilling and prosperous 2011. Thanks for stopping by.

9. Andra Miliacca, AIA - January 31, 2011

Thanks Randy – U R tellin’ it like it is!

randydeutsch - January 31, 2011

Thanks Andra. I’m a Michigander myself (Southfield) so we must be speaking the same language!

10. Just Curious - February 15, 2011


Whats your source for the statement that Women Architects make as much as Male Architects?

Also, why am I the only African-American dude in my firm’s 500+ Architecture Department?

11. Karen - April 24, 2011

You pretty much summed up my feelings for the past 27 years. I’ve been unemployed since April 2008; now back at school in another field. Today’s reality was never part of the equation when deciding on a future at 18 years old. I feel the way Anne does. It’s not easy for woman to survive in this field especially in the good ol South. I pray for a job when I graduate, but fear my age (like Anne) will be a severe detriment. I wish all of us a lot of luck in the future years.

Randy - April 24, 2011

Thanks Karen for your thoughtful comment. This post wasn’t well-received by most. many felt it was too negative – when my intention was really just to say it like I see it (and how I believe others are seeing it.) So it helps to know when these words nonetheless strike a chord. I wish you the best with your studies – hope your new direction brings you a great deal of fulfillment. It is never too late to reinvent ourselves. Randy

12. Octavio Orozco - September 29, 2011

Chin up eh! It seems like things are not going that well anywhere in this world, Especially if we are talking about jobs. This is my last year at university, just a few months to became an “architect”, But where i come from (Mexico), being an architect or any other profession has never been easy at all. I’ve always seen how hard is to get a job downhere. But we don’t need to complain about anything and of course we’ll need more than an optimistic view to get up. We need to be prepared for everything and make the good decision, choosing the right field where we think we are good enought to excel. May be it’s so easy for me to say that because i’m still a student. but let’s change our panorama together..

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