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Making a Case for the Value of Architecture October 14, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in books, career, change, employment, optimism, possibility, pragmatism, survival, the economy, transition.
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I’d like to share with you a personal letter from the author of Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice, featured here in a previous post. Eric Cesal’s words are eloquent, earnest and heartfelt. And his approach to architecture and life inspires and for me represents hope and salvation so many architects today are in search of. Thank you Eric. Eric writes:

Thank you so much for your very kind and generous review.  It is a great thrill to know that my small book is resonating with at least a few people.  It began as a series of disjointed thoughts on architecture, and through the support and prodding of many, evolved into what it is.

I’m still in Port au Prince, if you’re curious.  We have an office of about 15 people and are working hard at school reconstruction, among other things.  I’ve been here 8 months now, with only a few days off sputtered here and there.  Its been a surreal thing to watch the book come out and gain traction while I’m here entrenched in Haiti’s recovery.  The book and its course seem very distant to me now.  I haven’t written much about my experiences here, owing to an inability to get appropriate space from the situation.  I don’t know how you write without reflection, and I don’t know how you reflect at the heart of a disaster.  We’re all here with our whole heart and its tough to imagine stepping away enough to write anything meaningful.

I did want to elaborate on something you mentioned in your review, specifically on your suggestion that my work in Haiti is somehow a detour from a normal course of practice.   I’m referring specifically to the line “Architects who are considering doing a tour of duty helping the world in some selfless way while they wait out the Great Wake.”  I’m not sure if you were exactly implying that that’s what I am doing, but truthfully I’m not really waiting out anything anymore, because I’m exactly where I need to be.

The title as metaphor, was really meant to suggest that unemployment was a detour – from the normal expected life of architects.  That may seem strange, in that many architects have come to expect long bouts of unemployment as a necessary fact of life.  But I was also, at some level, trying to argue that we shouldn’t expect such things.  That we should treat unemployment, wage suppression, and general professional dissatisfaction as aberrations in what should be the life of an architect.  If we really believe in what we’re doing, we should believe in its value and treat it as such. 

I view my move to Haiti, and the work that I’m doing here, as the high expression of the ideals espoused in the book.  I believe that I am here making a case for the value of architecture and its relevance on the planet as it exists today.  I don’t believe that someone would need to move to Haiti to do so, but I had a certain flexibility in my life that the book’s publishing made possible, so I moved forward with the decision.  Similarly, my work on the Katrina reconstruction was not a detour or a distraction, but an attempt to find for myself where architecture’s value lies.  In no small way, I believe that the work that Architecture for Humanity is doing in Haiti (and everywhere else, for that matter), makes the case for the small practitioner doing residential work in rural middle America.  It identifies architects as responsible citizens, adept problem solvers, and true professionals.

In that sense, I’m not waiting out anything.  I have already moved past the Great Wake at a personal level.  I have a job, a mission and a family of truly wonderful architects that I work with.

My editor and I went back and forth many times about the sub-title.  “In Search of Work” “In Search of Meaning” “In Search of a Job” were all considered.  Ultimately, “Practice” won out because that was really what I was searching for and that is ultimately what I found in the end.  At the story’s close, I hadn’t found a job, the earthquake hadn’t happened, and I was still, in some literal way, sitting around.  But I had found something: a way to practice.  A way to understand what architecture was and how to do it.  Not in some external, universal way, but in a way that worked for me, a way that allowed me to sleep at night and not feel like I had wasted the last ten years of my life. 

Barring some unforeseen event (and to be honest, Haiti can give you plenty of those) I don’t plan on coming back to the U.S. anytime soon, or practicing anything within the conventional world of architecture.  Even if the architecture job market were to recover tomorrow, I don’t think that I would feel any draw to come back.  My architecture is here, among the survivors.  Hope that makes sense.

Thanks again,

Eric

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