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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)

A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty September 25, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, architecture industry, books, career, change, employment, identity, management, optimism, questions, reading, software architects, the economy, transformation.
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9 comments

Today’s post will be brief: I have a presentation to edit and packing still to do. But I would be remiss in leaving town without first letting you in on a brand new book that I just read that I predict will take you and the architecture profession by storm. Before reading further, grab your wallet. You’ll need it by the time you get to the sixth line of this book review.

The book title: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice

The author: Eric J. Cesal

Why you never heard of him: He’s a recent architecture graduate with 5 years experience as an intern and has built little.

Why that shouldn’t matter: You will be hearing a lot more of and from Eric J. Cesal. 

The consensus: This may well be the best book by and for architects ever written. And (to my wife’s chagrin) I own and have read them all.

What the book will set you back: $14.93 ($21.95 + tax if you happen upon it in a bookstore, like I did. See “chagrin” above.)

Who should read this book: Out of work architects. Architects thinking of leaving the profession. Architects who have left the profession but want back in. Former architects who have left the profession for good but on deep, dark nights lie sleepless in bed wondering if they made a wise choice. Neighbors of out of work architects who wonder why they wear a tie when taking the dog out for a walk. Anyone who has ever had to wear a tie. Katherine Darnstadt would like this book. Parents who find their recent grads living once again under their roof. Or in their tent. Employers. Architect’s spouses, friends, relatives and roommates. Architects who think they might have a story to tell but question whether anyone will care to listen. Architects who are considering doing a tour of duty helping the world in some selfless way while they wait out the Great Wake. Architects who think they may be the next to be let go. Architects who sometimes wish they were the  next to be let go. Architects who read architecture blog posts in hopes of finding someone who deeply, passionately understands their situation. Architects.

Why you should get it: This book  speaks to you where you hurt. Cesal is wise beyond his 31 years (33 today) and whip smart. He knows what matters and he (and no doubts his talented editors) cut to the chase.

Why you should get it now: The sooner you read it, the sooner we’ll all be out of this mess; the sooner you’ll decide to stick it out in architecture; the sooner you’ll find a place for yourself in this new world.

Author’s espoused purpose in writing the book: “We want to find ways for the architecture profession to prosper as our world economy transitions.” p. 42

Why you should read it: Cesal wrote the book during a period of unemployment. Nearly every architect – employed, underemployed and unemployed – can relate.

Why else you should read it: Cesal names the Great Recession the Great Wake.

What will linger long after you’re done reading the book and give it to your colleague to read: The author’s voice.

What this book could also be used for: Like a commonplace book that soldiers used to carry around with them for reassurance and companionship on the front lines, you can keep this book nearby on your own detour of duty.

Why I love the book: Interjected throughout the book are short personal essays describing the author growing up, personal incidents and events that helped shape the architect/ author/ artist/ humanitarian he has become today. I love how the book captures timely subjects (the co-opting of our title by others) and timeless ones. I am most impressed by the way the author maintains a line of thought, without jumping around from subject to subject: a real feat and welcome revelation in contemporary writing. Like the late, great architect and author Peter Collins, Cesal asks hard questions and isn’t afraid to linger in them until he offers a solution.

Why this book may not be appropriate for all audiences: There’s an excruciatingly painful scene involving a tooth being pulled. Alcohol plays a part in a number of chapters.

The author’s eye for detail: How Cesal knew the recession had reached his city: “The coffee shop I usually passed by seemed to have too many people in it.”

Why I think Eric J. Cesal is architecture’s answer to Dave Eggers: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius if it were written for architects.

Favorite passage from the book: The author’s attempt to find work at a temp agency. (p.117) Priceless.

The author’s education: Three master’s degrees in four years: business administration, construction management and architecture from Washington University in St Louis.

What book you might compare Down Detour Road with: During the deep recession of the 1970’s we had Harris Stone’s incomparably endearing and well-illustrated Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect (available here for a penny.) But let there be no doubt: Down Detour Road is our age’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. This book is our The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Someone famous the author hangs with but doesn’t once mention in the book (very classy): Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and ‘chief eternal optimist’ (CEO) for Architecture for Humanity.

Representative quote from the book: “For all the things I had intended my life to be, for all of the  things I thought I would be doing at 31, I was sitting in the dirt, on the side of an empty, unlit road, jobless, homeless, cold and hungry, lusting after a street sign.”

The author’s solution: Cesal recommends that we have to come to some hard truths about the limits of what we do “and then leap beyond those boundaries.” He goes on to describe 10 types of architects.

What are the ten architect types he writes about? The financial architect; The value architect; The risk architect; The paid architect; The idea architect; The knowing architect; The named architect; The citizen architect; The green architect; The sober architect. He refreshingly doesn’t over-use capital letters and dedicates a chapter to each architect type.

What it says on the dust jacket: As the world redesigns and rebuilds in the face of economic and ecological crises, unprecedented numbers of architects are out of work. What does this say about the value of architecture? That is the question that confronted architect Eric Cesal as he finished graduate school at the onset of the worst financial meltdown in a generation. Down Detour Road is his journey: one that begins off-course, and ends in a hopeful new vision of architecture.

Like many architects of his generation, Cesal confronts a cold reality. Architects may assure each other of their own importance, but society has come to view architecture as a luxury it can do without. For Cesal, this recognition becomes an occasion to rethink architecture and its value from the very core. He argues that the times demand a new architecture, an empowered architecture that is useful and relevant. New architectural values emerge as our cultural values shift: from high risks to safe bets, from strong portfolios to strong communities, and from clean lines to clean energy.

This is not a book about how to run a firm or a profession; it doesn’t predict the future of architectural form or aesthetics. It is a personal story—and in many ways a generational one: a story that follows its author on a winding detour across the country, around the profession, and into a new architectural reality.

Where you can find the author today: Port-au-Prince, managing and coordinating Architecture for Humanity’s design and reconstruction initiatives in Haiti until 2012.

No, really, where can you find him: You can find him here. But seriously, he lives in Haiti with a family of two dogs, 11 chickens, 5 cats and a goat named Newfie. Read more about it in the Huffington Post here.

What’s next up for the author: As Cesal explains on his webpage, “Two projects are currently in slow, agonizing, one-sentence/week progress: NCARB & I, a chronicle of architectural licensing, and Lets Just Finish These Beers and Go, a semi-autobiographical romp about how to become an architect while making every self-defeating effort you can.”

What does the word “detour”mean in the book’s title: de·tour, n.

1. A roundabout way or course, especially a road used temporarily instead of a main route.

2. A deviation from a direct course of action.

Likelihood that the book will be made into a movie: Very good odds. I’m not a betting man but I’d bet on it.

Final thoughts: Someone get this guy a MacArthur Genius Grant. And a second one to The MIT Press for having the foresight and gumption for publishing this staggering piece of exceptional writing from an otherwise little known entity. Cesal may very well be doing wonderful, necessary work in Haiti but we very much need him here back home with us.

The quickest way to get the book in your possession: Steal it from an architect in the coffee shop. Or click here

What to do while you wait for your copy of the book to arrive: Tell everyone you know to read Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice.

A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty by Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP 2010