After the Meltdown: Where does Architecture go from here?

© Megan Jett

You can get into Architecture for one of two reasons: good architecture or bad.

For Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, it was the latter. As a kid, Sinclair would wander his rough-and-tumble South London neighborhood, contemplating how it could be improved (and creating elaborate Lego models to that effect). Instead of soaring skyscrapers or grand museums, he was inspired by buildings that “integrated your neighborhood in a way that made people feel like life was worth living.”

But that’s not Architecture. Or so he was told when he went to University.

Architecture Schools have created curriculums based on a profession that, by and large, doesn’t exist. They espouse the principles of architectural design, the history and the theory, and prepare its hopeful alumni to create the next Seagram Building or Guggenheim.

Unfortunately, however, has made perfectly clear that there isn’t much need for Guggenheims – certainly not as many as there are architects. As Scott Timberg described in his Salon piece, “The Architectural Meltdown,” thousands of thousands are leaving the academy only to enter a professional “minefield.”

So what needs to change? Our conception of what Architecture is. We need to accept that Architecture isn’t just designing – but building, creating, doing. We need to train architects who are the agents of their own creative process, who can make their visions come to life, not 50 years down the road, but now. Today.

We’ve been trained to think, to envision and design. The only thing left then, is to do.

More on the public-interest model and the future of Architecture, after the break…

2010 Yale Building Project. Copyright © 2010 Yale School of Architecture

The Powder-keg in the Academy

In 1967, Yale University’s Department of Architecture founded an initiative that allowed students to design and build for real-live clients in economically depressed New Haven, forcing them out of the studio, hammers in hand, and into the community.

The effect of the First-year Building Project on Yale students was one of empowerment. As Robert A. M. Stern, the current dean, has noted, the program reintroduced “the reality of architectural experience into the ideality of the Academy,” and made students realize “They didn’t have to be old and hoary to build; they could make things now.”

But, after the revolutionary spirit of the ‘60s passed, the spark somewhat subsided. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it was ready to catch fire. And spread.

A Library designed by a student of the University of Talca. Photo © Vanessa Quirk.

1993. Samuel Mockbee and Dennis K. Ruth establish the Rural Studio at Auburn University, where students gain practical experience by building in impoverished rural Alabama. The University of Utah soon follows suit with its Design+Build Studio. 1999. The University of Talca, located in an under-developed corner of Chile, creates an entire curriculum based on the design-build approach, where students must design, finance, and build if they are to graduate.

The Design Corps (1991) and Architecture for Humanity (1999), which both harness the brain/muscle power of Architects to improve the built environment in struggling communities, spring up and gain recognition.

2005. A group of experts meet at the Harvard School of Design to discuss the “global movement” of community-based design, resulting in the creation of the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) Network of design professionals and local citizens “engaged in a public-health version of architectural practice.”

And then, an extraordinary thing happens. 2007, the Great Recession hits the U.S.

Architecture for the 99%

Unemployment and underemployment have soared across the country, architecture firms have shrunk, and jobs are ever more scarce, but Architecture continues to rely on its post-war model, what Guy Horton describes in “The Architecture Meltdown” as: “idealism, dues paying, hierarchy, optimism and a heroic self-image [that ignores] financial realities.”

Young graduates and professionals continue to be particularly pommeled by the economy, becoming a “lost generation.” As The New York Times recently put it: “Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture.

However, slowly, surely, architects are putting cracks in the model that has let down so many of their peers.

School in Haiti designed by Architects Gerry Reilly / Darren Gill / Burtland Granvil. 2010.

As Thomas Fisher, of the University of Minnesota, has pointed out in his “Architecture for the Other 99%,” public-interest design firms have an edge that traditional firms don’t: they provide for the “needs of the billions of people on the planet living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.” That’s billions of untapped clients.

For example, the Non-Profit Firm MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group, founded in 2008 by Michael Murphy and five classmates of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, sees its clients as traditionally ”underserved communities.” Their first major project, the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, completed in 2011, garnered such press that they are now receiving paying commissions.

Spot-lighting MASS and the rise of public-interest design in their March Issue, The Architectural Record, while certainly recognizing the movement, betrayed a healthy dose of skepticism for this new model. Titles read: “Can public-interest design become a viable alternative to traditional practice?” and “Does ‘Doing Good’ Pay the Bills?

One could (cheekily) respond: Does ‘Doing Architecture’ pay the bills?

Unemployment rates sorted by major, based on the American Community Survey, 2009-10, show unemployment for recent graduates was highest in architecture, at 13.9%. © Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

But, cheekiness aside, if public-interest design is to offer an alternative model, The Record should indeed be exploring its viability, which critically depends on a healthy knowledge of business development as well as a global outlook.

Murphy, of MASS, “spends half his time on business development, not design,” and must constantly seek funding; however, he employs 21 people full-time with outposts in Rwanda, Haiti, Boston, and Los Angeles. Sinclair, of Architecture for Humanity, has seen his small operation grow into a  a million-dollar business: a network of over 50,000 architects working with thousands of clients in 25 countries across the globe. And he’s hiring.

With the market as grim as it its, schools should be preparing students to take advantage of these emerging markets. As Jenn Kennedy, author of Success by Design, has noted, the Recession “is an invitation for architecture schools to consider how to better prepare their students with business tools and real world experience.”

Design-build curriculums (which encourage real world experience) are perfectly suited to this end, giving students the professional skills of client relations, strategic thinking, and business development they’ll need to survive in today’s economy.

I Love Architecture

There’s a reason why non-architects are so much more enamored with the profession of architecture than many architects are. For the layman, the architect is half idealist-half realist, an intellectual that pulls his creations from the ether down to the ground with steel, glass, and wood. He thinks, yes, but more importantly, he creates. 

Now, to reality. Most architects, in the process of becoming architects, have become disillusioned and cranky. If they have a job (nowhere near a given in this economy), they’re worker drones, and they’re tired: of being over-used and under-paid, of being un-acknowledged for their efforts and beaten up for their mistakes. To be frank, they’re working like dogs, but not creating much at all.

But let’s go back to 1967 for a minute. To those empowered Yale Students who realized that Architecture wasn’t an abstract project that would happen to them fifty years down the line, but a physical possibility for the here and now. Who were entering a profession where their technical expertise could, if they so chose, provide a service to hundreds of communities, hundreds of potential clients, and build a life’s work to be proud of.

If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that the current model need not, and cannot, go on. Community-based/Public-interest design (in firms and curriculums) offers not just a means of bettering life in needy communities, but a new model to follow, one that cultivates physical relationships with the projects we envision and the clients we serve, and gives us the opportunity to create what we have been trained to design.

In the spirit of Architecture week and the on-going “I Love Architecture” Campaign, it’s time to remember what makes Architecture great, and fall in love with it again. We must bring building back on par with designing, and recognize our profession’s tremendous power: to make life more worth living.



Fisher, Thomas. “Architecture for the 99%” MetropolisMag.Com. February 8, 2012. <>.

Hayes, Richard W. “Activism in Appalachia: Yale architecture students in Kentucky, 1966-69.” Agency: Working With Uncertain Architectures. Eds. Florian Kossak and Tatjana Schneider. 29-30. Accessed via Google Books.

Hill, David. “The New Frontier in Education.” Architectural Record. March 1, 2012. <>

Hughes, C.J. “Does ‘Doing Good’ Pay the Bills?” Architectural Record. March 2012. <>.

McGuigan, Cathleen. “Can public-interest design become a viable alternative to traditional practice?” Architectural Record. March 2012. <>.

Timberg, Scott. “The Architecture Meltdown.” February 4, 2012. <>.


Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "After the Meltdown: Where does Architecture go from here?" 17 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Sep 2014. <>


  1. Thumb up Thumb down -5

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      Your comment is a typical logical fallacy called “Ad Hominem” – trying to discredit the message by discrediting the author. Can you support your claim (‘throwing mud at architectural celebrities’) with examples from the text ABOVE?

    • Thumb up Thumb down +15

      Everyone is entitled to an opinion and you are right, I’m more vocal than most but rarely comment on a particular designer or architect. The industry needs counter-points.

      Your criticism gets clouded be the fact that I’ve never been a “theoretician” (is that a real word?) or been the designer on any of the 2,600 buildings we’ve built. So in a way, you are discrediting the work of hundreds of architects. I’ve been designing and collaborating anonymously and only for close friends.

      As for public attention, I think the TED prize or implementation of our projects accounted for most of the focus not one or two comments recounted by a blogger. I think Micheal Murphy’s piece on high profile architects working for dictators/despotic leaders was more damaging.

      If you look at our ‘i love architecture’ campaign you’ll see almost everyone of these architects have contributed to our June auction (funds going to hire young emerging professionals).

      If you want to continue the dialogue, just email me. cameron(at) or stop by our office and talk.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    This type of conversation is critical to longevity of architecture. How can a profession educate it’s students on how to do everything but the profession itself and expect to exist?

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    While I agree with most of the points here, it’s really all a bit self-righteous and do-goody for do-goody’s sake. architecture isn’t going anywhere if it’s still constantly relying on institutional and governmental handouts for non-profit-like work (replace subservience to the client with subservience to any number of boards, directors, reps, etc.)
    ‘architecture’ as a profession is only going to crawl out of it’s current hole if more architects become PROFIT-driven (novel idea, I know) and figure out how they can “DO” and make a buck while “DOING”. Money makes the world-go-round, and architects will forever be on the sidelines until they realize that. Forget design/build. We need develop/design, or simply architects who become informed developers or move into positions where they can actually affect things on a larger scale. Work for a REIT? How about an oil company with massive land holdings?
    I know “schools” in “africa” is just the type of cushy story that can get some press on ArchDaily or in the NYT Sunday Magazine, but in the overall scope of things doing work at that scale for architects with massive amounts of education is a waste of time. Bill Gates could hand some local african contractor some cash to do it in half the time with half the budget, and all the children would be just as well off and the money would stay in the community rather than go to paying for the architect’s cool new 3D software and latte.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      While architects are expanding their role in international development, Public Interest Design s also focused on communities here in the United States.

      I encourage you to look at what Emily Pilloton has created with Project H. She has brought design into the hands of students in a town that is struggling with many issues. By collaborating with the public school system, they are designing and building projects that directly improve the urban fabric.

      As far as the “handouts”, the grants are supplied by foundations that care about improving society as a whole. People donate to these foundations because they believe in their mission.

      As for government funding, what better use of tax-payers money than putting it right back into the community throught built projects?

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    I think we’ve all heard this message at some point. It’s a great message, and certainly something to think about.

    However, as a young designer, I want to know how MASS and other design groups getting into these emerging markets, are building a business back home with this mission. Who is paying for this? Who are the players in acquiring financing for projects like this? What is the client-architect relationship in these types of situations? Are the architecture firms relying solely on grants or donors to accomplish these projects? Are they simply pitching their ideas to individuals with enough resources and money to build these buildings in rural areas?

    I think this mission is great, but I want to know more about how this all takes place. That’s where the focus of discussion should be.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      Michael, great point. It’s not the “should I?” it is the “How Can I?” that is the crux of the issue.

      Our co-founder Kate Stohr wrote a great financing piece in Design Like You Give A Damn [2] that shows how architects can access capital and seed fund programs and projects.


      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        Thanks Cameron. I’m a big fan of Architecture for Humanity and your work.

        I’m wondering if you would could weigh in with your opinion on the future of business development in practice. Do you think accessing capital through alternative means (grants, seed funds, etc.) will become the primary base in how the 21st century firm will build its profit model? And since AFH’s mission and rhetoric has had a lasting impression on a lot of young architects, do you see AFH (or other organizations) playing more of a role in providing business guidance for young architects to build firms that target these emerging markets?

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Great article. Thanks.

    Inherent in the idea that Public Interest Design is a profession is that there is a public value that the public will pay for. Many of us are in fact being paid but in non-traditional ways. I have been paid fees from the US Department of Agriculture, for example, for designing and building migrant housing. We need to share these examples. But even more, we need to continue to make the public value of design clear to the public.
    I would encourage all to help create this collective knowledge through the SEED Network, mentioned in the article, a grass roots group working on these very issues. Joining is free.
    Also note, MASS has presented several times at the new training venue, the Public Interest Design Institute on this subject. Next one is in Seattle in June, and Michael Murphy will present there.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    The Harvard School of Design did not create the SEED Network. The School of Design proved a forum for like mined individuals to talk about community based design and the SEED Network evolved from these discussion, please correct your article to give proper credit. If you need contact info for some of the SEED Network founders please let me know.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I think this article — as often seems the case on ArchDaily — assumes that so-called ‘starchitecture’ is much more disinterested in issues of community making, environmental performance etc… than is really the case.

    From my experience, the reality is that many of these offices address very fundamental issues of architecture and society, but prefer not to highlight them in the way they talk about their work.

    I was reading a project description by Peter Eisenman for House X today that described it entirely in terms of passive heating and cooling.

    This in a Leo Castelli catalog from the 1980′s.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Great article, I am recent Arch Grad with experience and it has still been difficult to enter this field.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    This is not for everyone, sure. I take the point that things have changed and rethinking our position as Architect – Master Builder is very relevant.
    I have built some of my projects and they did turn out better than the owner could have paid for through a conventional relationship with a contractor. These have become my best designs because they were built right. And the community has noted the difference and benefited from it.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Vanessa, thank you for the article. With an undergraduate degree in architecture, I am see myself as an emerging professional who is looking to start a career in Public Interest design. I would rather collaborate in the Public-Interest organizations than the traditional firm, because I know that it will affect people that normally do not have access to quality design.

    With few opportunities in the traditional path of the profession, current graduates are looking for new ways to apply their architectural education. In a world that is brimming with problems (social and economic), we can use our skills to facilitate a solution. I say facilitate because if there is one thing that I have learned from my Peace Corps experience, the “client” is the community and if they are not 100% behind the project, it will ultimately fail.

    I look forward to the evolution of academia and the profession toward public interest. When I search through M_ARCH programs, I am thrilled to find design build programs like Basic Initiative, Yale Building Project, Howard S. Wright Neighborhood Design/Build Studio (Univ. of Washington), Design Build BLUFF (University of Utah) and many many more. I hope that a specialized degree in public interest design will develop, but maybe this is asking too much of our institutions.

    Some architecture firms do take interest in enriching the community with pro-bono projects. The 1% program from Public Architecture has created a collective avenue for firms to do so. This is a step forward in the right direction. But I think for most of us, 1% of our annual work does not satisfy our quota of Public Interest Design.

    Overall, I am pleased that these conversations are becoming more prevalent and am excited to see where it takes us. Keep up the good work!

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Vanessa, good article and enjoyable read. What current and future architects must understand is that not all architecture is “starcitecture” or “public-interest”. There is a lot of architecture in the middle, I would say most is in the middle. Schools, Industrial, Retail, Religious, Residentail, etc. the great majority of this middle is not striving to be “star” or “charitable” but efficient, innovative, and usable. Many of us make our living in this middle and most of us integrate our lives within this middle zone of architecture. its where we live, shop, worship, learn.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Excellent point Trent – although the principles of a business-oriented, design-build curriculum (which encourages practical skills for working within a community and for a client) would also be relevant to prepare architectural students to work on this “middle ground”.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I am a Brazilian student, currently studying in the United States. As I want to transfer to an Architecture School, I have come across many people telling me I should think twice before doing so, due to the country’s economic struggle. As I have a concept about Architecture that goes much beyond than designing skyscrapers for million-dollar clients, which is usually what people think of that career and what many prospective architects wish to achieve, I simply ignore such pessimism because Architecture, in my point of view, has a heavy duty with not only design itself but also with society, economy and politics. Needless to say that your article not only speaks for me and strengthens my ambitions in the field, but also demystifies the erroneous mainstream belief about how Architecture is defined.

    Thank you very much for sharing such a great post. I am sure this will clear things up for the laymen out there.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Public-interest design relies mostly on public funding. How are communities or governments come up with that money when they struggle with declining tax revenues – due to the economic situation?

  14. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Hi Vanessa.
    Thanks for the article. What a realistic exposure of today’s architects’ dilemma. I agree with your point of the necessity for the juxtaposition architects need to put themselves in. In the light of ever advancing technology and the change in global economy, the traditional paradigm of architecture idealism and practice certainly need to be challenged and viewed from more practical and in (social) entrepreneurial sense.
    All the best in the upcoming year.

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