A few weeks ago, appearing on the heels of a Salon article by Scott Timberg, entitled, “The Architecture Meltdown”, GOOD Magazine published “Why ‘The Death of Architecture’ May Not Be Such a Bad Thing”. Penned by public interest advocate and writer, John Cary, the article offered a provocative corrective for architecture in the Great Recession. In fact, it seemed written for the purpose of provocation rather than offering real solutions.
The article, which I will break down by borrowing the language of Buddhism, conveyed Four Noble Truths:  Architecture is suffering,  There is a way to end the suffering,  The way to end the suffering is to follow a new path, and  The path is the “emergent” field of public interest design. This is how architecture can rise above the “meltdown” and save itself and the world.
Sounds simple enough, right? Let’s do it!
When it first appeared there was something about Mr. Cary’s article that made me uncomfortable. It may in part be because it left me with the same feeling of emptiness I have whenever I finish one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. It was not a comforting or peaceful emptiness.
At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So rather than write a hasty rebuttal I decided to give it time, see if the anxiety dissipated. Now, a few weeks on, having witnessed yet more lay-offs, Pritzker prize winners unable to find work, and the Eurozone on the verge of collapse, the disturbance has only deepened.
Hating things that are for the public good, or for the “99%” as the Occupy movement has re-defined it, is akin to hating cute kittens, recycling, and babies. Public interest design as an ideal is definitely a good thing and one may only hope that this emerging field will continue to emerge. So, this was not the problem. What was it then?
Mr. Cary, educated in architecture, has, according to his website, “pioneered a career at the intersection of design and social change.” I’m not certain he is a “pioneer” since many have quietly engaged in architecture for the pubic good for decades. But he is an outspoken advocate for this direction and that in itself is good. The public interest sector needs it’s champions and muses. So this wasn’t the problem, either.
What was unsettling was how he defined the terms for past, present, and future and then framed public interest architecture, with, as he puts it, “its defiant rejection of architecture’s unsustainable ways”, as poised to re-define the profession. Might this, then, be the source of the panic attacks?
He takes us through the “problems” of architecture and then declares, “After a century and a half, architecture’s fate may be sealed (emphasis mine), but the emerging field of public interest design stands on the brink of becoming a self-sustaining profession and making a tangible impact on the world.”
He then undermines this claim by stating that public interest design, too, is infected by the same problems and vulnerabilities as architecture and that it has a long way to go. So, basically, public interest or non-profit architecture is good, but it’s still not mature enough to make that tangible impact he was talking about. Tell that to the organizations and practices that have already been having a tangible impact on the world.
At this point in the article I feel like I’ve been running in the desert chasing after a mirage when all along it’s the desert I’ve been looking for. Silly me for being seduced by that glittering, shape-shifting vision of paradise up ahead.
Like a magician at a medicine show, he’s bottling something that already exists and selling it as a snake oil remedy to cure the recession’s ills. This medicine could be labeled, “Optimism” or “Denial”. This is the same medicine we have been spoon-fed since the recession began.
Architects have been working in the public interest realm since there has been a profession we can call architecture—even longer perhaps. Many practices engage their local communities and participate in social change initiatives. While seeking private commissions from a “1%” client base, they can also work for society at large, designing schools, hospitals, and other vital public institutions that serve everybody. Many are also engaged in another sort of 1% called The 1%. These things are not new.
Mr. Cary portrays mainstream architects as solely working for profit interests with elitist clients, all divorced from any notion of social good—architecture as the big evil (like the banks!). This is a very narrow view of what architects actually do and how they work.
Architecture is not “divorcing itself from related fields”, as he claims, but is rather performing as the complex animal it is. The more I read his article, the more I began to think that he is simply writing about architecture as it continues to find its way in our complicated times. Architecture must make connections to many different fields as needed to achieve goals that go beyond the mere design of space. Architecture is inherently engaged with society. At the most basic level, it has to be because of the legal framework it takes shape in. It does not just happen in the bubble of the office, removed from social forces. It constantly gives and takes.
This goes to another point Mr. Cary implies: that public interest design is a promising way forward for the legions of unemployed architects and recent graduates who cannot find work in “traditional” offices—the so-called “lost generation” (which is actually multi-generational in make-up since no generation has been spared).
How can Mr. Cary suggest that these victims of the recession take their chances by jumping into the “emergent” non-profit realm? He himself notes that “they risk the same vulnerabilities.” Besides, I imagine many would take that leap if the opportunities were there. However, to suggest this as a viable solution for fellow members of the profession who have had their lives and careers torn apart by unemployment would be naïve if it were not callous. This is akin to mainstream media and institutions trumpeting “recovery” while the recession continues to wreak havoc in offices and households across the land.
In this current economic climate, Mr. Cary’s concluding exhortation, “So let’s get to work” comes off no better than the punitive refrain of “Get a job!” Or, as Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine put it, “Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”
Were Mr. Cary’s exhortations backed up by a version of the New Deal or an already thriving non-profit design sector, then it would be reasonable to suggest that this is a way forward. Oh, if only Van Jones’ “Green Economy” had really gained traction. Remember that?
As currently defined, public interest design is a way forward only for a lucky and well-positioned few. The hope that it becomes a “self-sustaining profession” in it’s own right, while good, does not take into account that it currently can only sustain those who are already self-sustaining. Leaping into the trenches of public interest architecture may be an option for those members of the profession who are already members of the 1% and do not need to be employed to be financially stable. But for the majority, the most pressing need is for a sustainable (in the economic sense) career. So, yes, there is a long way to go. And, yes, let’s get to work. But let’s get to work making real jobs for real people.
Society benefits when architecture as a profession is strong economically on all levels, from it’s interns up to it’s principals. To suggest that architecture-as-usual is merely greedy and must be changed to become humanitarian misses the real issue: How can the profession, in all its forms, sustain the lives of its members while contributing to the public good? The more financially-sustainable architecture as an economic sector can become the more social endeavors like public interest design will be able to evolve because people won’t have to take a vow of poverty to engage in it.
So let’s put the death of architecture concept in it’s grave. It demeans and distracts from the real issues. What is at stake is not any supposed “death” or even the emergence of something “new.” Architecture will go on in it’s many forms regardless. Only time will tell if non-profit ventures will emerge to attract a larger share of architecture’s creative and professional energy.