The Indicator: The Intern Issue, Revisited

One Workplace / Design Blitz. Image © Bruce Damonte

Last year, I wrote about doing away with the title “intern,” saying the word “should be banished from the profession.” The post, titled, No More Interns, caused quite a flurry of responses, some quite angry, in fact. Some respondents defended the title, saying a title is just a title; others launched attacks against it, saying it connotes someone unskilled or untrained.

For the record, I still think we should get rid of it — not simply because it is demeaning and diminishing to individuals who have gone through the rigorous educational stages of the profession, but because it makes the profession look antiquated. Think about where you find “intern” used today and what it generally implies: volunteer, unpaid/low-paid, student, temporary, trainee, to name a few. Imagine how clients from progressive business cultures view it. Also, from the standpoint of business, doesn’t it make sense that people would pay more for architecture not done by “”? I would pay more for “associates.”

The Indicator: Thank You, Patrik Schumacher

“Architects are in charge of the FORM of the built environment, not its content. We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations…” – . Above, the MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects. Image © Iwan Baan

First off, I would like to thank Patrik Schumacher for taking to Facebook on March 17 at 9:45pm to let off steam — thus starting a meaningful discussion on the role of the architect in society and culture. We could deconstruct it line by line, but I don’t think that will yield much in the way of enlightenment. What I take from it is that architecture creates form and should be free to do so without being restricted by ethical or moral imperatives to be social or political. But, as Benjamin Bratton remarked in reply to Schumacher, “To set the political to one side and at the same time make grandiose claims for how architectural form can in fact ‘remake civilization’, is a self-defeating program.”

Perceptions on the role of architecture in society can easily fall along class, race, and national lines. Coming from a place of privilege, it is easy to assume an apolitical, form-making agenda for the profession. The argument that architecture has nothing to do with the social domain, or the “content” as Schumacher calls it, is an argument for political conservatism, a hands-off, sink or swim argument for social Darwinism, that limits the range and impact of high architecture. Why can’t the best and most challenging forms of architecture penetrate through all social strata? Why shouldn’t it serve the poor? And why shouldn’t this be one criteria among others for judging the value of architecture?

The Indicator: Will We Stay Silent? The Human Cost of Qatar’s World Cup

Development of new skyscrapers in Doha, Qatar. Image © Sophie James / Shutterstock.com

Qatar says the World Cup projects are “on track,” but the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which has been investigating worker deaths in the Gulf Emirate for the last two years, vehemently disagrees. To date there have been 1200 worker deaths associated with the on-going World Cup projects. A scathing report, issued by the ITUC on March 16, claims that unless significant improvements are made to working conditions on World Cup-related sites at least 4000 more migrant construction workers could lose their lives. This would mean that those construction sites are “on track” to kill 600 workers per year, or at least 12 per week until the ribbons are cut and the fireworks are set off.

At a FIFA executive committee meeting held in Zurich on March 20, FIFA president Sepp Blatter stated, “We have some responsibility but we cannot interfere in the rights of workers.” Likewise, local FIFA organizing committee in Qatar says workers are not their responsibility. Zaha Hadid said the same.

However, given the increasing chorus of headlines along the lines of “The Qatar World Cup is a Total Disaster” they may have to say something stronger on the issue at some point — or have the image of their architecture tarnished. Of course we all know that what they mean is that legally it is not their responsibility. But does that mean they should be sitting back, not even attempting to influence change?

Get all the facts on the situation of the Qatar construction workers, after the break…

The Indicator: Could Architecture Offices Abolish Hierarchy?

Zappos is one of the biggest companies to function as a ‘holocracy’ (without a fixed staff hierarchy). Their Las Vegas headquarters utilizes communal furniture to increase team-based collaboration (according to Business Insider, ‘desks are linked but can be easily disconnected or moved, the walls are movable as well. So if a team needs to work a different way, or a new product team is formed, the space can be changed, and changed again until it works’). Image Courtesy of Zappos, via OfficeSnapshots.com

What can architecture learn from Zappos? Yes, we’ve all heard about vegan cafés, yoga rooms, playing commando games indoors, and wearing Crocs in the office, but – more importantly – Zappos is transforming office culture in a meaningful, far-reaching way: it’s put an end to staff hierarchy.

According to The Washington Post, Zappos is the largest company to have adopted the Holocracy principle, the brainchild of software entrepreneur-turned-management-guru Brian Roberston. Guru would be the right word because, at first glance, and maybe second or third glance, Holocracy does come off as somewhat of a cult, albeit a business management cult. It creeps me out just a little bit, but having pushed through their website, I feel a little better now, not in the least like I’ve been L. Ron Hubbarded.

In a Holocracy, authority and responsibility are distributed across an organization in a way that is more goal-centered. As they say, “Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others.” Still not making any sense? Old hierarchies that rely on “leaders” at the top, “followers” at the bottom, and “managers” in the middle are done away with completely. So, no more “bosses.” No more “staff.” No more “junior designer” or “senior designer.”

The Indicator: The Slum Exotic and the Persistence of Hong Kong’s Walled City

© Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Whenever I see sensational exposes on the supposedly sublime spatial intensity of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City (demolished in 1994), they strike me as nothing more than colonial fantasies that have little to do with the reality of living in the midst of one of the world’s cruelest slums. You see the Walled City pop up constantly like it’s still a valid or even interesting subject. This informal settlement has been diagramed, photographed, and written about for decades from an aesthetic point of view, rendering its victimized and oppressed inhabitants all but invisible. Not to say that this wasn’t home to a lot of people and that no “fond memories” were formed there, but still, like all slums, it was a tough place to live, fraught with contradictions in the haze of hope for a better life.

The Indicator: Solitude Lost

Photograph of the Division of Classification and Cataloging, 1937. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the National Archives and Records Administration

You see it all the time. You walk into a firm and there, in the often open hangar-like space, you see a sea of people at their computers with headphones on, attempting to maintain their own sense of space in the face of pervasive distractions and the constant white noise of the studio environment. While it can be inspiring to see and hear everything that is going on in a creative office, and while it is healthy to engage co-workers, there are times when people need to “tune out”. But the space of headphones can not equate the true space of being alone and quiet.

The Indicator: Why 2013 was Denise Scott Brown’s Year

Courtesy of Plataforma Arquitectura

A lot of things happened in 2013. Zaha was in the news about every other week. She was copied in China and then accused of designing a giant vagina in Qatar. Rem’s son is producing a documentary about his dad. We lost Prentice Women’s Hospital. We almost lost the American Folk Art Museum. There were a lot of stellar exhibitions and one that took things On the Road. It was the year of high-rise after high-rise, with Rem changing the game yet again by lifting the podium off the ground and sticking to his formal guns, refusing to indulge in curvy shapes.

Things at Architecture for Humanity were shaken up with the departure of co-founders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr. Resiliency became the new sustainability. China suddenly became defined less for its adventurous architecture and urbanism and more for its darker, smoggier flipside. My hometown, Los Angeles got a few more bike lanes, some big plans for its concrete river, plus a new Bloomberg-esque mayor with attendant tsar. There were people complaining about architecture and telling us why they left the profession. Kanye got attacked for daring to tell us why he likes architecture, and then architecture loved talking about Kanye for weeks on end until we just wanted architecture to shut up about Kanye. Poor Kanye. There are so many things we could say were key in 2013. It’s been a great year. And there were also a lot of fantastic buildings.

But in terms of issues, what really stands out from 2013 (right up there with “resilience”) is equality – and nothing represented this better than Denise Scott Brown v. Pritzker Prize. In arguing that she has a rightful and equal place alongside husband Robert Venturi, she (along with Harvard GSD’s Women in Design organization) woke a sleeping giant—but not for the first time.

The Indicator: On the Road Again

© Jaime Kowal

Architectural street gang and provocateurs, On the Road, named (I would like to think anyway) for Jack Kerouac’s novel of same name, and let’s just say that is the origin (since I happen to like that book), and the decentralized dérives of this crew remind me of Jack’s edit-as-you-go-or-do-not-edit-as-it-may-be writing style, if he even had a “style” (which is questionable), are at it again, or were just last month for their program, “West of LaBrea / 20131117 / 10-4pm” in which these rebellious, anti-establishment “architects” (some may not be licensed and therefore cannot actually go by the official title according to legal precedents in this here United States of America but you all know what I mean wink wink) once again find themselves out in the streets bombing the architectural establishment, which by the way is critical for the history of architecture, and by doing so have once again reminded us that architecture can be about play and a healthy dose of transgression, though no laws were broken during the making of #OtR3, as it is being called, that I can tell….

The Indicator: What the Julia Morgan AIA Gold Medal Says about Equality in Architecture

Interior of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA. Image © Mark Anthony Wilson

“Is the building really in charge of a woman architect?” I asked the foreman… The man read me a powerful sermon of just three short sentences, punctuated with the earnestness of a reform orator. “An architect’s an architect,” he said, “and you can count them all on the fingers of one hand. Now, this building is in charge of a real architect and her name happens to be , but it might as well be John Morgan.”

Journalist in 1906 upon learning of Julia Morgan winning a new commission. (Courtesy Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Robert E. Kennedy Library)

The recent announcement that Julia Morgan has posthumously received the 2014 Gold Medal, the ’s top honor, while positive and inspirational, raises some important questions concerning the recognition and advancement of women in the profession. She is the first woman, living or dead, to receive the honor in the award’s 106-year history. From 1907 to 2012, all recipients have been men.

The Indicator: A Rebuttal to “Why I Left the Architecture Profession”

Courtesy of shutterstock.com

Christine Outram’s rant “Why I Left the Architecture Profession” is an honest and seemingly spontaneous attempt at staking out a position against an “outdated” profession. It’s explosive in its assertion that “you,” meaning all you architects, are out of touch. “You” don’t listen to your clients. “You” are obsessed with form-making. “You” are a soulless machine, designing by code templates and cut and paste, with no regard for humanity. Her essay hits like a splatter bomb, throwing shrapnel in all directions. It’s a drone strike that has killed innocents. It’s clumsy and reckless.

It begs to be deconstructed. It demands a counterattack. And, judging from the lengthy comment thread, this is what it has reaped. Be that as it may, the issues are obvious. Telling architects they are “outdated” or that they don’t listen seems like a calculated attempt to get the attention of architects and to get them to somehow prove themselves, to make them mad in ways equal to her own anger.

Well, it’s got my attention. Here’s my rebuttal.

The Indicator: Ten Years Later, Has the Disney Concert Hall Made a Difference?

Courtesy of shutterstock.com

On October 23rd, the , the project that almost never was, will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Throughout these ten years it has had all manner of transformative power attributed to it. But has it really transformed LA? What would the city have been like if it had never been built? Would it be fundamentally different?

The answer? No.The city wouldn’t even be that different in the immediate vicinity of Grand Avenue.

The Indicator: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World

Visitors tour the U.S. Department of Energy 2011 in Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, with Arlington, VA, left, and the Lincoln Memorial, right, in the background. Image © Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy

I don’t mean to poo poo the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon project, but the more I hear about it the more I wonder if this isn’t an indication of just how far behind the United States is in terms of energy policy and the design of smart environments. Are we really that far behind that we need a program like this to prove this stuff really works? Are people still disbelieving? Do they really need demonstration homes to show how photovoltaics produce electricity or how sustainable principles can be applied to architecture? I suppose it makes sense in a country that still obsesses about the Case Study Houses and has debates about climate change.

The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is primarily to educate the public on high-performance building practices. Since 2002 when the DOE held the first one, it’s been putting “green” building in front of people who otherwise would not get to experience it—or, in reality, a self-selecting population of people who are probably already into such things.

The Indicator: Is Architecture Addicted to Adjuncts?

Studio at Virginia Tech. Image © Flickr CC User mroczknj

In the 1970s roughly 20 percent of all US college courses were taught by adjuncts. In recent years, especially since the global financial meltdown, the number of adjunct professors has exploded to the point where they might be considered a floating population of migrant laborers. According to a report from the National Education Association (NEA), currently more than half of all US college courses are taught by adjuncts, or what Sarah Kendzior calls “Academia’s Indentured Servants.”

The 2013 American Association of University Professors annual report paints an even bleaker picture, finding that 76 percent of the academic workforce is made up of adjunct, part-time faculty, teaching graduate students, and non-tenure track, full-time professors.

We have entered an era in higher education where many alarming forces are converging.

The Indicator: Toward a New NCARB

Despite never formally becoming a licensed architect, Le Corbusier would for ever alter the profession with his writings (including “Towards a New Architecture”) and designs. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, c. 1950. Image © Sureh Sharma

A few days ago I took part in an -organized Twitter discussion (#aiachat) focused on the subject of , or what we here in the US call the Intern Development Program, administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

I periodically get sucked into these Twitter discussions when I’m busy procrastinating and not writing what I’m supposed to be writing. Call it a weakness for provocative questions thrown out on Twitter by faceless moderators:

Q1: What advice do you have for interns getting started with IDP?

Q2: Many states allow concurrent completion of IDP and ARE4. What are the benefits of participating in both at the same time?

Q3: What resources have you used to help navigate IDP?

And so forth.

The discussion brought back painful memories of my own tortuous IDP experience. By the time we got to Q7 or Q8 I came to a conclusion: IDP needs to be radically overhauled and re-conceptualized.

The Indicator: Toward A Fourth Architecture

Helicon Building, an example of what Curtis B. Wayne calls “”. Image Courtesy of Paul Grundy, bdonline.co.uk

When New York City architect Curtis B. Wayne first started talking about “The Fourth Architecture,” it was clear he was not doing so to make friends. You do not write manifestos to make friends. You write them because of some perceived urgency, because the time is right.

As a long-standing practitioner, radio host, and graduate of Cooper Union and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he already has a lot of friends. What he’s interested in is saving architecture from the current orthodoxy of form-making over substance, or “sculpture you can live in.” “We are too wise for this,” writes Wayne.

In fact, I can go further. Judging from the little red book that has finally emerged from Wayne’s brain, appropriately titled, The Shape of Things that Work: The Fourth Architecture, I’m almost certain he set out to piss people off. But not without a purpose.

The Indicator: Why Good Architectural Writing Doesn’t Exist (And, Frankly, Needn’t)


New York Times and Wall Street Journal architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013). “The consistent theme is pleasure,” Ms. Huxtable wrote in 1978. “There is so much more to see, to experience, to understand, to enjoy.” A great writer on architecture, but, thankfully, not an architectural writer. Image © Gene Maggio, New York Times

The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”

Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman. Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:

should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.

This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

The Indicator: On Disappearance, Part 2

Factory Worker Dormitory, Dongguan, Guangdong Province, 2005. Photograph, Edward Burtynsky

As Mr. Betsky asserts, “Robots, connected computers, miniaturization, and etherization are taking the work out of both the social and the physical sphere.” But isn’t this just a fantasy because this has not yet happened on a large enough scale to produce a true paradigm shift? Or, if the shift has happened, then where is everybody rushing off to on the Monday morning commute? And what are all those buildings jammed in-between the roads for? Most of them seem to be for work as opposed to play.  

We may all float in and out of working networks as we move around, untethered to carpeted cubicles, telecommuting, flex-timing, logging in at all hours, but we are still and will primarily be working in places designed by architects—often without access to sunlight, fresh air, or nature of any sort.

The Indicator: On Disappearance, Part 1

Archigram’s Walking City via walkingthecityupolis.blogspot.com

I remember February 27, 2013 because that was the day Aaron Betsky asked a good question on his Beyond Buildings blog at Architect Magazine. Not that he doesn’t ask good questions on other days…because he does…but this particular day presented architecture with the provocative title, “Architecture Beyond Work: Will Architecture and Work Disappear?”