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Left the Architecture Profession” is an honest and seemingly spontaneous attempt at staking out a position against an “outdated” profession.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 Telling architects they are “outdated” or that they don’t listen seems like a calculated attempt to get the attention of architects and to get them to somehow prove themselves, to make them mad in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.
On October 23rd, the Walt Disney concert hall, 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.
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.
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.
A few days ago I took part in an AIA-organized Twitter discussion (#aiachat) focused on the subject of IDP, 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.
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 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:
Architectural writing 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.”
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.
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?”
A few weeks ago there was a flurry of debate about one of Zaha Hadid’s designs being copied, or at least copied in terms of its outer form. Very soon after this I discovered an interesting article in the most recent issue of MIT’s Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.The article, “Hybrid Reassemblage: An Exploration of Craft, Digital Fabrication and Artifact Uniqueness” by Amit Zoran and Leah Buechley, raises some interesting points about the nature of originality, the subjective experience of making original things, and the potential for digital technology to impute this subjectivity to new and repeatable objects. In essence, the authors are discussing the position of craft, the hand-made, the personal, subjective act of making something that is singular and based on a personal process, the negotiation of decisions and risks with tools, materials, and design intentions.
In 1992, the artist, Christo, with his now late-wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, had a vision to suspend miles of silvery translucent fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. Would you expect anything less?
Christo usually works at such massive geographic scales—land interventions that can be discerned by satellites passing overhead. Here his ambition stretches for 42 miles (67.6 km) of scenic river with no less than a total of 5.9 miles (9.5 km) of fabric suspended over the eight different sections of the river.
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!
G: What drew you out here?
M: A bunch of things. One: the desire to be warm in the winter. Two: the desire to live in the strangest city in the western world. Three: to be around an odd artistic and professional environment founded on creativity regardless of the dreck that comes out of here, it’s still creative. Whereas if you go to a party in New York, you meet people who do jobs I don’t understand. They’re in arbitrage, or corporate accounting, or they are hedge fund managers. They don’t make anything. They just sort of figure out how to generate money off of other people’s efforts. You come here and you meet very successful people who make things. There is this sort of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude that exists here that you don’t find in other places. I also think that one of the defining characteristics of LA is the overwhelming rate of failure.
You know, hedge fund guys…they don’t fail. Wall Street guys? They are born, they grow up in Connecticut or grow up in Bedford and they come from privilege and they’re entitled, and they go to Penn and then Harvard Business School and then they go to work on Wall Street and then it’s all success from day one.
Back from the grave, the first post from The Indicator series by Guy Horton, published in 2010 at AD.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
- The Specials, “Ghost Town”
When I look back at the events leading up to being laid off, I think of zombies. Of course zombies aren’t real so what I’m really thinking of are movies about zombies. I haven’t seen them all—there are hundreds—so the zombies I’m most familiar with are the pop-locking ones from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or the funny ones from “Shaun of the Dead”. I never thought that that part of my subconscious that identifies with zombies would get triggered. But, then again, I never thought I would get laid off. There is a first for everything.
So, how does one identify zombies? As I learned from “Shaun of the Dead”, by the time you know, it’s too late. Remarkable as it seems, the people you least expect to become zombies are suddenly shuffling along shedding limbs and trying to eat you. They are, as it turns out, usually your close friends and colleagues.
When the economy began to falter back in 2007, architecture was one of those fields that began to experience a steady increase in zombie population. There were many rumors about which firms they worked for, whose softball teams they were playing on, whether they were more likely to be associates or principals. What about that Arch II with the mysterious limp and the foreign accent? Then there was the designer who always looked like he had had too many late nights out. Maybe those strange interns.
I am constantly amazed by the extremes architects go to to realize their “vision” or to impress or even merely serve a client. Clients demand so much and architects seem to willingly bend to insane schedules that tax their people to the maximum. In the age of extreme everything, architecture is extreme working.
Of course sometimes good things can emerge from the pressures of compressing schedules. There are synergistic flows that can magically occur when people are working under the pressure of an impending deadline. Granted, sometimes pressure is a good thing that allows creativity to emerge.
Sustainability and Form have dominated architectural discourse, trapping the discipline between utopian play-acting—promising what it cannot deliver—and computerized “gaming” of design extremism.”
– Mark Jarzombek, “ECO-Pop” in Cornell Journal of Architecture 8:RE, January 2011.
In what he calls ECO-POP, Mark Jarzombek, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT (i.e. someone with credentials), draws attention to how sustainability is deployed as an ideology and visual trope more than as a repertoire of achievable, well-thought-out strategies. This is my unabashedly biased interpretation of his manifesto-like article—in fact, let’s just call it a manifesto.
Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.
-Susan Sontag, On Photography
Julius Shulman was best known for photography that envisioned architecture as art. His images distilled architecture as paeans to its central function in society. As such, Mr. Shulman created a photographic trope that either ignored people altogether or portrayed them as props that highlighted architecture’s mastery. It is thus fitting that the winner of last year’s inaugural Julius Shulman Photography Award went to a photographer whose focus some might arguably say is people.
Sustainability can be associated with wildly expensive technological advances. Which not coincidentally can immediately turn off clients.
So how do we define it? What does it mean, from a resource-conservation standpoint, as well as from a business one? For one viewpoint, we turn to Mark English, AIA. He has promoted sustainability efforts on several different levels for years. That means that not only does he incorporate sustainable strategies in his designs, he also helps other firms implement them in their work. He has been involved in programs including the California Solar Initiative, Green-point Rating, and he is also a Director on San Francisco’s AIA Board. He also edits two online publications including “Green Compliance Plus” where articles explore such topics as Passive Houses and the debate on Green Certification, and which also assists other professionals in meeting energy-efficient goals. Another publication, “The Architect’s Take,” presents news from an architectural standpoint. In fact one of those articles provided the basis for some of this author’s work.