Architects and Our Right to Fail

Architects and Our Right to Fail

The architecture world is a very different place compared to what it was ten years ago - a fact that is all too obvious for today's young architects, who bore the brunt of the financial crisis. But how can recent graduates harness such rapid change to make a positive impact? This article written by ArchDaily en Español's Nicolás Valencia explores the impact of the financial crisis on architecture in the Global South and in particular in the Spanish-speaking world, finding that it may be the inalienable right of the architect "to give yourself room to fail or to quit."

For some years now, three figures have been floating around that are worrisome to Chilean architects and architectural students: every year 48 architectural schools enroll 3,500 students and give degrees to another 1,400 in a completely saturated market. The future appears bleak, the professional internships are depressing, and among those who already have degrees, we're all too familiar with the exploitative offices that not only offer their employees zero contracts (or health insurance of any kind, all the while praying that nobody gets injured) but also make them work much more than they agreed to with paltry salaries and labor unions that have seen better days. Meanwhile at the universities, talking about money in studios, or about flesh and blood clients, has become a taboo subject. “Students, don't let money tarnish the beauty of the discipline” they tell you. Of course, not only does it not get tarnished, but we've gotten to the point where many don't even know how much to charge for a plan drawing, let alone for an actual project.

In Spain, the so-called generación mileurista (the “thousandaire generation” because their salaries all hover at around one thousand Euros per month) of architects have reinvented themselves for better or for worse in the wake of the Great Recession that slowly and painfully devoured the Iberian Peninsula over the past 7 years. After so much strife the good news is that, much like what happened with the revolution of the 390 (and counting) journalism start-ups that were launched in Spain after the explosion of the economic crisis, hundreds of young architects have been responsible for the development of countless collectives, offices, and international disciplinary innovations, a breath of fresh air in a country buried by the recession - ironically, by property speculation.

Now, in times of economic crisis or not, in Spain or anywhere else, the question is unavoidable for architects: “You’ve got your degree, now what?” In the throes of indecision after getting his degree two years ago, the then recently graduated Spanish architect Pedro Hernandez boiled down the future of his fellow classmates into three options: get a grant, move to other places with real estate bubbles, or reinvent themselves.

15M Movement in Valencia, Spain. 2011. Image via Wikipedia

Thousands of miles away in the Southern Hemisphere the multifaceted Chilean architect Valentina Rozas confessed to me in an interview “Sometimes I take long shots too: There are things that interest me, I go for them, and they don’t work out. Part of the opportunities I have now is being able to fail. I think you have to give yourself room to fail or to quit.”

Let's focus on that last part.

The ability to fail, even though it sounds sarcastic in these hard times, could be an inalienable right of the architect. But consider the fact that failure is something we're still very much punished for socially in Latin American cultures. It isn't seen as a moment for self reflection (“Why did I fail”), but rather just a mistake (“I failed”), quite different from Japan where failure is shared between friends, co-workers, or family members who then help motivate perseverance (“ganbarimasu!”) or in the US where it's even considered as a positive trait (almost heroic) when understood as an empirical method for learning.

How strange with this contrast of cultures, that an architect, wherever they may be, develops a high resistance to failure over the course of their career starting with the first day of class (if he hadn't developed it already): rejection in the studio, the rejection of a concept, the rejection of a proposal. Try again. Look for examples. Do it over. No, a thousand times no. Thousands of students with various concerns forced to fit a cookie cutter profile to successfully graduate in an environment where, to paraphrase Henry Ford, we can all choose the focus of our interests, so long as they're all the same. In the end, that resistance to failure on the part of architects means it is seldom seen as a strength or a lesson; for many it is a cross to bear, even though it could prove to be fundamental in reinventing ourselves professionally in times of market saturation, economic crisis, poor practices, and self-aggrandizing.

Very Large Structure (VLS) Project by Manuel Domínguez in defiance of the grad school process. Image © Manuel Dominguez / Zuloark

Interdisciplinarity, creativity, solo projects, resistance and keeping things temporary; a fundamental base among those who have dedicated themselves (or want to dedicate themselves) to doing things their own way and continue to sacrifice themselves for what they believe to be worth it in uncertain times. There are several examples of this: The ATEA studio of the collective SomosMexas in Mexico, the Galería de Magdalena in Madrid, the Chilean office GT2P, the ecologically focused Spanish firm Ecospace, the interdisciplinary platform Zuloark, the Spanish production company Solita Films and the Centro de Arquitectura Contemporánea (GAC) in Santiago de Chile. Not only do these demonstrate the existence of scores of individual ideas born of blood, sweat, and tears, but also of the possibility to expand the seemingly well-fortified boundaries of architecture. Even more so, they demonstrate the possibility to assemble the architectural voices of the Global South: Latino, African, Asian, and Oceanic.

Colectivo SomosMexas. Image © SomosMexas

Of course, raising the flag of our vocation is very comfortable if we haven't thought about (or if we don't need to think about) how to make it through to the end of the month. Nobody said we wouldn't have to keep making sacrifices. That happens even to the best of us: a certain firm owner confessed to me that starting a project like that assumes that the economy is going to stay bad. And if we're talking about effort, the members of the collective Somosmexas make it so that what they love to do on the weekends is compatible with what needs to get done to survive until the end of the month. ATEA, at least, doesn't generate any losses for them. Meanwhile some architects, offices, and collectives have turned to crowdfunding, donations, and presenting custom projects to private buyers.

Shigeru Ban, Premio Pritzker 2014. Image © KCRW

On a different scale, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban - recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Prize - started working with the UN when he was 37 to help shape its humanitarian work, looking over photos of shelters constructed by the international organization in Rwanda: “The Tutsis were freezing […] I went to the UN offices in Geneva feeling like a salesman carrying a tent”, he joked in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, but his bid with its low budget, sleek design, rapid construction and firm sensibility got the OK of the architect in charge. The rest is history.

In short - and in light of the continuous highs and lows of a roller coaster economy - a career with such wide-spread impacts as architecture requires so much creativity, dedication, professionalism, enthusiasm and courage that everything we learn gives us a clear lesson: When you know what you want, there's nothing more difficult than not giving it a shot.

Call it the right to fail.

© Fabio Barilari

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Cite: Valencia, Nicolás. "Architects and Our Right to Fail" [Arquitectos(as) y nuestro derecho al fracaso] 20 Nov 2015. ArchDaily. (Trans. Valletta, Matthew) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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