Bay Bridge hotel project

Architecture Has Become a Lifestyle Choice

Despite happy-clappy hopes, there are fewer jobs in architecture than a decade ago. Total construction dollars have still not rebounded since the market peak, even with a 10% bump in the last two years. Less building equals less need for architectural services. Although the U.S. Labor Department predicts that architectural unemployment will be 7% in 2024, the most recently cited figure, according to Architzer’s 2012 survey, was 13.9%. But the greater truth is that the profession of architecture is at a breakpoint far beyond the microeconomic realities of the Great Recession.

It’s not unusual to find underperforming professions in periods of technological revolution. Buggy whip makers needed a new career path in the Roaring 20’s. Today, bank tellers can’t look an ATM in the eye without anger. Architects can see 3D printing, Revit and each successive AutoCad release, and sense human obsolescence. When training ignores new realities, the future is completely unknowable: we could all have abacus training, or learn how to write code.

And yet recent years have seen record numbers of architecture school graduates. The unabated flow of graduates in the lean seven years since the advent of the Great Recession are nowhere near being absorbed by a depressed job market. Even though matriculation and graduation from architecture schools are slightly down, if you average the 6,000 degrees awarded now and the 3,000 degrees awarded 50 years ago, there are well over 200,000 people with professional architectural degrees, in a market containing far fewer jobs. Even with this professional brown-out, there are nine new schools of architecture trying to get accredited.

The joys of the profession are transitioning from those found in getting a structure out of the ground, to the thrill of creating designs that are virtually beautiful. Virtual reality can substitute for the need for reality itself when that reality is hard to find (think pornography).

The more distressing sea change is that the joys of the profession are transitioning from those found in getting a structure out of the ground, to the thrill of creating designs that are virtually beautiful. Virtual reality can substitute for the need for reality itself when that reality is hard to find (think pornography). Like the couch potato sitting in his Mom’s basement, eating Pringles, playing Madden 2015 and thinking he “knows” football, architects are now trained to simulate building to the point where they believe it’s enough to see something even if they can’t build it—and less is getting built. The last seven years of Great Recession graduates have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars being educated and years being underpaid or underemployed “in the cause of architecture” (as Frank Lloyd Wright put it). But to what end?

The schools of architecture are not responding to these changes. Indeed the perception of employers, like me, as we review job applicant portfolios, is that the schools are abetting the ebbing of the profession of architecture as a building art. To the objective observer, the public face of the profession of architecture—its celebrated practitioners, published and award-winning projects—are slipping into a self-perpetuating doo-loop of building-based fine arts design, completely disconnected from context, materiality or cost.

Architectural education could integrate construction technology at every level of its curriculum (as I am sure a few programs do) or just offer a stimulating semester boutique course dabbling in banging nails and eating pizza (as I know most do). Even with a sublimated building imperative, the ennui of potential irrelevance has, according to the NCARB, created a record number of those “in the process” of getting licensed (37,000) and fewer actually getting licensed. Given the abating level of construction, elimination of jobs to technology, and “cutting edge” design being defined as sculpture, it’s not surprising that, according to the AIA, our profession has the highest percentage of “self–employed” practitioners of a licensed trade (21% versus 10.9% for lawyers). Architects can have a “practice” without building a thing: “design” does not require clients—just a laptop with the right software and an Internet connection.

Webster’s defines “profession” as “a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill.” But the operative word is “job.” In other professions when jobs cease to exist, demand to work in that field slides away. There are not so many bank teller training programs left. But music, theater, poetry, literature, fine arts and athletics are the exception—there has never been the expectation of employment in those devotions, just the desperate hope to be in the sub-1% who actually can earn a living doing what they feel compelled to do.

Thousands of collegiate artists, musicians, actors and athletes find no paying work other than teaching others, who will end up teaching others to be proficient enough to teach yet others—the joy of doing the activity of art, music and athletics renders low pay teaching perfectly acceptable.

“Practicing” architecture is moving from a profession that focuses on building buildings as its highest calling, to a lifestyle that appreciates the beauty of architectural design, real or fantastic. This shift has two underlying realities. Just like the musician who lives his art, or the athlete who loves her sport, there are people that love architectural design, deeply, but fewer architects are needed to create buildings in this generation.

The lack of need is based on less construction activity (a normal cycle, but now longer than any living architect has experienced) and the fact that technology has pre-empted the body count necessary per building design. 3-D printing, Revit and each new release of Autocad effectively eliminates a few hundred more interns. But the change is deeper than coping with fewer job opportunities. There are 106,000 licensed architects, by AIA measure, chasing the U.S. Labor Department’s figure of 77,500 jobs: so graduates are loath to become licensed.

The ticket to being part of this lifestyle costs thousands of times more than a paint brush, saxophone or Under Armour compression shorts: it takes five or more often seven years of higher education, trending towards over $50K a year. Despite all economic disincentives, there are still an historically high number of students, 25,000—down a bit from those the numbers who matriculated prior to the Great Recession, but over twice the number being educated two generations ago.

It is a change spiral: the less professors build the less they convey the connection between architectural education and building. Architectural-cyberporn simulations can sublimate the old school urge to build into a word, “Architecture,” almost willfully detached from the act of building.

Instead of unemployed architects becoming technicians in related fields or getting a job in construction, the fine arts orientation of mainstream architectural education and its relatively large cadre of over 6,000 professors tend to celebrate the conceptual over the built.

As fewer architects can actually build, more want to teach. It is a change spiral: the less professors build the less they convey the connection between architectural education and building. Architectural-cyberporn simulations can sublimate the old school urge to build into a word, “Architecture,” almost willfully detached from the act of building.

A new media expression of this new lifestyle choice can be found in any number of choir-singing-to-the-choir websites: “Life of an Architect”, “YoungArchitect.com”, “Think I Architect” and many more. Competitions are cheaper to organize and execute so the new paradigm of Architizer A+Awards where virtually hundreds of annual awards are given by hundreds of jurists judging thousands of entrants is just the flagship in a new Architect Hall of Mirrors: all in a orgy of inside baseball self-congratulation.

There are historic parallels. A few generations ago “second sons” of wealthy families often became architects. Or clerics. Clergy was once central to our culture, but church attendance is crashing faster than construction did at the height of the Great Recession. But there are more divinity schools than architecture schools—over 200, even more students, over 30,000—however there are but 2,500 faculty. There are 46,000 jobs, but simple math says there are several hundred thousand people with seminary degrees. That extreme disparity of training and available jobs has an eerily familiar ring to those of us in architecture.

But clerics love what they do, so much that they accept low pay, underemployment and even pro bono occupation financed by secular work: just like a growing number of architects. And it’s not just architecture or religion, the entire work world is changing.

No licensed profession, however, is changing its ultimate reason for being like architecture. Doctors are earning less, enjoying their profession less, but they still save lives. Engineers are being replaced by the same software job-killers that hurt job opportunities for architects, but buildings must meet building codes. Even though there are fewer buildings being built, humans are still needed to design them. But if design is abstracted by architects into irrelevance, then the engineers will be (and are) designing more buildings.

Cliché stereotypes can define expectations. Tone-deaf nerd engineers might be laughably out-of-it, but the buildings they engineer will stay standing. The egomaniacal surgeon will still save your life. The obnoxious lawyer can still keep you out of jail. But the self-caricaturing black-clad, interesting haircut/eyeglasses sporting architect who knows little-to-nothing about building is an annoying, useless dilettante (even if he/she teaches in the Ivy League).

Architects would love to be heroically cutting edge, because we’re taught by those who think they are (or want to be) and they’re exposed to simulated heroism in fading print and exploding screen graphics. In an academic culture that prizes diversity beyond almost any other characteristic, the study of architecture has distilled and promoted an orthodoxy that threatens to slide architecture away from its founding purpose: to build things.

Once upon a time only those who built could be heroes, and those who taught, taught about those builders. Now increasingly the student, the professor and the architect all share one mindset. They are not practicing, or preparing to practice, architecture; they are experiencing a really cool lifestyle.

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