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The Kids are Alright: How the Great Recession Shaped This Generation’s Entry into Architecture

Economics and technology affect every profession. But since World War II perhaps no profession has experienced more technological change than architecture. These shifts occurred, paradoxically, within a well-established professional model of personal development: The guild structure of learning in the academy, then becoming professional via internship leading to licensure, has been the structure of practice for almost two centuries.

 

Once upon a time manual drafting with graphite or ink was applied by white males, and a single sheet master was reproduced with typed specifications added, and buildings were constructed.

 

That world no longer exists.  

 

The Mad Men model of the white male clubhouse is over, too (thank God). Gender and race inequalities remain, but they are acknowledged flaws in urgent need of correction. Beyond these evolutions and revolutions, a new generation of architects has had its own unique and rocky emergence into the profession. 

 

 

There are 6,000 graduates from architecture school every year—and only 2,500 jobs. The last decade of macro recession has produced microeconomic hot markets of opportunity for new designers amid the exploding BIM technology. But the unrelenting insinuation of artificial intelligence into every aspect of our lives is obviating the need for the “CAD Monkey” internships that once absorbed thousands of new graduates.

 

The largest demographic group in America is now Millennials. Most designers do most of their work for their demographic peers, and the gateway to building things for young architects has always been the single family home, still the most common building type. But more than any other time in recent memory, people are moving back into cities and living in rental units, rather than aspiring to own (and build or rebuild) freestanding homes.

 

Technology, economics and cultural trends have all combined to suppress opportunity for new architects. To see how the next generation is faring, I interviewed four young architects and came up with some sense of the flexibility required to nimbly address these fluid times.

 

A 190-square foot retail pop up by F9 Productions.

 

 

Alex Core and Lance Cayko, F9 Productions, Longmont, Colorado

 

Alex Gore, 35, and Lance Cayko, 33, created F9 Productions almost a decade ago, in Longmont, Colorado. They graduated from architecture school in 2008, at the advent of the Great Recession. Gore moved to New York City to work for Daniel Libeskind. Cayko moved to Boulder and worked for a small boutique firm. Gore got laid off first the following year. He went back to graduate school to get a masters in construction management, thinking that the recession might last just a year. Cayko got laid off from his boutique firm a couple of months later.

 

Rather than feel blindsided by new technologies, these architects embraced them. Both saw the world moving to Revit and BIM, and while big firms were creating their own full-on integration of these new technologies, smaller offices and consultants needed a nimble, targeted assist, so the two began making models for firms. “We wanted to use Revit and we wanted to boil it down to the fundamental principles and one of those was modeling a building just like you build it,” Gore says, adding that this approach allowed the clarity and vetting of BIM to be available to any firm or organization. 

 

 

Beyond the elegant simplicity of the instant integration of building technologies into the software, the sequencing and priorities of construction now possible with artificial intelligence is extremely powerful. Unlike the old way of layering up graphic images, the new generation of software can assemble images as if what was rendered was actually being built in the drawing. “What that means is,” Gore says, “the framing walls go up first” for any size project, and this level of technological facilitation is only there if you know how to use it.

 

 

“We train other professionals that are getting into Revit,” Gore says. “So we have our own website, and we’re able to provide contractors with real confidence. Our 3D foundation plans are so precise, it’s very hard to mess up.” They have also become a more traditional design practice. “We run the gamut from small interior remodels on the residential side,” Cayko says, “all the way up to condo and multifamily developments.”

 

Atelier Cho Thompson designed the offices for Food Corps, a Portland, Oregon non-profit.

 

Ming Thompson, Atelier Cho Thompson, San Francisco & New Haven

 

Beyond the technological shifts in execution, this shift to the digital makes the ability to design at a variety of scales much easier. I talked to Ming Thompson of Atelier Cho Thompson; she and Christina Cho have offices in San Francisco and New Haven. “We formed a firm after meeting in graduate school at Harvard, to design work that bridges from the very small scale of graphic design interiors, all the way up to the large scale of architecture,” Thompson says. “After working for a few years in San Francisco, we started a firm together. We have six people total, three in each office and we’ve been going for five years.” Clearly, the reality of a digitally-connected world makes distance less relevant to working together.

 

 

 

Thompson is aware of the economy’s impact on how her generation approached making their place in architecture. “We came into the discipline at a strange time, during the recession, when the traditional model seemed like a difficult path,” Thompson says. Like other eras, the wide range of design is addressed, the firm uses the new technologies to extend itself into graphic design, branding and identity, and interiors. “A lot of architects have left the field and those of us that have remained have tried to find ways that best suit our interests.” 

 

Middlebury College student housing; designed by Union Studio.

 

 

Ben Willis, Union Studio, Providence

 

Ben Willis writes great essays for Common Edge and works in Providence, Rhode Island as an architect and urban designer, for Union Studio. He recounts his somewhat typical start in architecture: “My dad was a civil engineer. So he suggested checking out architecture between my junior and senior year of high school. I took a two-week summer course at the University of Notre Dame.” 

 

 

In that way, Willis’s story is like my own 40 years ago. “It was a scary time to come out of architecture school. Somehow I convinced a small residential firm in San Diego, California to give me a shot. So I moved out to the West Coast and spent four years designing remodels and new homes.” Amid all the changes, the value of training by doing in a guild-based model continues to be crucial.

 

 

Experiencing the Great Recession at the outset of their careers may have encouraged a questioning of established paradigms. Those hardscrabble beginnings of his career have tangible enhancements to anyone’s experience, but I see a wider perspective in Willis’ writings. When you’re forced to reconsider where you fit in a career bludgeoned by perspective, a holistic approach, rather than a polemic one, naturally evolves. “There are principles of good buildings that you can distill no matter what style they’re rendered in,” he says. “Humans have needs and those needs haven’t changed drastically over the last thousand years.”

 

 

His solid career based at a mid-sized firm gives Willis a perspective often missing from the open-ended realities of his peers, who are operating in the gig economy where connection to opportunities is not limited to an office. But the openness of Internet interaction lacks the personal intimacy of mentorship that I experienced in my early years in the profession.

 

 

Willis is emerging from his professional infancy with a confidence and facility that validates the passion that we all feel for architecture. For him the new opportunities are tangible: “One of the things that I’m most excited about the new technology and architecture is our ability to gain some more concrete metrics on how people are using buildings and how those buildings are affecting the health outcomes of the people using them.”

 

Each generation believes that it has unique challenges and opportunities. But the ingenuity and determination of those starting out in the profession is timeless. Architecture is an essential human effort, but it often flirts with irrelevance in its attitudes and affects. The value of any profession depends on its relevance to the greater culture. Despite daunting changes and an unpredictable future, architecture remains an abiding devotion.

 

Same as it ever was.

 

Featured image: Atelier Cho Thompson’s interior design for a venture capital firm dedicated to empowering world-changing entrepreneurs. 

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