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In the Midst of Rapid Change, How Should Architecture Reinvent Itself?

Being old has its privileges. One of them is having a perspective born of experience. As an architect for 40 years, licensed for 35, I’ve watched the profession morph from hand drawing to CAD 25 years ago and now to BIM. No profession has changed more dramatically, save hard science itself. In that transformation, the post-World War II progression from student, to intern, to architect remains, but has become less viable for more and more coming out of school.


Kermit Baker wrote a recent article with many stats for Architect Magazine where he concludes: construction employment is wildly inconsistent for all professions, but even though there are a lot of architects over 50 now retiring, the outlook for jobs in the next generation has only a 4% total growth projection; while other parts of the construction industry are expectted to experience twice that growth.


“On net, there will be a projected need for approximately 25,000 new architecture positions over the coming decade—5,000 due to industry growth and 20,000 due to retirements and other losses to the architecture labor force,” Baker writes. “This need will be met by the estimated 60,000 professional degree recipients.”


If Baker is correct, half of the graduates of professional architecture degree programs will not find jobs in what they were trained to do. This is a higher percentage than in it was in my generation. And it’s not by choice: the students want to practice architecture (only 2% foresee not working in some form of architecture).


I am not alone in my perception that the profession is about to dramatically change in structure and focus. A record number of those with professional degrees are opting not to take the licensing exam.There are over 41,000 who are “in process” of taking the exam, far higher than even a decade ago when 25,000 were getting licensed. But fewer are finishing their internships, getting through the testing process, because there is less opportunity to use that license.


An article  by on the British Arch2O website cites a RIBA report quoting a young architect who states, “In 10 years we probably will not call ourselves an architecture practice.” The article goes on to say that architects “cannot, at least, remain traditional in any sense.” In the last decade, the UK has seen only half of those entering their two tier academic program go on to the traditional Part 2 program that leads to becoming an architect.


The website, Failed Architecture, recently interviewed Rory Hyde, creator of “Future Practice” and an unregistered Austrailian architect, who called architecture “a sinking ship,” adding, ”despite our training, skills and experience in thinking through questions of development, strategy and urban vision our opinions are seen as irrelevant…”


Michael Kilkelly wrote a piece on ArchSmarter on the AIA’s “Building Connections Conference” in Washington, DC, where one of its conclusions was that architecture needs to “resume the role of the master builder.”  Kilkelly even used the famous William Gibson quote,“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” to illustrate the profession’s current dilemma.


The renowned architect/educator/tech innovator Phil Bernstein of Yale writes in ArchPaperciting the conclusions of Richard and Daniel Susskind in “The Future of the Professionals,” that “there will not be a loss of faith in architects, lawyers and accountants, but rather a broad democraticization of expertise through big data and data sharing.” But then he validates my impressions by stating that “large swaths of professional services will be routinized by computers, further decomposing those services into discrete automated tasks. New systems of design and construction delivery will reconstitute from traditional scopes disintermediated by algorithms and big data.” To paraphrase Silicon Valley, whatever can be automated will be automated.


It’s all changing whether we like it or not, no matter how we’re educated, or how we’ve practiced in the past. So rather than bitch about how things have change, it’s more useful to ask how the profession should reinvent itself.


It’s all changing whether we like it or not, no matter how we‘re educated, or how we’ve practiced in the past. So rather than bitch about how things have changed, it’s more useful to ask how the profession should reinvent itself.


It’s time to redefine the expectations of those who dedicate their lives to architecture. The profession has morphed in every generation, but the advent of Artificial Intelligence has forced a new reality for architects and students, to change their strict focus from building, and probably to define a different career track for many.


I believe there are two clear paths to get where those studying architecture want to go, rather than one. The first is the traditional progression of learning to design to order to participate in building, where there’s an established path of school/internship/licensure. The other path seems to have evolved, de facto, to living a life apart from actual construction. And, if there are two outcomes, the schools should change, too.


To me that means, as per Baker, about half of those in school deserve the  option of being trained in a way that is different than the “old school” internship-to-licensure path so many now are following—and, apparently, also opting out of. Architecture will culturally reflect the new realities of fewer people needed to build, and acknowledge the reality of those who value architecture as it is, versus earning a living creating it.


We’re becoming a profession more like the fine arts, where musicians and actors cannot fully use their training and focus as a money-making career. Rather than pretend that there is the focal path of internship and licensure, there should be a new path to be part of the built environment, without internship and licensure. Architects will need to jettison old ways of defining ourselves.


This change is not about “style.” It’s not Modernism/Traditional/ Transitional. This new definition is not about “practice.” It’s not learning/technology/design. This is not even about the changed economics that has building at its money source. It’s not education/BIM/deliverables/building for this third architecture, beyond school and practice.


Architecture as a life dedication for those thinking of being part of the profession should be presented as three distinct realms:


School. All architects and/or those interested in buildings that cannot or will not be part of building need to be trained, to learn what is possible, who they are, what the tools are, and what the realities are that buildings manifest: aesthetically, technologically, legally, culturally, now and in history. Those learning architecture need to discover what they value, not who to imitate and know. Like those musicians, athletes and artists there are now fewer people studying architecture that will actually earn a living by doing what is studied in these first years of school. Everybody needs to learn, but should now be two distinct paths defined for those who decide to be part of architecture; They Are:


Consulting: Rather than require internship and licensure, there needs to be a clear, accredited, defined path for those who want to be involved in the built environment, but do not want to deal with the extreme transformations of building in the coming generation. The explosion of consultants who specialize in curtain walls, sustainable technology, roofs, codes, BIM, Revit, development, and the next wave of communication in construction will mean new ways of using how students are trained, but more importantly, in what graduates actually do with that training.


Building. The ability to build in the coming generation will require a greater breadth of knowledge of more technology than what can be taught now. Those committed to building will need the new skills of an exploding technology in school, but they will also need to constantly surf an expanding knowledge base. As a result, the “CEU” system will need to change, too. This rapidly morphing reality needs to be recognized in reordering how architecture is taught, marketed and understood by those who are not architects (but may eventually want to hire us).


Either we acknowledge change or architects lose value as the technology changes why or even if we’re needed. This is not new: one segment of architectural design has always been somewhat peripheral. Most of what I do is residential design. I have helped build well over 500 homes in 30 years of practice, despite being in a part of the industry where architects are tangential at best. Homes are simply not seen as having a relevant role for architects for more than 95% of the designs that are built, because, sadly, most architects have to charge too much to fit into most budgets. Sadly, too, because we’ve failed to demonstrate our real value to the consumers, beyond beautiful pictures.


Building is a hard, distinct goal for some of those entering the field, and that path should then have an integrated internship as part of both school and licensure. A greater percentage than ever still want to be part of architecture even if changing job descriptions make building design less viable as the focus of their careers. The schools will need to offer a whole new set of credentials and values independent of the end product of the studio/starchitect focus.


Either architecture evolves to recognize the change all around us, or it becomes a boutique nicety used by an elite, less and less relevant in a world that needs fewer humans to participate in the design of buildings.


Featured image via Arch20.


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