At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, on the southeastern tip of Lake Michigan, there is a public pavilion near the beach. A parking lot separates it from the adjacent road, such that the approach to the pavilion and the beach behind it is somewhat lengthened by the round-and-round search for a spot to park, giving visitors time to really look at the building, which is quite beautiful—made of a grayish stone and rectangular in plan with eleven structural bays running in one direction and four in the other. Nine arched recesses, faced in an intricate brick pattern, cut into its long sides. The central recesses at some point served as entrances but are now boarded up, as are the entrances on the short side of the building. Inside, there are bathrooms and changing rooms, and, at some point, a cafeteria operated. It seems like the building is indefinitely closed, but it once filled some basic necessities for people enjoying the lakefront and beach.
Buildings like this incite a temptation to look at them—and others like them that dot the shores and beaches of Lake Michigan, all in different states of abandon, disuse, and disrepair—through the lens of nostalgia. Can’t we just go back to the days when architects got to make such things? And they were publicly paid for? And they were used by all kinds of different people, united in their desire to bathe in the lake, to spend a weekend day with their family, to enjoy the warm sand, the cool breeze, the bright sun, etc. etc.?
This condition isn’t unique to the shores of Lake Michigan and their public buildings. Architects throughout the U.S. understand that they can’t make these kinds of buildings anymore. Their role in society has changed, though for some it’s difficult to tell why, or how. For many architects, the profession is not at all what they signed up for, and though they have a hard time pinpointing exactly when architecture changed from what they thought it was into whatever it is now, they do know that didn’t study for five, or six, or eight years to design bathrooms for a building they might not ever see themselves, or to submit plans that they didn’t design for code review, or to manage an Excel spreadsheet for construction administration for a project they’re not even working on. Some people (Marxists) would call that being alienated from your labor. All that means is that the things you spend your time working on every day are so removed from you (that far-away building, those plans you didn’t design, that project you’re not working on) that the things you do to make them possible (making that Revit model, uploading that PDF to some janky web interface, conditionally formatting columns and rows) seem like inessential, unnecessary, burdensome chores. And if the work architects are doing feels, to them, inessential, then it makes sense that architects themselves would feel inessential.
Really, Elefante’s formulation is a threat: the future will be urban, and architects have to keep up, stay in line, make it happen, if they want to stay relevant. Otherwise, this new, urban future will run them over.
Perhaps that’s the feeling that Carl Elefante, 2018 AIA President, was trying to address when he said in an interview during the lead-up to the 2018 AIA convention that architecture was going through a “relevance revolution.” His claim was that the world is trending toward increasingly higher levels of urbanization, and because architecture is essential to this process, it’s inevitably going to become relevant again. But that’s not the only inevitability in Elefante’s formulation, nor is it the most important one. What he takes for granted, as a fact wholly unworthy of questioning, is that the future of the world is necessarily urban. Yes, statistically, that’s what’s been happening for the last several decades and likely what will keep happening if the global economy continues to develop in the way that it has been. But that’s going to happen with or without architects. Really, Elefante’s formulation is a threat: the future will be urban, and architects have to keep up, stay in line, make it happen, if they want to stay relevant. Otherwise, this new, urban future will run them over.
According to Elefante, the current of urbanization is going to pick architecture up and wash it upon the shore of relevance, but by acritically embracing the “urban turn,” he hands architecture—and the interests and livelihoods of architects—to entities entirely outside of architects’ control. Of course architecture is essential to cities, but who determines that cities are essential to architecture? Why will the future be urban? The history of the world—really, the history of the effect of capitalism on the world—has been one of increasing urbanization, but at the expense of non-urban areas, communities, people, even architecture. Does the fact that cities are growing, that ever-more people live in them, that they need buildings to live in, make for better architecture? Or, is it simply reflective of the fact that cities receive the lion’s share of investment, creating a basic market need for buildings? Is it necessarily architects who will fill this need, and if so, do they have a way of deciding how they’ll do it, or do they simply have to respond in whatever way fills the need the best, subject to the pushes and pulls of the market, of developers, of real estate speculators, of investors?
Sure, cities are growing, but architecture has been built on farms, in the middle of valleys, in the expanse of deserts, on top of solitary mountains, for as long as people have been living in those places. And, architecture has been supporting the carrying out of everyday life for as long as people have been building. Architects’ role in determining exactly what that support should look like, however, has changed significantly through time. That’s the real relevance problem.
In a book called Art & Production (originally written in Russian in 1917 and first published in an English translation by Pluto Press in 2017), Boris Arvatov provides a useful historical framework for thinking through this problem, or at least understanding from whence it stems. Arvatov traces the evolution of the role of art—and therefore artists—in society at large from its origins as an inherent and essential part of everyday life (part of what Arvatov calls “life-building,” which includes fulfilling basic needs but also more than that: creating social connections, making work easier, inspiring awe or comfort or curiosity) to its transformation into a tradable commodity. This transformation tracks— surprise!—right alongside the growth of capitalism. Predictable as it may be, the history is still revelatory. Art objects that are an essential part of everyday life (think your grandmother’s handmade trivet, or that desk-top you made out of a piece of plywood to fit perfectly in your workspace) are hard to commodify, since they can’t be mass-produced or consumed and have value other than purely monetary or purely aesthetic. In order to be able to be bought and sold, art has to exit its role as an essential building block of life and become extraneous to it. For Arvatov, the epitome of that phenomenon is easel art—art produced by a single artist, alone, independently of anything or anyone else, for the sole sake of making an art object that can then be sold. Easel art, which is probably what most of us primarily think of when we hear the word “art,” creates an object whose value stems from its singularity (it adheres to a particular style; there’s not another one like it) and its embodied individuality (it can never be produced or used collectively). Easel paintings are not particularly useful; they’re best suited for putting away in museums or hanging on walls for glancing at every once in a while. They’re not particularly essential to life-building, either. Unlike your grandmother’s trivet, an easel painting doesn’t make it possible to set down a hot pot on top of a table without the table getting scorched.
This evolution of the art object as Arvatov describes it also maps onto architecture, and he spends a significant part of the book describing how. Architecture (as in, carefully considered buildings designed by architects) has gone from being made to fulfill everyday needs to being increasingly commodified and only available to a select few who can afford it. Though architecture (as in buildings) will always be essential to everyday life, architecture (as in the work of architects) doesn’t really have to be. If buildings are simply to be bought and sold as commodities, there is no reason for a beach pavilion to have heavy hand-carved wooden doors, or for it to have nine arched structural bays, or for the bays to be inlaid with carefully patterned brick. It just has to meet some basic programmatic needs and maybe be able to be repurposed in the future. This is disturbing to architects—and it should be—because the work that architects are taught to do, and often what draws them to the profession in the first place, is that of life-building. It’s the work of creating connections; of inspiring; of comforting; of designing a neighborhood library that gets kids excited to read, or a bar that feels like a friend’s living room, or a house that asks people to make it a home.
But though this may be the work that architects are taught to do, it’s not the everyday reality of working as an architect today. Increasingly, the work that architects do is reduced to discrete, easily itemized tasks: put together a door schedule, do a facade study, lay out a bathroom. Of course, these tasks have always been part of the work of architects, even before global capitalism. The difference now, or at least one of them, is that those tasks are divorced from the big-picture work. Maybe you’re designing the bathrooms for an office building while your co-worker designs the workspaces and then you’ll figure out a way, fingers crossed, to bring them together. And forget any picture bigger than that: the siting, massing, orientation—that’s all already been decided by the developer. The more broken-down everyone’s responsibilities are, the easier it is to put a price tag on them (and to lower the number on that tag).
Perhaps the other key difference between designing architecture as a product and building life through architecture is the distance between the everyday work required to design a building and the physical reality of that building. Maybe the doors for our office building above are shipped in from a manufacturer ten states away; maybe the chairs are made in a different country; maybe the carpeting was selected after a lunch-and-learn visit from a carpet company rep. The rep doesn’t make the carpet, either, just like you don’t really make the building. He’s just trying to get you to buy the product, so he can get paid.
Okay, so, this is grim. What is there to do? The answer, an answer, is also found in Arvatov’s Art & Production, not because he tells us what to do, but because his historical recounting makes it clear that architects feeling/being irrelevant is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to architecture. It’s been happening for ages (literally), to all kinds of artists and craftspeople and creative workers. It’s impossible for this work, which is so often ephemeral, hard to quantify, rooted in experience, to fit neatly into a commodity-based, capitalist economy. And the demand for private residential just isn’t high enough to keep all of us employed. The nature of the work of architects isn’t going to change, unless the economic system in which architecture happens also changes. That’s what there is to do.
The problem with that line of thought is that once you start down it, you quickly realize that it’s impossible. That everything is inextricably linked, that the sexism (or racism, or ableism, or ageism, or whatever other kind of discrimination and oppression) in the profession is just a reflection of the presence of all those things in the world.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine how we would even start to change the larger economic system, which has seemed entirely uncontestable for so long, to so many. It’s difficult to picture changing the entire world, when there are so many problems in the profession, when it’s easier to just think and wish that the profession itself could change on its own, independently of any other factors. The problem with that line of thought is that once you start down it, you quickly realize that it’s impossible. That everything is inextricably linked, that the sexism (or racism, or ableism, or ageism, or whatever other kind of discrimination and oppression) in the profession is just a reflection of the presence of all those things in the world.
So, the world has to change first. How do we get there? How do we even start?
We can start building worker ownership of architecture firms—whether it’s a cooperative model where everyone is a partial owner, and everything the firm does benefits everyone equally, or through unionization. We can start by fighting for a fairer, less exclusionary licensure system, one that doesn’t require years of underpaid labor and thousands of dollars to get a license. We can start by making architecture education more accessible—getting rid of the professional degree fees many schools charge on top of tuition, giving fair credit for studio courses, closing architecture buildings at a reasonable hour to curb the possibility of the all-nighter. We can start by educating ourselves and each other about our rights as workers and demanding fair labor practices across the field. No more unpaid internships. No more barely-paid internships. No more unpaid overtime. No more promotions on the condition that you work twenty hours unpaid overtime. We can start by refusing to work on unethical projects. No more prisons designed by architects. No more detention centers. No border wall. We can start by insisting on funding models for offices that allow work on projects that won’t necessarily turn a profit.
There are many things to change. We can start by imagining that change, and then continue by fighting for it collectively. The fight to change the profession is the fight for a better world. If you want some help getting started, join The Architecture Lobby.