Architecture is a manifestation of our humanity, which changes slowly over time. Evolution doesn’t happen in a generation or two, but events occur constantly and affect how everyone looks at the world. Whether it’s recession or a depression or a war—or, now, a pandemic—seismic shifts change the way we look at our culture, our motivations, our selves. Every young architect or student today is being formed in the riptides of economic, technological, and medical turmoil. This unprecedented maelstrom has imposed a perspective on them that is more distinct from that of their architectural forebearers than any generation since World War II.
Since our motivations are often overwhelmed by noise of the moment, all of us tend to focus on outcomes. Architects are especially guilty of this. And yet the traditional outcome of “style” is a distraction, vice-gripped over creativity to make it understandable or even marketable. Architects themselves have been seen as part of a “brand” that objectifies an inherently messy process. These outcomes have always been the focus of young architects and students, but new questions are making the old answers irrelevant.
The breadth and extent of uncertainty in architecture now is extreme. The existential threat of artificial intelligence and the lingering economic malaise of the 2008 crash are with all architects, but the next generation has known only this century’s wholesale changes. In addition, the isolation of the past year upended the fine arts culture of conferences and awards as we slid into a life of distanced connection. In any profession the youngest cope with change without the balm of experience, and architecture schools now have to operate under new protocols that have completely upended the studio model, the live lecture, the public exhibition, the gatherings, and all of the other activities that validate and promote the direction of new architects.
A bizarre building boom at the advent of the 21st century created a driving force in the world economy and pumped up the traditional hubris of architects, especially in residential construction. That surge, plus a Chinese building boom, kept architecture’s balloon floating high, centered on the architect as a cultural fulcrum. If we’d had perspective, we would have known that architects would inevitably have less value after the next bust, whenever it arrived. It is not news that the 2008 crash was global, deep, and, in fact, caused in large part by a cynical overvaluation of homes in America. That crash crushed architecture. Everything architects live through —commissions, employment, construction—collapsed.
Despite its impact on the construction industry, the following decade of the Great Recession still reared a generation of new architects. Students kept going to architecture school, abetted by the momentum of an architectural establishment seven decades old. At the same time, journalism shrank, professional associations contracted, and construction took a decade to limp back to pre-boom levels, only to be hit last year by Covid-19.
In this sea change, architecture schools kept minting more architects, even when there were fewer traditional architecture jobs needed. Places like SCI-Arc, MIT, and many schools in Europe created graduate degrees that perpetuated the value of an architectural education separate from building. Alternative careers in urban design, graphic/game design, product design, real estate development, and construction management are now educational options for those who have an architecture degree.
These shifts are not over or even resolved, as disruption has tilted the entire world again. Not just because we have been sequestered for a year, but because a half-century of emerging technology is poised to explode every profession.
These shifts are not over or even resolved, as disruption has tilted the entire world again. Not just because we have been sequestered for a year, but because a half-century of emerging technology is poised to explode every profession—but perhaps architecture most of all. Into this cauldron of uncertainty, architecture students and young architects find themselves trapped in a shell-shocked building industry that is evolving so quickly that no one can safely predict—let alone teach—how buildings will be made in a decade.
I teach at the University of Hartford’s program in architecture, both undergrads and grads. They spend—or, more often, borrow—huge amounts of money to learn whatever schools can teach them. They are well-versed in the technology. But schools do not create economies or invent and control the technologies they use. Yet these students do share my passion: making things. The only path they have to manifest a life in architecture is through education.
The bright minds in my class, a seminar on the home, have shown a perspective and an openness that my own education lacked. I was born at the apogee of elitist architecture. It was very male, white, and venerating of the Ivy League as one of the singular voices of architecture. It was a world of paper: there were three magazines (Architectural Record, Architecture, and Progressive Architecture); there were a few architectural imprints, pumping out books on every topic imaginable.
Although my students and I share the motivation to create, they are in a world that is quite different from the one I found myself at this stage of their lives. That mid-20th-century, pre-internet world operated on an agreed upon definition of excellence and meaning. The architectural canon was king, and our place in that mythical pecking order was, for many, our principal motivation. There were object buildings aplenty to define it. Along with those buildings and places, there were people, also pretty much white and male, too, who embodied the ship of the architectural state. It was a standard, a perceived truth that all could devote to (especially students). Stylistically modern, it was created by a fine-arts elite, distinct from the culture it served and sure in its leadership. That canon, once dominant, has now been largely bypassed by the realities of professional survival.
The world is evolving. The flexibility of the internet has facilitated almost instant venues for adaptation in these uncharted evolutions in architecture. Evelyn Lee, FAIA, created “Practice Disrupted,” a series of talks and podcasts that directly address this bizarre time. Mark Lepage runs The EntreArchitect Community, where over 5,000 young professionals are grappling with these new realities. Places like HomeAdviser and Porch are aggressively marketing services, for a fee, to reward the cheapest fee with at least the first crack at getting the job to draw a project. Houzz parades projects whose availability is paid for by their designers to millions of potential clients. Through it all, the internet is a food fight of aesthetics and outcomes, frequently mute on motivations and values.
The young will see, experience, and shape the next 50 years of change. We dead-enders of the boomer legacy can stretch out the established way of creating buildings for a while, but we will become vestigial. AI will likely kill jobs and turn the design studio model into a niche artisanal oddity, geared to the 1%. People of every description might design their own buildings, using these new technologies, as a human-free design service, eliminating the architect as the “middle man.” My grandchildren may well command: “Alexa, I want to build a new house.”
It’s a daunting prospect, and it will be addressed by a new generation who cannot rely on the past to control their future. These young architects will have very different careers. And yet the building imperative is at the core of our humanity. How we live it into the 21st century will define and reflect our culture. It will continue to tell us who we are.
Featured image: Photo by Cody Pickens, via USC School of Architecture.