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We Can’t Get No Respect

The late-20th-century comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a catchphrase that peppered his standup routines. Feigning the victim, he’d complain, “I don’t get no respect.” I am reminded of that line when I read or hear architects complaining not only about their profession, but also about the academics that teach future architects, or the media that covers them.

The claim seems to be that our profession is somehow out of touch and, with the increasing reliance on new technology, paradoxically more and more irrelevant. Or: Future architects, who pay a small fortune to attain a design education, are being hoodwinked and even cheated out of any future success by professors who don’t know any better. And, finally: The media is somehow out to put down the average practitioner through an agenda of publishing only their own kind or, worse, only established stars.

At the risk of sounding insufficiently snarky in an increasingly snarky world, I’d argue that architects are more relevant than ever, that schools of architecture are doing a pretty good job at training future designers, and that the changing nature of media presents new opportunities for the profession.

I assume we can all agree that human beings need buildings to exist. Houses, schools, office buildings—all building types are constantly changing in some way, both in function and in the materials that compose them. But they are fundamentally necessary. The question often asked is: Why do we need architects to produce them? Why not just let the owner or builder construct what they deem best? In truth, this is what happens most of the time. I’ve never heard a verifiable number for the percentage of houses that are designed by architects, but it’s likely under 5%. Of course they are involved in other ways, sometimes providing conceptual ideas, off-the-shelf plans, or other partial services. But are they more often than not fully involved, in the way they were trained, to provide a full range of services, including design, construction documents, and construction oversight? Not really. The same holds true for larger buildings, though building codes across the country most often require architects. Sometimes, however, only engineers are involved.

So why aren’t architects more a part of the process? Architects too often blame themselves first when, in fact, the answer lies in a larger cultural context. Who hasn’t dealt with a client who had a great education and all the money in the world, but simply didn’t understand that architects don’t just design, but help to control the process and costs?

Sometimes you can even think you’ve made some progress convincing a client of your worth, only to be bewildered later. A few years ago I finished a house on the coast of Massachusetts (shown above) that took full creative advantage of the local zoning by providing a unique gambrel third story, an abode that was well designed and well built. It also came in on budget and on time. Recently, the client for that house wanted to build another, in northern New Hampshire, but didn’t feel he needed anything more than design drawings from us; the contractor could do the structural drawings through the lumber yard and determine the finishes in the field. Huh? Didn’t I demonstrate the architect’s worth in the previous project? What did I miss? Nothing, actually. We got along well, and I provided a great service on the first house. I only missed that down deep inside, my client, like most people, didn’t really understand what architects do or the benefits we provide—even when he’d been a part of the process.

Should we blame ourselves, adjust our services, reduce our expectations? No! What architects offer is a higher achievement: firmness, commodity and, most important, delight in many forms. Sadly, we live in a kind of new Dark Age, dominated by material wealth and devoid of any real artistic understanding. In such a culture, all that matters are the cheapest, fastest transactions. Often, imagery is more important than substance. Should we surrender to that zeitgeist, or promote even more what we do as a better way of doing things? 

Most of the young designers I’ve interviewed coming out of school have shown a breadth of knowledge and expertise well beyond what I had when I graduated many years ago.

Another complaint I hear too often is that the academic world doesn’t know how to teach or prepare future architects. I haven’t taught for a while, but as an employer of young architects, I don’t understand the gripe. Most of the young designers I’ve interviewed coming out of school have shown a breadth of knowledge and expertise well beyond what I had when I graduated many years ago. It is an eternal truth that there are good and bad students. But today’s neophytes must keep up with a sophisticated, powerful, and ever-evolving array of technological tools, as well as environmental problems that didn’t exist even just a few years ago. It’s true to say that these young architects have saved my office from extinction since, as with most professions, change is inevitable and necessary. 

I have complaints about the academic world, but they are more about what career options or paths are presented rather than the content of the curriculum. In my experience, the best developers, building facilities managers, contractors, and even inspectors or other regulatory officials are those who were trained as architects. They understand the tectonic world and how it is created through a process of thought, drawing, and construction. Schools could help us solve some of the larger issues I mentioned by giving up the notion that all graduating students will be versions of Howard Roark and instead promote architectural education as an opportunity to enhance many building-related professions. Even though it takes, on average, 12.5 years to become a licensed architect (according to NCARB), there are more licensed architects than ever in this country. But what isn’t talked about often is that many graduating architects never become licensed. Why not encourage this unique talent pool, even in school, to pursue an alternative building-related profession? The defining problem of our age is environmental degradation, much of it produced by buildings. Who better to help than someone trained in architecture?

And then there’s the media, or should I say the plethora of media. Once there were just two or three major architectural magazines, based in New York City, with editors who had an outsize influence on what style was relevant for the time and what architects should get published. Across the country, there were also a number of major newspapers with architecture critics who also determined the content of design discourse. That has all changed. As print media has struggled for readership and revenue, it has largely been replaced by the internet in all its various forms and outlets. 

One might say that there is now the danger of too much information and too little critical editing, but I think that even with all the disruption of the way we get our information, there is a new opportunity to promote architecture, if we learn to discipline ourselves about its use. Instagram can be useful and fun, but it can also be silly and senseless, too. Just because it’s easy and instant for a client to find an image on Pinterest doesn’t mean that it’s relevant or in context. We can all promote our work in new ways and to larger audiences than ever before. Small and large firms alike can publicize their work, and not always through the lens of an editor. As a result, good work in any style can rise to the top of our attention. The endless argument between traditional and contemporary architects can now be aired more often and with equal representation on both sides, rather than accepting Modernism as the default position because it garnered more interest and advertising, and therefore more magazine pages, in the past. We’re all writers, editors, and critics now, with a variety of ways to reach out, but we should take care not to ignore or destroy those publications that still provide real experts and focused opinions in the field of design. This will require real discipline on our part to use both the old and new avenues of communication wisely, lest we become a kind of Babel.

So, to come back to where I started, should we continue to belittle our profession? No. Is there room for improvement? Always. But we have much to offer for a better world. Our profession has kept up with technology and can now illustrate to clients with more accuracy than ever what their buildings can be, functionally, structurally and aesthetically. Our drawings are also more efficiently connected to consultants and contractors. We’re poised to help, better than most, with climate change, making environments that are more livable and sustainable. Equally important, we also need to keep prodding and educating about what we do, since without good clients there will (almost) never be good architecture. This means in part getting involved in your community to demonstrate your usefulness, pushing back when you’re asked to compromise your process, and teaching what you do early on in schools by promoting both science and art. “Science,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “can pull things apart and examine them but only art can put them back together again.” Here I’m encouraged by the trend in maker spaces in education since, in effect, students are combining art and science and learning the architectural process of conception, illustration, and fabrication. These are lessons they will take with them when, someday, they become a designer, or even a design client. I’m also encouraged by the younger generation’s interest in well-designed items, and their increasing concern for the environment. I truly believe our profession is respected by most people, but our benefits are not fully understood. That change can only come if our culture begins to change—not an easy road. But, most important, it can come only if we believe in ourselves first.

Featured image: courtesy of Eck|MacNeely Architects.

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