What Do Architects and Commerical Fishermen Have in Common?

Architect magazine recently published a deeply reported piece by Leah Scottile that picked up on a U.S. Center For Disease Control study that ranked architects and others in the building trades fifth out of twenty professions in incidence of suicide. The piece falls on the heels of shorter pieces on the study in the mainstream media and the design press that tried to find a coherent connection between what architects do and why some of them might want to kill themselves.


To her credit, Scottile went deep into the essentials of architect-culture to try to understand the correlation between a high suicide rate and the profession I have toiled in for forty years. She spent considerable effort connecting pieces from academia, the NAAB, the AIAS, and other non-architectural organizations to paint a distressed academic environment that brutalizes students. Her argument indicts the “tough guy culture” of design evaluation, which she calls “The Problem of Studio.” Essentially she advocates replacing a place where students are “anxious, nervous, frightened, worried, grouchy, irritable, angry, depressed, down, hopeless, distant,” with “a culture of respect, sharing, engagement and innovation.”


Many studies have recommended changes in architecture school culture. The five-year BArch degree, for example, is a casualty of this heightened concern for student psycho-devastation. The degree program takes tender 18-year-olds and pushes them through a meat grinder of 80% predetermined courses, while being publicly evaluated beside each other. It’s a dead degree walking; no new schools will have their programs based on that format because of its brutality. Anecdotally, the BArch students are my best employees, but that does not seem to matter in a time of heightened sensitivities.


This belief that greater awareness of emotional health is becoming a requirement is not limited to architecture. Professions dominated by millennials and other post-Boomers (aka, everything digital) are incorporating into their workspaces Yoga studios, climbing walls and endless lounges to chill while creatively disrupting all of civilization.

The synthesis of so many consultants makes friction between them inevitable. Buildings are birthed in money, construction laws, and humans of every ilk and persuasion, so stress is part of the delivery process.

But architecture seems different. Deadlines are unrelenting. Mistakes are inevitable, because designing something that has never been done before does not have a rule book. The synthesis of so many consultants makes friction between them inevitable. Buildings are birthed in money, construction laws, and humans of every ilk and persuasion, so stress is part of the delivery process.


Even with these realities, the recent spate of articles makes architecture out to be a hotbed of PTSD outcomes, including suicide. The error in those articles is simple: like most things in architecture, the interpretation of a general reality is narrow and narcissistic. The design press jumps right to architecture’s traditional self-defined, ego-stoked, freak-show as a suicide inducing pressure cooker, when it’s number five on the CDC list. If preventing suicide is the issue, a less self involved profession might look to the commonalities between architecture and the other psychologically destructive professions.


If you buy the relevance of looking at the other deadly jobs, I have a unique perspective. In the CDC’s standard occupational classifications, “Fishing, Farming & Forestry” lead the way, in terms of incidence of suicide. To pay off my academic debt after I graduated from architecture school, I was a deep sea scallop fisherman, off Cape May, New Jersey, in the spring of 1978. Ten hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day, for each ten day “cruise.” No “head” (we relieved ourselves over the side), no shower, no safety equipment, but a bunch of $100 bills at the end of each trip. It was tough. To this day, I cannot watch the trailer for The Perfect Storm without breaking into a sweat.


A recent study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control placed "Fishing, Farming & Forestry" first, out of 20 occupations, in incidence of suicide. Image via
A recent study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control placed “Fishing, Farming & Forestry” first, out of 20 occupations, in incidence of suicide. Image via

I may be the only architect-fisherman who also earned a part-time living as a low-level shrink, working as a Resident Adviser during the dorm living side of my academic life. Before you poo-poo this: it was at Cornell, where the same logic that declares architecture to be psychologically toxic could cite beckoning gorges and the fact that everyone who attends Cornell (including me) has been rejected by Harvard, Princeton or Yale, as the reasons for this school’s high rate of suicide.


I interceded in two suicide attempts in my two years as a psycho-first-responder; neither involved an architecture student. The architecture school had a high attrition rate—well over 50% (but no more than pre-meds). Kids drank copiously and engaged in other drugs; sex was everywhere, all the time, as a stress relieving/angst-distractor—unlike my time on the boat, where it was work-eat-sleep 24/7.


Fishermen may commit suicide at a high rate, but to me, the 48 hours between trips, with full force drinking, drugging and employment of prostitutes, was a far more toxic and indirect way to radically shorten anyone’s life. (Fortunately, all of my income as a fisherman was sent to Cornell, rather than going up my nose or to the benefit of any other body part).


In the summer of 1667, following completion of the Falconieri chapel (the High Altar chapel) in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Borromini committed suicide in Rome, possibly as a result of nervous disorders and depression.

The connection between architecture and fishing is simple: to survive and succeed it takes full effort. There are no excuses for failure. You had a bad catch, you made less money, and risked your life and limb, just as perilously as when you had a bumper catch. Your work in architecture either happens, or your ideas, hopes, and ego go unbuilt. They’re both starkly judgmental outcomes.


It’s self-serving to think architecture, per se, is a killer profession. When you care too much about anything, you resort to extreme solutions. Hard-edged proofs of success and failure are everywhere, but experienced by relatively few. Today participation trophies flood children’s bedrooms; far fewer have championship or even varsity recognition. When you dedicate your life to a profession, when it’s public and tied to your ego, failure is wrenching, and one way to deal with failure, or the fear of failure, is to stop competing. For most, that means opting out (as I did from deep sea fishing). For a few, it means leaving this mortal coil.


So, as Scottile suggests, is learning to design buildings and the subsequent profession of designing and building them unnecessarily brutal? Maybe. But I’m not sure that brutality results from the nature of the educational process. The architecture world combines the ego-jousting and bitchiness of all fine arts activities, from acting auditions to juried art exhibitions, with the high-stakes risk of the construction industry, to create an extreme environment. Scottile argues for a “self care” sensibility to solve “The Studio Problem.” There’s nothing wrong with getting sleep, talking out anxieties, or avoiding risky stress relief.


But the underlying desire for safe studios feels a bit like the recent advocacy of providing “trigger warnings” for any ideological aspect of the educational experience that might offend students. Unfortunately, the nastiness of aesthetic distinctions and the viciousness often found in getting something built in a competitive and litigious environment is simply not subject to trigger warnings.


In design and construction, there are winners and losers. The participation trophies of nurturing studios, however well intentioned, will not lessen the fear of failure in school or architecture. Failing to build, when your life has been inspired by the central human act of building, is devastating to those who want to make architecture on earth (versus cyberspace).


There is never a rational reason to commit suicide. Losing out to the competition in school or when vying for a commission, or just losing a job in a boom-bust profession, is as normal as dragging up an empty dredge on the Continental Shelf off Cape May. Sometimes it just happens. If the pain of that reality is too much to cope with, suicide might seem like an option to some—a tragic option, but one not limited to architecture.


Suicide is the result of the most serious crises in any person’s life; it’s not due to a career choice. To pretend that suicide is uniquely induced by architecture diminishes its personal tragedy.


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