Why the Architecture Profession Must Die

Venezia 2004, via Wikipedia

My phone begins to ring, I lean over to see who’s calling, it’s my business partner calling from New York.  It must be two o’clock in the morning for her.  I hop out of bed, grab my phone and laptop and walk out onto the terrace overlooking the canals of Venice in Northern Italy.

Her excited voice comes over the line, “I can’t sleep, I have a great idea on how to improve the natural lighting scheme in the lobby and atrium!”

From my laptop I remotely connect to her computer and I watch as she goes over the design with me.  We conference in our third partner in California and by 9am local time the design solution has been agreed upon.  We forward our markups to the production team in India and by the end of the day we all receive an email saying the design renderings and animations are ready for final review.

For the last eight weeks the three of us have been able to dedicate all of our time to this design competition, it has been the highlight of our careers.  For the last two months I have been living in Italy, enjoying the weather and gaining inspiration from the works of Carlo Scarpa scattered throughout the city.

If we win the competition we will be busy for the next two years in the production and construction of this building.  If we don’t win we’re going to all move to Ecuador for the next year and volunteer our time with Architecture for Humanity.


This is the future of architecture. The framework for a distributed global project team isn’t new.  Technologies like remote desktop software and high-speed internet connections allow project teams to work anywhere in the world.

What may be new to some is the idea that the Architect doesn’t need a mountain of paying clients to support themselves.  How can my project team devote two months to work only on a design competition and then turn around and expect to continue to work for free for the next year?  Did we just finish a string of highly profitable projects that have padded our bank accounts?  Maybe, but we didn’t need the work.  Did we win the lottery?  No.

 

 

Photo modified by Alex Ceballos, source unknown

 

It’s six o’clock in the evening on a Friday night.  You’ve been working ten-hour days all week, your clients are bombarding you with emails wanting to know the status of their projects.  You are personally managing six major jobs and even with all this work it still seems like at the end of every month your firm is barely meeting its financial needs.  You make a reasonable income but it’s impossible for you to take time off to travel or spend time with your family.  Work is one crisis followed by another, one deadline resulting in three more.

Due to a downturn in the economy you know that if you don’t find more work soon you will need to start laying off employees that you have worked with for years.  You know you could do better work and have more developed designs but you must cut the time you personally spend on each project to market your services and follow-up with potential clients.

At the end of the day you turn off the lights and lock the doors.  You are the last one in the office again.  You walk downstairs to your car and put the key in the lock.  You think to yourself, what happened to the joy I used to feel in my work.  Is this all architecture is?  Is this all my life is worth?

This is the status quo in architecture.  The movies portray Architects as carefree, glamorous, wealthy and successful individuals.  The truth is that the architecture profession today is for the most part composed of stressed, overworked, frustrated individuals who live from paycheck to paycheck hoping that someday they will be able to take control of their lives and have the time to do the things they really want to.  Out of financial necessity we take on too many projects and stretch ourselves too thin … and for what?  At what point and at what cost are we deemed “successful and accomplished”?  Have you asked yourself lately what are you working towards, what are you working for?

The status quo no longer works. The economic meltdown that we are struggling to pull ourselves out of has reinforced this fact.  The idea of working for forty or fifty years and hoping to have enough saved to “retire” is no longer a viable option.  At any rate, why do we volunteer to literally work ourselves to death throughout the best years of our lives?

The idea of Architects as artists is ancient.  Wealthy patrons would hire resident architects and support them in their art.  It is time for Architects to become their own patrons. Architecture  may be our reason for living but it doesn’t have to be our livelihood.

 

Photo by Jayjay402

It is time for the architecture profession as it is today to die. It’s already dieing, it’s just a question of whether we will be like the Phoenix and rise from the ashes stronger and more noble.  Freed from the financial shackles Architects can reach their true potential of being agents for change and contribute to the improvement of the built environment in ways previously unimagined.

I, for one, am choosing a different path.  I choose to only do projects I want to do and to not do projects just for the sake of keeping busy.  I choose to not compromise on quality because I must take on more projects just to keep the lights on.  I choose to start living NOW and not wait until some future date.  I choose to be creative and not settle for the worn out solutions of the past.  I choose to take the training that I have received as an Architect and use it for the benefit of all people, not just those that can afford to pay me.

Stay tuned, the best is yet to come.

I’ll see you in Venice in two years,  (Update 4/4/12: It’s taking a little longer than expected but I’m getting close)

Tim Alatorre, AIA, LEED AP