Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Going Atomic on Oppenheimer

After the June 26 SCOTUS decision, many conservative Christians were worried their tax exempt status would eventually be in jeopardy. After all, if same sex marriage became the law of the land, how could one deny it without facing some legal or punitive cost? In this fear, Mark Oppenheimer's Time article made a lot of hay. While I'm over two weeks late in responding, I finally sat down with the article with the plan of analyzing it piece by piece. What's below is his entire article with my comments (in italics) interspersed. I also recorded a podcast today that focuses only on this article and I should be releasing it soon. You can subscribe to that podcast here. Pardon the shameless plug. On with the direction!


Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions
Mark Oppenheimer @markopp1 June 28, 2015

Mark Oppenheimer writes the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and is editor-at-large for Tablet. He also reports for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere.

The Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn't be subsidizing religion and non-profits

Two weeks ago, with a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the way, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to think Sen. Lee’s fears are unwarranted, and they can even point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Friday’s case, which promises “that religious organizations and persons [will be] given proper protection.”


Let’s stop there. Justice Kennedy’s rebuttal was not what many think it was. Let’s read that in its full context: 

“[I]t must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”

Notice what is missing. Chief Justice Roberts puts it this way: “The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

So for Oppenheimer to glibly put off legitimate concerns by citing Kennedy’s single paragraph doesn’t exactly quell the fears of many who realize he left out an awful lot of available words. You see, religion is not just about teaching, worshiping and advocating. To truly have religious freedom, you must be able to live out the consequences of your convictions so you conscience is not violated. It is quickly becoming, though, in the eyes of liberals it seems, what people do privately in their worship space. 


But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy. In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Sen. Lee’s fears.

I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.


Can I ask an obvious question? How is what Oppenheimer proposes a solution? Am I missing something? Mike Lee is offering a solution for a legitimate fear. Oppenheimer isn’t offering a solution. He’s just offering a devastating blow to scores of non-profits that are already hanging by a thumbnail. The problem is precisely rooted in claims of discrimination and losing one’s tax-exempt status. So how can just getting rid of said status be considered a solution? The problem is losing one’s tax exempt status. Taking it away pre-emptavely isn’t a solution. That’s like popping a kid’s football before loses it. 


The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax. This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving. But whatever its intentions, today it’s a mess, for several reasons.


Why would we blow off the intentions for the law? It seems to me understanding the intentions of the law are critical to understanding his “solution.” Why would the government end encourage this kind of giving? To spread the workload! What has happened since is that the government is so involved in every kind of social activity, it now doesn’t need the church’s charity. It is the welfare that the church once provided. But the intentions were to encourage charity, and they still are. At least in theory, don’t we still believe in charity? Perhaps more importantly, don’t we still think the society benefits from worshiping and obeying God? Now we’ve hit the raw nerve. We don’t believe that anymore, really. To people like Oppenheimer, a life with or without God is equally valid, no difference at all, no reason to encourage the church. They just view it all as one big marketplace. Once we lose the view that the society at at large is better off with God, you had better believe that churches will lose their tax exemptions. 


First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way. Since the world’s great religion scholars can’t agree on what a religion is, it’s absurd to ask a bunch of accountants, no matter how well-meaning. You can read part of the IRS’s guidelines for what’s a bona fide religion here; suffice it to say that it has an easier time saying what’s not a religion. The site gives the example of the rejection of an application from an “outgrowth of a supper club … whose primary activities were holding meetings before supper, sponsoring the supper club, and publishing a newsletter” but which professed a religious doctrine of “ethical egoism.”


Well, I agree its a hard position for the IRS to be in. It does have to draw lines. And we used to be able to agree! There was a time when Scientology would never have received recognition as a religion. But as a society, we caved. We have refused to draw the line of what at least attempts to recognize the true God…because we don’t believe in God anymore. We don’t link him to revelation and history. That’s all up for grabs. And this is what we get Scientology…er science fiction…getting a tax break. It is an offense to be sure. 


On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Never mind that the Scientology is secretive, or that it charges for its courses; or that its leader, David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status.


Yes, and aren’t many of those universities public institutions? What about a group like Planned parenthood, who apparently sells the “tissue” of aborted fetuses?


And many churches and synagogues sit on exceedingly valuable tracts of land (walk up and down Fifth Avenue to see what I mean). The property taxes they aren’t paying have to be drawn from business owners and private citizens — in a real sense, you and I are subsidizing Mormon temples, Muslims mosques, Methodist churches.


Okay, here is where my head explodes. This is said by someone who assumes that the taxes these churches aren’t paying ought to be paid and therefore have to be made up by other businesses. How is this even logical? Did it ever occur to him that the government could simply do with less? Did it ever occur to him that the government, since these laws were enacted planned budgets around the income they received, not income they wouldn’t receive, then having to raise taxes to make up the difference? 

Does he realize exactly how little it matters that a church is on a valuable tract of land? It only has value if you’re selling it, or climbing a property ladder. Being worth a lot doesn’t do anything for a church, except make them targets of lawsuits and drastically raise their insurance premiums.

But his assumption that taxpayers are subsidizing these charities because they don’t pay taxes is simply false. It’s not like these churches don’t pay for water or electricity or gas. They simply don’t pay property tax on property that they owned before the taxes even existed. Therefore, no city or state has ever planned on revenue from them. Therefore, there is no lost revenue. Therefore you are not subsidizing anything. 

Let's think about it another way. We complain about corporate greed, about the Enrons of the world, etc. Should we force churches and synagogues on Fifth Avenue to close if those institutions are the very thing that might prevent corporate greed? Is he so stupid as to not realize the role that religion plays in the lives of many "corporate titans", that religion in the city is a very good thing for us all? Oh sure, New York would get a few more tax dollars to squander, which would make no difference in the lives of anyone. But don’t be surprised when the guy who used to go to the Reformed church on Fifth Avenue runs a stock scheme later because his religious voice was taxed into oblivion.  Oppenheimer is way too optimistic that human beings will do the right thing without a religious voice and conscience in the world.


We’re also subsidizing wealthy organizations sitting in the middle of poor towns. Yale University has an endowment of about $25 billion, yet it pays very little to the city of New Haven, which I (as a resident) can assure you needs the money. At the prep school I attended (current endowment: $175 million), faculty houses, owned by the school, were tax-exempt, on the theory that teachers sometimes had students over for dinner, where they talked about history or literature or swim practice.


Okay, Yale university has a lot of money. So what? Does this guy not understand that the vast amount of churches and non-profits are barely getting by? Does he care? To compare a congregation to a university with a $25 billion is a laugh. 


Meanwhile, although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions.


Churches don’t thrive on the public dole. Not paying taxes is not the same as receiving money unless in your warped world you believe that money not given to the government is the equivalent of the government paying out. That is a frightening mindset if that is Oppenheimer’s. 


Conservatives are footing the bill for taxes that Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, doesn’t pay — while liberals are making up revenue lost from the National Rifle Association.


No, his assumptions are totally backwards! The government actually does fund Planned Parenthood. Does it give money to the NRA? Exempting the NRA from taxes is not the same thing as footing the bill for Planned Parenthood. At least, not on the planet Earth. Perhaps that is Pluto's fiscal policy. Can NASA tell us that? His assumptions are so backwards that he cannot possibly come to sane conclusions. 


I could go on. In short, the exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty.


Perhaps there are some rich institutions that hoard money and they are surrounded by poverty. Like where Oppenheimer got his degree which led to him getting his job at Time Magazine. In my world, that would make him a hypocrite. But it isn’t the right of some people to determine how much money is fair and proper for private institutions to have. At least, that used to be true in America. 


Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argue that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.


Is he really so naive? As if that money would go anywhere but into an unaccountable government slush fund. By the way, we’ve been housing the homeless for 50 years in this War on Poverty. We’ve spent trillions and the poverty rate has stayed the same. Bang for buck, there is no doubt that religious charities that hold the recipients of their good will accountable have a far higher and more humane success rate. 


Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it. They can afford to, more than millions of poorer New Yorkers whose tax bills the synagogue and church exemptions are currently inflating.


Again, the assumption that no paying taxes automatically requires others to pick up the slack is false. There are other options, like the government doing with less. And these are not average congregations. Most congregations have budgets of around $200,000, with 1-2 staff people, a ton of volunteers, on land that is probably not worth close to $500,000.


So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe).

And I guess that is our saving grace, isn’t it? 


But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good.


Oh really? Does this guy know how much money doctors make? What about hospital administrators. They practically swim in their money like Scrooge McDuck! Is he really saying we should let them keep their exemptions when doctors make so much money? Is that really moral, Mr. Oppenheimer? 


And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need.


And who determines that? What a lame olive branch here at the end. He begins by saying end all tax exemptions for non-profits. Except for hospitals. And nonprofits their communities need. Did it ever occur to him that communities need churches? For what will “solve” the problems of this world is faithful Christian discipleship. There’s my assumption. A right relationship with the holy revealed God of the Bible is a cure for social problems. But he thinks the only non-profits that matter are those that try to end homelessness and abort children. Is that about right? So as long as they’re non-profits that you like, Mr. Oppenheimer, they’re cool? Boy, that’s a lot of religious freedom! Thanks! 


But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share.

Gotta love the ol’ “fair share” line. Mr. Oppenheimer, Stalin, Mao and Huey P. Long called and they wants their propaganda back. 

Let me say this. There is no divine right to tax exempt status or charitable deductions. For that matter, I don’t think there are rights to lots of things. But it is a question of what we want to encourage. Taxes are like the gas pedal and the break in society. Cigarettes = bad. Churches = bad. Planned Parenthood =

good? Do I have that about right? 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Three Cheers for “Boyhood”, the Movie That Keeps Speaking

Only after living with Boyhood in my head for a few days did I realize that I had watched the movie all wrong. This review will give nothing away, but perhaps it will help you watch it if you haven’t yet or re-consider some aspects of the film if you have. Essentially, my very watching of the film illustrated what the film wanted me, the viewer, to realize: that you have to live life in the moment and stop looking for what is going to happen next. 

Now, I know how trite that sounds. And I only half agree with the premise. Christians do live for today, but in a certain sense, “carpe diem” is overrated, for we also live for tomorrow. The mantra of Dead Poets Society is true when the day that needs to be seized has come; but not every day is such a day. Indeed life is full of ordinary days, but days that are special beyond words. This film must be watched in a certain way, because what it depicts is a series of vignettes, none of which in themselves are especially interesting. The modern film audience is always waiting of the next shoe to drop, the next thrill, the next twist. As I watched the film, I realized I had an impending sense of doom or disaster because, well, fiction has programmed that into me. 

But that isn’t what this film is. It is much closer to a documentary that, because of its incredible 12-year shooting span, follows an ordinary boy in ordinary times with ordinary problems. There really is no climax and the twists and turns are likely no more ironic than the twists and turns in your own life. If I watched the film again, and one day I’m sure I will, I’ll watch it very differently. I’ll try to appreciate each scene and vignette for what it is, not for what utility it serves for the plot. Because there is no plot. The only forward movement is the unending beat of time. 

Only later does the film’s genius emerge. In a way no ham-fisted or even good coming-of-age tale can do, it will begin to tap into your own childhood. (While I am a man, the son of a single mother, much like the main character, I do believe women will find much to relate to in the film, even though the subject is boyhood.) You will recognize the scenes in the film as scenes from your own life. And not extraordinary scenes. Indeed, I recalled moments in my life that I had forgotten. But this film thrives not on the arcs of life, but the times in between, the times when life is really happening, and it gives them back to us. We had forgotten them, you see, because we were too busy worrying about the next event. 

The film will also highlight the true innocence of childhood and the subtle ways that innocence is lost and adulthood begins. It really is hard to know when boyhood ends and adulthood begins. And for most of us, it isn’t one moment that gets us there. It’s many. And most of them are hard, but some of them are great; seeing violence, falling in love, breaking up, sharing a parent with a new person, stern talkings-to by mentors, and finally, leaving home. All of these bittersweet moments chip away at our innocence and usher us into the adult world. What Boyhood does is cause you to relive those moments or even identify them for what they were. It will help you to see how you came to be you. 

It will also help you to appreciate the ordinary times. As the father of two, I can tell you it is way too hard to appreciate the time when children are young. They are a love and joy that is comparable to nothing else And yet, it is the hardest job in the world and you are often ready for the day to end. You’re glad when they move from the crawling phase to the walking phase, the diaper phase to the toilet phase, preschool to Kindergarten, in part because they rely on you less and your days get a bit easier. You find yourself constantly thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to change diapers anymore” or “I can’t wait until they can bathe themselves” or “I can’t wait until bedtime.” That is normal, because children and their messes and their crying is exhausting. But Boyhood - and I’m not even sure how it did this - was a reminder that those are precious moments passing you by. How foolish to dread them! Now I know why everyone always told me to enjoy them because they go fast.

Perhaps, because in 2.5 hours, you see the passing of 12 real years (i.e. a different actor doesn’t play the older version of a character), you are reminded that time is the one gift given that is completely beyond our control. And because it is told from the child’s point-of-view, it is a reminder to parent’s how children see the world. In the rush to get on to the next thing, this is often forgotten by parents. 

We are always looking forward to the killer vacation, the greatest birthday party ever, the next big event. But as a pastor, I’ve been thinking again what family members say about someone when they die, and it is rarely those big moments that are ever mentioned. It is ordinary things about ordinary people. “He always used to do this…” for example. That is the stuff of life. And Boyhood captures it, and it took this kind of filmmaking to capture it well. The 12-year shooting wasn’t a gimmick; it is a critical technique to communicate this reality. 

So if you haven’t seen the film, see it. But don’t watch it like you do other films. Open your mind and your memories and let the film really become your own story. Because that’s what it is. Don’t worry about what is going to happen next or what plot lines are developing. They don’t matter. Life doesn’t work that way. 


A final thought as a Christian pastor. This film - perhaps not immediately, but in time - can cause one to think about life and appreciate it anew. It can lead to some bittersweet recollections, memories of those times in your life that you couldn’t wait to get through but now you see you wouldn’t be you without them. It seems to me, that without an ultimate, without hope for reconciliation in the future, these memories would not be bittersweet, but just plain bitter. Life is full of difficulties and joys. Without the hope - rooted in historical events and the ministry of Jesus - that my family and our life together is not truly sacred, such a film might lead me to despair. But because I have a narrative of hope buried within, I dread less the passing of time. Indeed, I might appreciate it more now. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Do We Need More Mission Congregations?

What I am about to ask is about as controversial a question as one can ask in the Church. But because I’ve rarely heard it asked, I’ll ask: Do we need more mission congregations? For those who aren’t familiar with all this language, a mission congregation is a new church plant, an upstart. They are organized to serve gatherings of underserved Christians, or to try to make new Christians in secular areas. Church denominations frequently have goals of planting new congregations in new housing developments or suburbs where a church with their “brand” is not yet present.
     Without a doubt, many areas do need church plants, so it would be quite silly to suggest that there is not an absolute need for more church plants. As the population naturally increases, some areas will have enough Christians to merit a congregation of one brand or another. But how many do we need and what church plants are legitimate, if I may be so bold to ask?
     With a few exceptions, mission congregations that aren’t absolutely necessary, can easily do two things that are harmful to the body at large: they market themselves to a particular demographic, creating a competitive atmosphere in the Church; and they create overhead for new congregations, a burden when so many small congregations are struggling to survive and could benefit from partnership. Unless a congregation is one of the exceptions, mission pastors should strongly consider whether they need to be involved in a church plant.
     What are the exceptions? First, if there is an area that does not have a Christian presence, clearly a congregation is needed. Much more discernment would be needed to decide if a particular brand (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. and various versions therein) is needed, or if a partnership between congregations can be worked out. Second, if an ethnic group that does not speak English (assuming an American context), it will likely need to be served by a pastor of its heritage for a generation or so. Third, if your brand has very particular theological issues at stake, and no congregation in a good distance (say, a 25 miles radius) shares them, a mission congregation may be needed. If there is no confessional or sacramental congregation in 50 miles, a mission congregation may be needed for sure.
     The problems with too many mission congregations are rarely said –who wants to be opposed to mission! – but they should be. Notably, too many mission congregations inevitably create a competitive atmosphere, because they are rarely planted out of pent-up demand. Graduates from seminary want to lead a congregation, so one is organized. This can lead to a less-than-catholic view of worship and fellowship: people are marketed to by demographics and felt needs. All of a sudden, mission congregations are appealing to the very people established congregations are losing. But instead of restoring people to catholic worship and teaching, they are recruiting them to something new that may be perilous to their spiritual health, i.e. Purpose-Driven, seeker-sensitive versions of Christianity.
     All of this marketed, demographic research and certainty that “we can reach who others can’t” is happening while churches are hallowing out. Leaders and people that could be engaged in already-established congregations, helping them grow or resurrect, are beginning from scratch somewhere else. And when they do, they take on overhead that the other church already has covered: a building, property insurance, utilities, hymnals, and so on. Instead of the Church coming together, it is breaking apart and competing with itself…all in the name of mission.
     What fuels all of this? The easy answer is typical American methodology: bigger is better and numbers are king. We want to say we have planted so many congregations. I think we also look at the megachurch superstars - Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, et. al. - and we believe we can be the next guy to start a church as a Bible study and grow it to a powerhouse.
     But what if the Church at large is contracting in the West? What if, no matter how many mission congregations we plant, the Lord is shrinking his Church, turning it into a mustard seed? Why should we resist it? What makes us think we’re so special that we must grow? Or more to the point, is God’s Kingdom always growing? That seems to be the assumption in all of this, but I know of no reason that it is necessarily true.
     I guess to put some meat on the bones, if I were a bishop and a young man contacted me about starting a mission congregation, I would have to really think about it. Unless it were an ethnic situation or a totally barren community regarding the Church, my answer would probably be, “No.”
     A final proposal: among like-minded (generally like-minded, but not always exactly like-minded) church bodies, it seems that congregations should share as much as they can, but create ordinariates within one congregation. For example, Rome has done this with its Personal Ordinariates, where Anglicans retain Anglican liturgy and practice, but in some cases, have reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps a variety of ordinariates can be one congregation for elements of worship, Bible study and outreach, but separate for sacramental purposes. This isn’t a perfect solution, but at least it shares the burden of overhead, saving resources. It also encourages cooperation in the Church instead of competition.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

On Thomas’ Theology of Usefulness


When my former church body issued a new hymnal (or “worship resource” as such things are now called), it contained an iconic image of people in the act of worship. This was not meant to be a literal depiction, but something intended to depict people in worship. Basically, it was stick figures of people with their arms held up, because people holding their arms up has become the ubiquitous image for worshiping God. Anyway, all of that was fine. But then I noticed that one of these iconic images was a person in a wheelchair. 

Now, I’m not against people in wheelchairs. Indeed, some of my best friends are in wheelchairs, as the saying goes. But it struck me as an especially politically correct attempt to prove that this hymnal would espouse diversity. No potential worshipper would be left out of the imagery. There would be no possibility of exclusion or insult. It made me wonder if the disabled community asked for such an inclusion or if they even cared? It certainly didn’t bother me; it just made me chuckle because it seemed such a naked attempt to be politically correct. 

I say that to let you know a little about me. I like to think that I value people enough that I don’t believe iconic artwork should go out of its way to represent every possible human group, disabled or not. My lack of sensitivity on this issue - if you want to see it that way - should give me some credence for what I’m about to say regarding a blue train and his friends, Thomas the Tank Engine. You see, because I’m not all that worried about hurting the feelings of one group after another (because I know that I do indeed love them through Christ), I can speak honestly about more serious offenses, or deeper rooted problems in our understanding of relating to the disabled. 

As the father of a three and a five-year-old, I have watched my fair share of Thomas and Friends. It seemed harmless enough - and I guess it still is, in spite of this blog - and seeing that an Anglican priest wrote the books this is based on made me feel good about it. But a clear theology/philosophy creeped into the program through the years, and this became an outright assault on the senses as time went on. The show became obsessed with usefulness. A good engine was useful. A bad engine was wasteful, lazy, or didn’t share. Virtue, it seems, is totally wrapped up in one’s ability to be useful, for when Thomas was scolded for not being useful, he felt very bad about himself. Likewise, he was proud when he accomplished all that Sir Topham Hatt wanted for him to do. (A quick Google search revealed that several others have pointed this out. Here’s a nice piece.)

Is this what we want to teach our children? That usefulness is the highest ideal? I suppose at best this encourages children to be hard-working and/or helpful to adults, responsible even. In the worst light, it smacks of utilitarianism, eventually communism. The usefulness of a person to others is what gives them value in the eyes of society and when a person is not useful they should basically be ashamed. This, if actually believed and implemented, would naturally lead to the acceptance that “useless” or “inconvenient” newborns or fetuses could be destroyed. Certainly, this would put the physically or mentally disabled in the crosshairs as well. And don’t forget about the elderly who can’t pull their weight. They aren’t useful at all! Shame on them! 

I may be making a mountain of a molehill, and I know that every children’s program has one kind of emphasis at the expense of others. And even though a priest may have begun this program, it is now marketed to people of all stripes, certainly non-Christians who do not share a Christian worldview. And I don’t know if children actually pick up and internalize this sentiment. I still am hoping my children volunteer to be more useful around the house as they grow. 

Still, it’s not as though one episode was about the value of usefulness. The entire program is obsessed with it. And given the liberal lean of most in the media, I have to wonder after a while why this virtue is singled out above all others. Surely a “Christian” program, or at least one inspired by the writings of an Anglican priest, could point out the realities of suffering and the intrinsic worth of all trains, even those who cannot always be useful. As for me and my household, we’ll be mixing in some other programming to stave off my children’s inevitable march towards Marxism. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Sister Act Skewed Real Urban Congregational Renewal

If you’ve never seen Sister Act, you probably should. It’s funny and charming and relatively innocent. If you haven’t, here’s a three sentence summary: a lounge singer enters a convent while in the witness protection program, only to bring new life into a moribund, lifeless and hopeless religious community. Her zany antics revive the church and the neighborhood. What would they have ever done without that crazy lady hiding from the mob?! 

The film pokes fun at the stodgy order or nuns, but it is never particularly hostile to them. It’s not the fault of the nuns that their congregation is dull and dying. After all, they’re nuns! What could they possibly know about vitality in church life? Everyone knows nuns aren’t good for much but praying and slapping the wrists of delicate schoolboys. But for not being hostile and for only portraying the nuns as out-of-touch and not outright evil (or possessed by demons), this Hollywood film deserves credit.

As a pastor of a small, urban congregation, however, I often think about the subtle judgment this film offers on traditional ministry in the city. While I wouldn’t expect a Hollywood comedy to offer sincere insight on the struggles of inner city religious work, I do find the film to be typically American in all the worst ways. The underlying message is that you can’t expect old traditions to have value in the modern age. Times have changed. Chant is out, hip hop is in. If you don’t adapt, you die. In the film, it only takes 90 minutes for a dead church to become the life of the party, all thanks to this crazy sister who wasn’t afraid to buck the trend and shake things up. 

You have to ask if life isn’t intimating art. While I seriously doubt anyone would ever directly admit it, I would bet this film had a subtle - if not profound - impact on a generation of young pastors and church leaders. This film singlehandedly made hanging on to the tradition embarrassing and passé. Every pastor wanted to achieve what Whoopi did; no one would defend the previous life of the convent. 

In the 20 years this film has been out, there has been a revolution in the American church. The assumption is now that there is no room for the tradition in worship - especially in a city - if the church is to have a future. As Hollywood is the de facto culture shaper in America, there is little doubt that films like Sister Act have served as the template for how to do ministry: young, hip, and relevant are the defining hallmarks of nearly every major movement in the church, from the Postmoderns emergents to the megachurches to many black churches to mainline churches, and most of all, in church plants. 

When this film came out, these “worship wars” - which are really philosophical, cultural and missional wars - were still in their infancy. Today the war is really over, and the “contemporary” side has claimed almost total victory. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox continue to retain the historic liturgy. But in the evangelical and Protestant church, the liturgy is becoming obsolete about as fast as the nation itself turns from Christianity at large. (Yes, I know Sister Act took place in a Catholic community, but this was merely superficial in the film.)

What has helped me see this is several meetings with young mission planters who hail from traditional Protestant churches with deep liturgical backgrounds. But both regard liturgical worship as a hopeless ally in building a church of young men and women. They may retain the order of the liturgy - commonly defined now as Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending - but the music is guitars, djembes and the genre of praise. It has even been said to me, as though I might not take any offense at all, that our church couldn’t possibly reach the next generation of Christians and/or seekers, because no one could relate to traditional hymns out of a hymnal, chanted music, or formal liturgy. 

Of course, they may be right. But I’m not sure that’s a judgment against the liturgy as much as our expectations of future Christians. Following in the Sister Act mold, the mantra seems to be that an urban parish cannot possibly be attractive to those in their neighborhood without shaking things up and being iconoclastic. Because in America, we love iconoclasts, change and rebellion.

It’s just a shame that mission planters so rarely consider that in giving these urbanites what they want has created a competitive environment with the historic church. They have also exploited American consumerism in what should be a catholic and apostolic endeavor.

It isn’t the church’s job or calling to appeal to anyone. Persuasive? Yes. Welcoming? Sure. Liked? Maybe. But the church doesn’t have to appeal to anyone. The calling of the church is to be honest and to draw men and women into a formative process, wherein they are discipled. Their emotions and musical preferences have nothing to do with that process, at least not necessarily. And superficial changes to music also symbolize nothing, at least not necessarily. The church is supposed to form people into the image of Christ, people who freely choose to be conformed by the Spirit, not the world. 


Am I saying that contemporary worship is evil or that Sister Act is some kind of bane of existence for the church? Of course not. I am saying, though, that in subtly ridiculing the traditions of the church in the way it did, it made it almost impossible in its wake to be an urban parish holding fast to traditions. It has obviously become far easier to try to look cool than to defend the tradition, asking new Christians to learn from it and be formed by it instead of lampooning it for the new shiny thing. So while Sister Act may be a fine family comedy, it did nothing for those of us who aren’t yet ready to give up on men and women coming to church on its terms, not their own.  

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Five Years Later: Being an Architect under the 'New Normal'

 

Inside a corporate architectural office. Notice that everyone
works on computers and there are no walls or partitions,
supposedly to foster team collaboration. In a recession, half
of those desks would be empty.
It was around the middle of summer when the wheels began to fall off.  Our team's final deadline for submitting construction drawings for a project in Utah was just a day away, and like usual everyone was scrambling to get every last detail finished and red-line picked up.  Then an email from the client's lead project manager came, ordering us to postpone drawing package until further notice. She informed us that her entire team had just been laid off .  After an initial feeling of relief of not having to put long hours to finish the job in the next days,  it became clear that the flush years of abundant work and job security were coming to an end.  This was a few months before the Lehman collapse and about six months before the TARP bailout.  Little did we know how much more was to be faced by our client, my colleagues and even more so the architectural profession at large.  The client, one of the country's larges proprietors of shopping centers, would later undergo bankruptcy, the sale of many of its assets and multiple hostile takeover bids.  My colleagues and I were simply continuing in fear knowing that any day could be their last, and those who were left would be subjected to even longer hours, as teams would be expected to do a lot more with less.  The mood at the state architect's convention that fall was naturally ominous, but even the attendants were in hindsight too optimistic on the depth and breadth of the coming recession and the time it would take for business to pick up again.

Signs of Strain

In a big architecture firm, there are a couple of signs that indicate the souring of the overall economic climate.  First, there is a frenzy of expansionary activity within the office- hiring becomes rapid to replace all those leaving for better-paying opportunities elsewhere as well as from inflated expectations on future business.  Office work space expands, new cubicles are buitlt to fill it and suddenly your quiet team meeting spaces have turned into a cluster of makeshift workstations for summer interns.  Though this expansion seems haphazard, it actually conforms to a plan dictated from above, often as a result form strategic forecasting  initiatives it rolls out.  It took a while since the last recession, but now the firm's leadership can induldge in setting its sights on growth rather than survival (which often takes a couple of years after a pick-up in billings).  When times are good, one can indulge on think about the future. When they are not, the present is all that matters.
 
Another sign that the end to the good times is more of a response to the over-hiring that precedes it. You begin to notice that certain project teams are growing too big, just as the number of projects begin to dwindle. Meeting tables that accommodate no more than five or six people are now surrounded with 12 or more, with the banter between team members becoming far too audible to the others working in at their desks. In other situations, project teams betray a lack of balance in the kind of skillsets each member brings.  You will see some teams with three or four designers working out the look of one small building, or three project managers depending on one draftsman to get the construction drawings out the door.

And finally, in my experience, there seems to be a kind of inverse relationship between the degree of the firm's leadership tries to publicly reassure staff and the pessimism they conceal as their project backlog evaporates.  They explain that when a project is "put on hold" has little to do with the client's lack of money or commitment, but rather that they are simply taking time to refine the program before moving forward, which, as they constantly reassure you, will happen.

Collapse

Eventually the holding patterns become terminal, the reassurances turn into extremely thin silver linings, and the layoff notices strike.  This didn't occur immediately after Lehman, but mostly throughout the first year-and-a-half afterwards.  Fortunately in my firm there were a couple of projects that had already been approved for construction, as the expenses for them had been approved years before and shielded from the stock market (thank you, healthcare sector) and required a lot of man hours. That life-raft lasted for a good 6-9 months, which for me was briefly followed by doing  more healthcare work along more analytic lines by learning new software. And then commercial projects, my main specialty, began to trickle in again (about 2 years after Lehman), usually demanding a more conceptual focus over expertise in technical detailing and construction.

Others weren't as lucky.  After the healthcare projects dried up, there were many on those project teams who had no place to go, since the new projects starting up had no use for their technical expertise or managerial skillsets.  There was instead a need for people who could generate colorful design concept packages, which required the ability for people quickly model, color and render ideas to a level that the client could begin to market a project to banks and tenants, with a very small hope that it might get built. Naturally the architect's fee for delivering this kind of work at the initial phase of a project is small (since a large majority of an architect's fee is earned during the construction document phase), and so the staff allocated to the design team has to be very small in number and pretty cheap to pay, of which being young in age is actually an advantage.  Older architects, who accumulated many years in various jobsites and valuable experience in managing brick-and-mortar projects were suddenly unsuitable to the overrarching task of making pretty pictures for highly speculative projects--they were eventually let go.  Young architects, who weren't as enamored with the conceptual side of the profession as they were with getting something real that was tangible to be built in the real world, were struggling to keep up with the quick pace of producing concept models and coordinating outsourced renderings--many of them were out of a job, too (they kept a few, though, since they were still cheap compared to their older mentors).

Hitting Bottom

In the end, there were about 4 waves of corporate-wide layoffs, and several more that were unannounced within various sectors.  In my firm alone our overall personnel count was reduced by 20%.  This was actually better than many other offices, where it wasn't unusual for their staff to be cut by half, or sometimes dissolve altogether.  The 2008 financial crash and the ensuing recession decimated the architectural profession, more so than in any other industry, and to this day it boasts a relatively high unemployment rate (around 25% or higher).  It was the equivalent of a "Götterdämmerung"--a disaster, at least  for the profession as it was traditionally understood.  It was the worst economic environment endured since the Great Depression, and there is a veritable "Lost Generation" of young designers who happened to graduate from architecture school at the wrong time, who have migrated to other industries to make a living or hole themselves up in the parents' basement.  Such devastation naturally took an emotional toll on those of us who were spared, since we all work in close-knit teams where each person pulls their weight equally.  A sense of camaraderie develops among in the trenches at the office working late nights meeting deadlines.  The first layoff a very big firms tends to remove the chaff, those individuals who were never able to become vital to a team whether because of their lack of relevant skills, basic sociability (antagonism within a team is costly to our productivity and morale) or for some other reason have become a liability rather than an asset.  The second and third layoffs hurt a lot more because real quality people are lost, including the firm's own investment in them as they were trained to work as part of their efficient way of working.

Given these outcomes, what good is an
architect's degree?
As I've written in another post, some architects, particularly the younger more idealistic ones who try to find some kind of silver linings amidst the crisis.  It presented an opportunity to rein in all kinds of excesses financed by the global credit bubble, especially vanity-laden projects that catered to a small plutocratic elite trying to make profits in speculative emerging markets in Asia and the Persian Gulf or in rapidly gentrifying Western financial capitals like New York and London.  Never letting a crisis go to waste, building design professionals should re-focus on more humanitarian endeavors or at least on greater simplification and budget awareness so that culture of humility could take root.  Recessions, they say, allow us to take stock on what truly matters, nudging us to look at serving the communities in our own backyards, fulfilling real social needs and maybe increasing the visibility of architects as something more than just enablers of the rich to permanently express their egos.  This would result in a re-emergence of small local firms who would design things that matter, a revived design scene with  real substance, transcending the crass purveyors of fashion and branding as symbolized by the 'starchitects'.


Needless to say, the years between 2002 and 2008 were fat ones for architects, even with all of its so called 'decadence'. Spawned by a Federal Reserve-induced real-estate bubble, average wages rose at their fastest rate, hiring was widespread in most markets, and working in a firm even had its fun moments.  Big fees helped cover for rising overhead costs that included a number of company parties, meals and weekend outings throughout the year. Although new all-in-one 3d software was emerging around that time that would boost productivity and thus shrink the size of project teams, the practice was still reliant on 2d Cad software that demanded a sizeable number of people to adequately document sizeable buildings.

Surely such days would come back once the economy recovered, right?

Five Years Later

As far as predictions go, the more pessimistic ones seem to have won out, but there is some consolation to be had in the changing quality of the practice that will be explained later.  In terms of employment, salaries, project backlogs and even with regards to our moral stature, the architectural profession is still not even close to where it was when the recession started five years ago.  Whatever sense of security that is left, even in a profession as economically sensitive as ours, is now gone.  I personally don't think we are quite out of the woods yet, and the overall mood in my firm (which enjoys a more comfortable financial position versus its rivals) is one of caution and survival. We are very busy, but much of the work continues to be of a conceptual quality, useful to developers to market the project with pretty pictures and diagrammatic floor plans but rarely advancing to actual construction, which is where our bread-and-butter is made (a rule of thumb from my own experience as a design-side commercial architect is that there is a 10% chance that the project you are slaving over will get built, and that might be a bit optimistic).  Thus any recent hiring that has occurred has been mostly to meet staffing needs for the initial design phase of projects, while expert technical detailers and seasoned project managers have been whittled down to a select few experts, who still don't have enough to do most of the time.  

The overall reality that afflicts the labor pool both young and old has become a bit tougher, and I don't seeing it letting up anytime soon.  There is still a huge glut of young architecture school graduates seeking employment, resulting in an extremely competitive job market that has naturally bid down starting salaries everywhere. According to a few industry surveys that I have seen, salaries for newbie designers seem to have stagnated at best and shrunk slightly overall, thus not even closely keeping up with inflation.  Add to this the staggering cost and the accrued debt of their university degrees, the young are in a deep financial hole before they ever start (something older types can't begin to comprehend with their past ability to draft part-time to pay for school not so long ago). Cost-cutting is the name of the game at most firms, which informs a tendency to offer lower starting salaries, and worse, to act on a preference towards cheaper and less demanding new hires (foreign workers on visas, in other words).  Older architects with lots of real-world experience in construction often take a modest pay-cut when re-entering the workforce, while those who specialize in business development stand to profit most (and they have according to this AIA survey). One quickly-expanding construction-oriented specialty that once kept a lot of this particularly demographic busy, healthcare design, has since the passage the Affordable Care Act has stagnated or shriveled.  Going towards a healthcare career route now doesn't seem such a sure bet, and has become as precarious as any other commercial or residential sector.

What about us survivors, those who managed to stay on board layoff after layoff, has it gotten any better?  Though we are extremely grateful for our jobs, it doesn't mean that our overall lot has improved all that much.  In many ways it has become significantly tougher due to several major factors.  As has already been mentioned, cutting the cost of doing business has been a key driver in all decisions pertaining to the staffing, scope and time.  This has partly to do with shoring balance sheets within the firm, but it has also to do with increasing global competition for projects, since the domestic market isn't sufficient to maintain numerous firms' large sizes.  Construction activity in the US has picked up quite a bit since 2008, but the volume of work is smaller than during the bubble beforehand with hungry firms bidding down their fees to new levels.  They therefore have pursued opportunities abroad, which have been fruitful for many firms but are limited by the fact that construction documents are to be done exclusively by the architect local to that country, thus making a full scope of service impossible and fees even smaller.

The BIM Revolution

Another major factor that deeply affects the fortunes of architect transcends the habitual ups down in the global economic cycle: technology.  As alluded to earlier, there has been a sea-change in the kinds of digital tools we use to deliver design services that began to emerge during the last building boom and had become mainstream by the time the 2008 recession occurred.  Contrary to some who call it just another kind of "digital pencil", the introduction of building information modeling (BIM) software is in my view more of a new kind of paradigm.  It changes the range of tasks that an architect executes from day to day--we no longer draw lines to represent a three-dimensional building but instead we construct the building virtually through intelligent three-dimensional models.  Computers are now able to automate the often repetitive tasks drafting and technical documentation, freeing the architect to design, exploring methods of assembly and forecasting its performance by running analytical models.  This isn't your father's AutoCad nor your grandfather's drafting table. Nor is it your good ol' cardboard model, which has been abandoned by more and more practices with the arrival of easy-to-learn sketch modeling software and 3d printers.  Both drafting and cutting cardboard models are time-consuming and labor intensive, the kind of things that younger workers were expected to do when fees were generous and deadlines were longer, freeing older professionals to tend to more managerial and business development roles. 

Since BIM is essentially an extensive database embodied in a virtual building model, those who master it first wield new powers in the design and construction process. More importantly, it shatters the traditional relationship between the lowly intern and the seasoned project manager.  The young naturally learn BIM and allied parametric modeling tools much more quickly than the old, and within a few years become the gatekeepers of vital information about all technical aspects of the project.  Older types, who were just barely getting up to speed using 2-dimensional drawing programs (e.g. AutoCAD), haven't quite grasped how the new BIM tools work, much less understand the time and skills required to make it work effectively.  As leaders of project teams who have to decide on the kind and actual amount of resources to devote to a project, they still rely on old formulas based on yesterday's technological standards.  They are unable accurately assess the emerging skillsets of younger workers, thus making the mistake of expecting a lot more from their staff in less time while at the same time writing proposals promising clients that his team can deliver a higher level of quality and standard of service for the same amount of fees.  This really puts the squeeze on the young, who now must learn in a couple of years what used to take decades in learning how to put buildings together (a good thing) while spitting out detailed drawings, photo-realistic renderings and run systems analysis in the same amount of time and fee it once took to create a few hand-sketched plans and an elevation or two.  For example, when I started in the profession over a decade ago, a concept design package (the first 5-10% of an architect's fee, usually) consisted of around 15 to 25 colored pages of hand-sketched plans, sections, elevations, hand-drawn perspectives and area tabulations for a large mixed-use commercial project. Now, it is not unusual to see over 150 colored pages containing precisely drafted plans showing structural data, rendered shadow-casted elevations with material swatches around it, sections depicted in single-point perspective (pretty cool), photo-realistic renderings prepared by a Chinese rendering company, plan diagrams detailing traffic flows, pedestrian experience, green coverage, shadow studies, energy consumption, sightlines, and finally area tabulations. 

What an architect's drafting board look likes, circa 2012.
Given this reality, it is almost insulting to hear of older architects moaning about how they had paid their dues in their earlier career as draftsmen while young people of today have no idea how easy it is for them with all these "new fangled computers and such".  As a professional whose career straddles the traditional 2d drawings practice and the 3d modeling and database management of the present, it grates me to hear them compare their experience and responsibilities when they were interns to what current interns are expected to deliver.  A generational rift is taking shape along the lines of technological know-how, pitting the young against the old, the cheaply productive versus the expensive and obsolete.  The old still have much to share, in particular about a project's constructability, budget, program, and shepherding a concept to a finished building.  The young are equipped with powerful tools, but in my experience they have had enough humility to take direction from their senior managers, since having just left the protective shell of architecture school, they realize that real-world experience counts. I get the impression that the old are a bit fearful of the advance of technology in the process, and that it will one day assume nearly all of their day to day tasks, thus undermining their actual experience and overall value to the way architecture is delivered.

The Global 24-Hour Practice

For those of us who have weathered the fallout resulting from mass layoffs and technological disruptions, we are having to come to terms with an uncomfortable new overarching reality: our domestic economy hasn't recovered the way it did in past boom-bust cycles, and it will continue to stagnate for the long term. We are getting a sense this 'new normal' represents some structural changes that inevitably occur with any mature post-industrial economy, in which aging demographics, the growth of the entitlement state, technologically driven productivity, and the transitioning from manufacturing to services as a source of employment all contribute to slow growth further hampered by higher taxes and running inflation.  It's not coming back, and firms that have positioned themselves to local economic conditions are extremely vulnerable.

To survive, one has to cast much wider net and develop new markets to balance existing soft markets.  Large firms that have achieved a certain critical mass in terms of total billing and attendant staff before the recession have had to go even farther out to other countries with rapidly growing economies to stay busy.  These large firms have used the advantage of their size and resources to establish offices in key markets specifically in Middle East (e.g. Dubai) and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China).   A London office for most of these firms is still important geographically, since it is close enough to any potential European projects (relatively few) and the growing Persian Gulf region (which is mostly run by British commonwealth expats). This is no doubt quite a large investment in infrastructure on behalf of the firm, but it is becoming quickly necessary to assure the large legacy firms' competitive advantage, especially against the upstarts native to those emerging markets. Small firms have also started to go that same route, subsidizing their loss-making boutique work in their home country with commissions from Asia, even Africa.  Starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog and De Meuron, Snohetta, and Bjarke Ingels have gone full bore into these fast-growing markets, setting up expanding store-front offices near their projects.

China: it might be polluted and hazy most of the time,
but it keeps a lot of architects in business.
With foreign projects come foreign players; clients, consultants and naturally local architects.  Language barriers arise, and the ability to speak another language besides English becomes a valuable asset (though you need to speak the 'right' languages, i.e. those spoken in the BRIC countries such as Chinese, Portuguese, even Russian.  German, French or Japanese don't count for much like they used to).  Still, English is the de facto language of international commerce and one is quite surprised how competent professionals throughout the world can converse pretty well in the language of Shakespeare (thank you British Imperialism!).  Business hours are beholden to the culture of the people you are dealing with- the workweek in Dubai begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday; Latin Americans seem to prefer to come to the office late in the morning and stay until late at night; The Chinese just work all the time, practically non-stop.  The 9-to-5 forty-hour work week becomes irrelevant when your most important correspondence arrives in the middle of the night, and conference calls in your office are scheduled very early in the morning or long after your office has closed for the day. Foreign clients have begun to notice this, enjoying the ability of forwarding comments to the architect before they head home and sleeping soundly while the work gets done halfway across the globe only to wake up to see that it's done and ready for review.  The time frame in which the work gets done has now has been compressed by half; or instead twice the amount of work can be delivered within a traditional time frame.  Either way, more and more of us architects are putting in longer hours for the same amount of remuneration.

This new global reality has indeed created some new roles for architects beyond merely those of software operators. We have now become outsourcing coordinators.  Clients have become more sophisticated in the kind of imagery they expect to use for marketing.  Hand-painted watercolors are on the way out and computer generated photorealistic depictions are in, and the more, the better. Physical models made with cardboard have been replaced with 3d-printers, which can offer superb results at high cost, but also require specially trained personnel to operate the machines as well as prepare the software files in advance.  Since reducing cost by restraining wages is the main priority, it becomes nearly impossible to do the work in-house, much less to do it within the U.S.  Now the task of visualization and model-making is open to firms throughout the world. You are no longer expected to actual do the grueling work of making a detailed model or pretty picture, but you are expected to manage the process across vast distances and time zones.  Now you are expected to be on call to review rendering or model samples as they become available, often outside regular business hours, and usually while you are sleeping. It's important not to put off working on these renderings, since they often make-or-break the project, particularly to non-Western clients in which image seems trump function.  If the client and/or architect is willing to pay a hefty fee, the rendering companies can bring your design to life with relatively little input.  If not (which is most of the time), plan to spend many hours marking-up each rendering for multiple rounds, since companies with cheaper prices tend to hire people with no architectural background or sensibility.  They will often make lots of mistakes and demonstrate poor judgment when it comes to color, contrast, entourage and scale. After much labor and time on your part, though they eventually fix their mistakes.  All of that effort on your end has saved the firm a substantial amount of money compared to having someone in-house do the job.  You get what you pay for.

Keeping Score

Architecture as a jewelry collection- Saadiyat Island near Abu
Dhabi will have at 5 starchitect designed museums, and will
be supported almost exclusively by 5-star hotels, luxury
apartments and a giant shopping mall.
As the current reality of what it's like to be an architect in 2013 sets in, who are the winners and losers in this new order? Contrary to the hopefulness for a return to a small, community-oriented ethos would take hold after 2008, big, corporate and garish ego-driven monuments that seemed to be hallmarks of architecture before the crash seem to have only intensified in recent years. New sleek high-rise towers continue to be commissioned and built in China, the Middle East and now Latin America, as well as in the traditional global financial centers of New York and London.  And it's all high-end in nature, usually consisting of condominiums for the global elite, hotels for the jet-set leisure class, and class-A office floors for growing multi-national companies.  The elites are doing well and are receiving a higher level of design services for the same or even less cost.  As the cliché goes, the rich get richer and so forth.

Another winner are construction and engineering conglomerates.  Because architecture firms have yet to find a profitable business model and are prone to engage in under-bidding their services to get the job, other stronger players in the building industry are gaining ground in deciding how projects are designed and built. Companies that offer construction services (general contractors) are flexing their muscle by assuming more design responsibilities themselves or buying the designers outright by taking them over.  These companies see architectural design services as a means of attracting more work for their engineers and contractors, not as a means as making much money from the architects themselves. Inveresely recommendations and referrals from contractors are a major source of work for architects.  Japan is a notoriously difficult market for foreign architects mostly because local construction companies offer in-house architectural design for free on the expectation of making their profit upon a project's construction. For example, in 2009 AECOM a 45,000 person-strong engineering and contracting firm, bought out Ellerbe Becket, a Minneapolis-based architecture firm of 450 people known for its work on sports arenas and stadiums.  Amsterdam-based Arcadis, a giant engineering company most known for its infrastructure and brownfield-redevelopment projects, acquired Baltimore-based RTKL Associates in 2007, which was already one of the largest architectural firms in the world at the time.  More locally, The Beck Group, a Dallas-based construction services company acquired Urban Architecture in 1999 and has turned those who remain after the acquisition into it's in-house architectural team.  These mergers pay big dividends to an architecture firm's senior partners who agree to sell their shares, but they imply a sort of demotion for salaried upper management that were once hopeful to acquire shares in the future. With the emergence of integrated project delivery, in which designers, engineers and contractors collaborate closely on a project from beginning to end (thanks to BIM),  I predict we'll see more mergers in which architects lose their traditional autonomy in the construction process.



Oh, and somewhere in there we happen to be the world's
largest architecture firm.
Lastly, architects who can wield technology to their advantage can be winners in a profession that is experiencing increasing automation and reliance on computing power. This might give the edge to the young who have grown up with having computers in the home and later carrying high-powered laptops on campus while at architecture school, but the ones who really come out ahead are those who can manage over them. If you can understand the new digital processes and maximize your team's productivity to achieve greater profits, then you are valuable commodity to any firm. The trick is not to become embroiled in the actual doing of the work, which can take away valuable time away from directly interfacing with rich clients as well as building a firm's brand.  Contrary to what many in the public believe, the most well-known architects have not drafted a line, created a 3d model nor crafted physical models for decades, as they are too busy trying to develop business, whether it's schmoozing with potential clients and maintaining public relations through paid lectures, conferences, university teaching fellowships or giving occasional interviews to the press. They still have a final say in what goes out their firm's doors, but they have delegated design and documentation roles to vast teams of young professionals and interns who are more than happy to underbid their time and talent.  As soon as that person has won his first big commission, he starts to hire staff and delegate to them, willfully removing himself from the toil of doing the dirty work as soon as possible.  Whether he realizes it or not, he is cutting himself off from adapting first-hand to new design and production methods, and will continue to rely on old software and manual techniques to contribute to the design process. He will increasingly rely on hired help to realize his designs at even the most conceptual level, and will never be able to provide a full range of services completely on their own.  But that's OK, since they're at the top the team hierarchy, and they are the public face of their firm, which has increasing value in our celebrity-worship culture (i.e. "starchitects").

Given all these factors, who the losers are turns out to be obvious--those who like to produce the work line by line, extrusion by extrusion, who enjoy being directly engaged with the craft of bringing an idea to fruition.  They are not inclined to be pure project managers, are not interested in spending countless hours meeting with clients, and are not savvy enough to manage office politics.  Many of them are young, very capable, and idealistic about the world and naïve, thus perfect fodder for spending many late nights for low pay to crank out dazzling design presentations. Some are older, often quiet and shy, who have really perfected a method for delivering quality work, and invested their free time learning new technical skills, but are always under the thumb of a bossy manager or a scatter-brained design lead. His salary creeps up slowly, and his marketability fades as he becomes too expensive for a firm to keep around, when there is so much fresh blood willing to take his place at half the cost.  Personally, I love working with these kind of people, because they represent why architecture was so attractive in the first place--full of hope, the ability to bring something imagined into the world in a tangible way.  It's the dream-like imagery of the renderings, the boost to one's ego of making something mind-bendingly complex out of nothing, to be a vital part of something important and much larger than anyone involved that keeps these producers going and willing to sacrifice everything else in their lives, be it their health, their families, or their time. Sadly, the work will continue to pile as we are able to deliver more and more, and pay will continue to get squeezed thanks to intense competition and an endless over-supply of starry-eyed workers spellbound by the romance of the architect.

Looking Forward

A Room with View: What I'd like my office to look like one
day.
In my own experience I've noticed that a good portion of current architects were actually the sons and daughters of architects.  They have seen first-hand the sacrifices it took to be an architect and they decided that it was still worth doing. And yet if you were to ask them whether they would encourage their own children to become architects, they'll laugh and admit that they discourage it as much as they can.  Though I never knew any architects in person growing up, I've been in this profession long enough to tell my kids that they're better off doing something else. Sure, there is a certain level of admiration and even mystique that the public has for architects, but this has failed to translate into real prestige or status.  Based on what I've observed and where the trends that have surfaced in the workplace, the reality of doing the work of architecture will continue to get tougher in almost every aspect. It will be increasingly difficult to have others depend on you, whether financially or with your time, and the quest for work-life balance will be increasingly elusive. Those on the managerial or executive side of the practice will be under similar pressures, though instead of spending hours in the studio, they will travel a lot just to procure enough work for their offices as opportunities in their local market dry up. It may seem glamorous to some, but that kind of life beats you down quickly. Engineers and contractors will continue to elbow you out in providing architectural services until you find yourself working for them rather than on your own. Thanks to parametric design software, which has transformed the practice towards data entry, it would not be surprising if computing subsumes what an architect can technically deliver. Programming, planning, site design, systems coordination can already be reduced by filling in the blanks, and letting an algorithm spit out a plausible solution that most clients wouldn't notice.  Who's to say that the architectural profession, which has historically enjoyed an ambiguous existence at best, is any more immune to the destructive tide of technology than journalism, the music industry or manufacturing?

With this in mind do I come to the conclusion that doing what I do is more of a privilege than anything else. Despite our important influence on the built environment and our overall cultural impact on society, we are not part of the critical professions--those that address the immediate needs of people with a lot at stake, whether it is for reasons of the health, law, or money.  To most people what I do is not equivalent to saving someone's life, getting him out of jail, or making him loads of money.  As much as we would like to believe that we are driven by a humanitarian social mission by making the world a better place, there is relatively little monetary value for such original qualitative problem-solving.  It's sort of a cruel fate: there is tremendous emotional and intellectual value in designing spaces that it naturally appeals to our most fundamentally human impulses yet there is very little real economic demand to fulfill this impulse in what we build.  The former accounts for the oversupply of those wanting to become architects, and the latter explains our current predicament as a profession.  It has always been this way, and I think it will continue for as long as people stay the way they are. Only the exercise of arbitrary power, in other words politics, can override this tendency, and yet there is little real political inertia empowering the architect.  And so we continue on, relishing what few opportunities we get and grateful for the chance to be members of the dream-making business and all of the unpredictable volatility that naturally goes with it. We definitely can be comfortable knowing that choosing this path was not a very rational one, right?




Thursday, July 25, 2013

Paris and the Desert: Living in the City of Lights and the Provincial Alternative


Living the Parisian lifestyle has been the stuff of dreams shared by people the world over.  The elegant streets, framed by the sumptous Haussman style apartment blocks, tree-lined alleys, and punctuated by small cafes and the occassional Art Nouveau subway entrances. As far as it comes aesthetic urban experiences, it really doesn't get any better.  And still, I could never see myself residing permanently in the city of my birth.  Compared to the things I would obviously gain, there would be many things that I take for granted that I would necessarily give up. 

 
I was recently fortunate to spend a week in an apartment in 14 arrondissement and was treated to all that was wonderful about the city- its beautiful streetscape, convenient places to dine, shop and relax.  Being an arrondissment little bit further away from the city center, the pace of daily life was a bit more relaxed, removed from the bustle of tourists and instead more catered the needs and convenience of local residents.  For example, right below the balcony of my apartment was a boulanger (bakery), a fine dining restaurant, and the ever so important laundromat.  The butcher was right across the narrow street, while several banks, brasseries, a pharmacy and small grocery were no further than a 50 yards away.  Heaven, n'est ce pas?  For a short while, yes, it is pleasant but one should be mindful that there is a price for such living  that all those who romanticize about it should be informed about.

Challenges of the Traditional French Dwelling
 
Since writing about this very subject two years ago during my visit to the Franche Comte region, subsequent stays in other regions in France confirm my initial observations ever more so. When it comes to providing comfort and ease of use, French residences fall embarrassingly short. It has little to do with the small tight spaces, which is to be expected, or even its age, since I've stayed in both old and new residences. The problem is that French dwellings typically do not function all that well. Other than the rare stay at an American-style hotel, I've never slept on a comfortable mattress in France. Somehow people here are happy to sleep on something very thin, hard, and sometimes not even flat. Apparently, chain stores that simply sell plush mattresses are a uniquely American phenomenon. Here you are lucky if you get an Ikea mattress that my sons are happy to sleep on.

From what I'm used to, plumbing systems are inadequate, from the typically low water pressure level to the lack of adequate hot water. Good luck if you are to find more than one toilet in the house, and you can simply forget being able to dispose food at the kitchen sink, since food disposals would overwhelm the undresized waste pipes. Even though you can find them here and there, it would seem that the French haven't quite figured out what a shower is, opting instead to turn a bathtub into one by simply mounting a shower head to the side and improvise an odd solution to hold a curtain to keep the water from getting the floor wet. Household appliances are understandably small not very powerful, thus requiring multiple wash cycles. You can expect have room just for a washer situated under your kitchen counter, while drying your clothes will require a bit of inventiveness on your part, since you no place to hang them in your Parisian apartment.


A view from the balcony of an apartment in
the  6th arrondissement
Stair handrails are not required, so you better hope your little ones can negotiate the steps without falling over the edge. Plug molds cover electrical wiring that is mounted on the wall surface, since your apartment likely predates Edison. The location of switches will take some getting used to, since they were likely put in after-the-fact. The weather this time cooperated, with temperatures blessing us with virtual "outdoor air conditioning", so the lack of an HVAC system was not noticed (a heatwave would be another matter). Though it may not be much to look at, your average stick-framed garden apartment in 'burbs with gyp-board walls, popcorn ceiling and vinyl floor will function a lot better than the more fashionable pied-a-terre in the center of Paris. You will likely find some exquisite decorative details and a view to the Eiffel Tower in the latter, but you will probably be able to enjoy a hot shower and cleaner dishes in the former.

Things get a bit better when you move further away from Paris, where houses are bigger, the cost of living is cheaper, and newer construction is more prevalent. The problem is that living close to France's few traditional city centers (e.g. Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux) is more important than one's own preference for space and comfort, and choosing to live a semi-rural lifestyle is tantatmount to living in exile. The way the city exterts an overwhelming gravitational pull on French life is best encapsulated by the saying "Paris et le desert"--in which there is Paris (home to 20% of the country's population) and the "desert", meaning any place outside the Ile de France.


The Price for the Beautiful Life

First, beyond being merely expensive, which is a given in the one of the world's most beloved cities, your apartment will be small-- really small.  It is not unusual for upper class households to live for many years within less than 500 square feet of space.  Murphy-beds and mattresses folding out of couches isn't unusual, and living rooms often double as bedrooms.   In a dense city, and especially in Paris, your living room isn't really inside your dwelling but rather outside in the city streets.  What are the numerous cafes and brasseries below anything other than temporary living rooms of the inhabitants who live in the apartments above? Given all the neighbors above, below, and next to your apartment and their needs, it becomes pretty difficult to receive a few guests in your apartment.  It's more practical to gather  around a coffee table outside sipping on coffee or a glass of Kir, even if it will cost you quite a few Euros for the privilege.  This arrangement definitely enlivens the street and makes for a memorable communal experience, but at the expense of maintaining any real privacy.  If you're in need of any kind of personal introspection or simply some "alone time" be prepared to do it in front of everyone.

Second, your apartment will likely be historic, with all the charms and drawbacks that go with it.  The tall  stately windows with faux balconies will let a lot of light and air in your space along with framing exceptional views of the city.  Your ceilings and walls may even feature whimsical classical moldings that root your place to a past glorious era, while the wood floor with herringbone pattern echoes the stately salons of the larger aristocratic residences further out from the city.  Your apartment will likely date from an era before modern plumbing and electrical appliances. Toilets, vanities and bathtubs will have been squeezed into the apartment wherever there was a tiny bit of space, with little regard to head room or minimum door push-pull clearances.  Kitchens seem to be have been installed in was once either once a kind of boudoir or utility room, meaning that getting to it may require passing through a bedroom.  You will marvel at the ingenuity of how previous owners managed to insert so much utility with so little counterspace.
 
Third, did I mention that this lifestyle is expensive? Beyond the high rent, costly living rooms (brasseries and cafes are not cheap, which may explains McDonald's popularity here),  there is transportation that has to be budgeted.  Those metro tickets add up very quickly, with subscriptions to commuting running to hundreds of Euros per month, and the cab rides through town operate on a very high price floor.  There are savings to be had by not owning a car to be sure, since you can depend on the city's highly reliable transit system , which never goes on strike, right?  Luckily you have a bike-sharing network at your convenience, which seems to work out pretty well, as long as you don't carry much with you.  For everyone else, they  will own a car in spite of the lack or high cost of parking, just so that they are insured of their autonomy beyond a transit system which has yet to renovate any of their stations or trains (and still smell like B.O. and urine).
 
14th arrondissement apartment
You can live in Paris on a budget (Good news! Wine, cheese and baguettes in the grocery stores are relatively cheap, and all pretty high quality)  but that’s just the problem: You need to have money simply to enjoy Paris.  And not just a little--a lot of money.  This was put into major relief when I compared my recent experience in which I was a financially secure professional to the time when I explored the city in depth as a poor college student and  as a penniless high-school student.   I finally got to enjoy the city in the way many people elsewhere tend to imagine, but it depended on a set of very fortunate circumstances,  contacts, and lots of savings budgeted for the trip.  Without these pieces in place, life in Paris loses its romance very quickly, which is what I most remember during my younger days.  Being a native French speaker, it was more difficult to maintain this idealized image, since I was able to absorb and immerse myself in what was being discussed in the national media at the time.  It clearly rid the illusion that the average Frenchman had it pretty good, even though it always seemed to me that life outside Paris was so much easier than life within. Paris is for me largely an aesthetic experience more than it is a practical one.

The Challenge of Getting Around

For all of its extensive public transit networks, Paris is woefully deficient in the capacity of its roads. I say this as someone who has depended on public transit and started driving relatively late in life. A global capital like Paris should be able accomodate traffic in all of its forms, particularly the one travel medium that continues to grow faster than any other: cars. Not only is the main ring road, "the peripherique" constantly plagued with traffic jambs ("bouchons"), its secondary ring road, the D86, doesn't fare much better either. Only two lanes in each direction are provided, charged with feeding onto major destinations such as the Stade de France (80,000+ seating) and Charles De Gaulle Airport in Roissy. There is little redundancy to compensate for special events, such as major rock concerts or the Paris air show at Le Bourget. 30-minute taxi trips from within the city to the airport stretch to 2 1/2 hours. As new tourist attractions for visitors such as amusement parks open up in the suburbs like Senlis and Marne-de-la-Vallee, easy access needs to be ensured, especially for those drivers who have to battle tha nasty car traffic around Paris' periphery. And long metro rides coupled with shuttle buses to these attractions waste a lot of time, as my own recent experience with my kids proved.

The lesson here is not that that Paris should continue to build more metro lines, commuter rail networks or even bus routes. This city can proudly claim to have the most extensive transit system in the world, and there are only diminishing returns onto adding onto a network in desperate need of renovation.   A new tram line is currently under construction that will link the outer arrondissements in a unified loop which only exarcebates the car traffic problems in these areas.  The lesson is to relieve the amount of economic pressure on a city that cannot structurally cope with it due to its essentially 19th century infrastructure and planning. As has been the national only during the last few decades, Paris needs to spin off its central economic role to other parts of the country. If you were to study a map of the region, you see that it is essentially of diagram of the Sun King. All major highways radiate outward to the rest of the country, which means that all traffic merges onto the ring road at nearly equal intervals along the circle, thus producing predictable bottlenecks. It's an elegant, or dare I say it, a Cartesian way of planning a road network, but it doesn't respond well to the actual way traffic flows over time. And time is money, and I've never wasted so much time as in the traffic jambs around Paris, and this is coming from an experienced Dallas-ite!

 A Contemporary Cultural Dilemma

Unfortunately, Paris has become  a less French experience.  Everywhere you go in the city you will be surrounded by people speaking other languages and coming from other countries.  It has become cosmopolitan like London and New York, with English functioning as the lingua franca among businessmen, tourists and immigrants alike.  The traditional cultural anchors that helped maintain a unique French identity are now long gone: music, art, television, even architecture have changed resemble something  more Anglo-American.   Were it not for the language,  its countless of historic landmarks that crown the city as well as Haussman's brilliant urban and architectural legacy, one would find it a bit difficult to know where one was.  So strong is Paris' historic architectural heritage, its scale, its consistency, and its inviting baroque whimsy, that it probably is the main reason visitors enjoy this city so much and continue to come back. 

Paris' contemporary heritage is weak by comparison, which defines its outlying districts (La Defense, the eastern arrondissements), and much of its surrounding suburbs, where most people in the area live outside the attention of tourists (other than the tiny number of architects and students, almost no one comes to Paris to see its contempary architecture or anything built after 1945).  There in the region's periphery you can find an endless series of twentieth-century urban and architectural follies,  ill-conceived projects  often monstrous in scale that project coldness and alienation, that quickly begin to wear a brutish veneer of graffiti imposed by their  disgusted inhabitants.  This periphery continues to sprawl, as more natives get priced out of the city's central districts to make way for foreign investors.  Unlike those lucky few who can afford little slice of Parisian heaven made possible by the ingenuity and taste of the past eras, this contemporary urban  blandness is what most people in the Paris region usually put up with, and it is what drives me personally to seek calm, beauty and an authentic "Frenchness" out in the provinces.  There the landscape takes hold, the local vernacular add richness, and the people are more down to earth and tied deeply to their home town.  The provinces are where one can find the La France Profonde, where one can experience the culture at a primordial level while obtaining a feeling of peace and contentment fueled by the surrounding beauty.

It seems that in order to get the most out of experiencing a special place like France, one has to first accept a slower pace of life.  It eases the transition from the frenetic, hyperstimulated and attention-starved reality of our modern cosmopolitan lives to an opposite, more focused reality we desire.  The French try to impose a more relaxed pace in various ways, from the 35-hour workweek to lengthy vacations and finally to closing business completely on Sundays.  Even with this, Paris' role as a global economic and cultural capital and as a home to people from all over, this becomes difficult.  In spite of its enviable infrastructure for slow living, such as its numerous sidewalk cafes and bars, its splendid urban parks and countless museums, life for most people in Paris is fast-paced and quite exhausting.  "Paris-Metro-Dodo", which describes the daily routine of commuting to the city and back, encapsulates the lives of its habitants more closely then people leisurely sitting at cafes while listening to accordion music that many of us would like to imagine.  Still, not too far away, one can revive oneself with the smell of cows, rolling hills and pastures, and friendly farmers selling you their Calvados spirits or bottled Apple Cider. The old stones are everywhere, with some ancient structures dating almost a 1000 years.  They provoke a powerful visceral reaction due to the way they interact with nature, weather, and time.  It's pretty much heaven for me.


This is what heaven looks like for me. View from a house in Normandy near Bayeux.

Everyone is entitled to experience beautiful surroundings, and to live an aesthetic kind of life that leaves us more fulfilled emotionally.  The chaos of the big city, much less a global capital like Paris, makes this difficult despite its cultural riches.   The beautiful life awaits just outside these places, only if one is willing to embrace simplicity, peacefulness, and disregard the shallow epithets from urban elites of such places as 'dead' or boring.  You will instead find the locals extremely polite and helpful and a bit more knowledgeable about the world that you would expect.  They lend these places respectable dignity, and are excellent stewards of their region's deep cultural legacy. And you say you want to live in Paris?