Monday, July 28, 2008

Shallow Wonders: Architecture and the Global Drive to Greatness

In this current period of global economic unease, the ever enduring undercurrent of American declinism rears its ugly head. Decade after decade there are new books predicting the end of American hegemony, the emergence of a multi-polar world and the rise of rival economic powers. In describing the latter phenomenon, one finds the time-honored journalistic practice of producing articles that report an ambitious and massive building campaign that reflects a city's or a country's ascendance to the elite group of power players. There is an implication of admiration and awe by the dozens of construction cranes dotting the skyline; massive armies of construction workers coming together to realize something unthinkable in more modest wealthy countries that are tied down by democratic processes and small-scale entrepreneurially-based developments. The amazement at such towering construction efforts is nothing new, since it has been going on since the beginning of urban centers thousands of years ago.

What is interesting, in my view, is how the absence of oversized construction projects is now seen as a problem. A recent book by Fareed Zakaria that revives the recurring discourse on American declinism cites the fact that the tallest building in the world no longer resides in the U.S. as proof that it is somehow a less important country. I believe this evaluation to be a bit misplaced, since beyond these materialistic monuments lies completely different social and cultural realities the U.S. would be better off not to emulate. Building big is an inherently exciting human enterprise, but the process in which it is done in a world run by global capitalism makes it seem more diminutive in significance, casting doubt on genuine 'greatness'.

I say this as one who has spent most of his career working for American firms that have had a deep hand in rebranding the architectural image of many countries around the world. One influential experience was in being part of the large team of American architects and engineers that designed what will soon be the tallest building in the world in Dubai. The client, EMAAR, is a huge real estate company largely managed by the ruling family of Dubai, who hired us along with consultants from throughout Europe and contractors from South Korea to give form to an icon of national identity to a land, though flush with lots of financial capital, has relatively scarce human capital (i.e. educated and productive native citizens). Adrian Smith, the principal designer of the tower, to his credit generated a scheme inspired from a natural flower motif indigenous to the Persian Gulf that guards the tower's cultural integrity. That is something that can rarely be said of many of the other ambitious designs and structures going up in the U.A.E., that either opt for Arab kitsch or styles (and artificially terraformed landscapes) alien to the area, whether Mediterranean or overscaled high-tech.

The UAE building boom kind of resembles a teenager who purchases lots of fashionable clothes to figure an identity in which they seek to be defined. There is no authentic Emirati identity asserted in these new towers, but rather the hope that Western designers can give them one they like and will proudly wear. Views of the Dubai skyline remind me of a rich person's closet: racks of expensive and fashionable suits and dresses, with most of the outfits rarely ever worn but instead serve to show off a person's accumulated wealth. Like unworn designer outfits, the new landmarks may be testaments to art and craft of those who make them (and the imported South Asian serf population that builds much of them), as well as those who finance them, but we will never know how its users, the local Emirati community, will fit into them. Such is the paradox in a world increasingly driven by consumer-driven capitalism and free-flowing capital: the creation of artifacts that express the uniqueness of a culture are abandoned in favor of buying artifacts that express a dissolution into an all-embracing yet shallow global culture. Dubai may indeed bill itself as a new symbol of the trans-global culture (after all, they are highly dependent on foreigners to make this spectacle happen), one that is in its very nature thin and unable to regenerate itself over time. Is this the kind of 'greatness' we seek to restore to our own shores?

Deep in the heart of Texas, I now help realize commercial amenities that address the needs and wants of the millions of beneficiaries of the globalism - the new middle classes and nouveau riche that have recently sprouted in all continents. The expansion of market capitalism throughout the world has been a boon for Western architects, from the almost unlimited commercial opportunities for sector-specific oriented American firms to the hundreds of wannabe cultural capitals who desperately seek the golden touch of studio-oriented, often European, "starchitecture" firms. Foreign construction projects in developing countries tend to be large and complex, the clients frequently desiring an architectural style that projects a new and progressive image for their cities. This contrasts with projects in local American (or European) building markets, in which one has to deal with the headache of various layers of building departments, code enforcement, legal liability, individual property rights and precarious financing from small banks or government-issued bonds that depend on skittish voters.

Sites in developing countries often start from a blank-slate approach, which naturally attracts many designer-types encouraged to exercise their creative freedom. Many of the developers in these countries have little interest for contextuality or in defining an intelligible sense of community. Rather the project must communicate the simple message that a place has 'arrived' in the new global game, that it is modern and progressive and ready to jettison the old. Many of the architects I work with will try, in either an imaginative or awkward way, to insert a layer of authenticity to the project, whether by using traditional motifs, adapting to the local climate, or introducing materials found in the local vernacular. Other architects could care less and continue to proceed in delivering a self-referential icon to the locale. In both cases, the designer type revels in these foreign projects, since design services tends to focus on the "front end" of the design process; that is, the conceptual and schematic phases, where models, renderings and loose technical documents are produced. Actual construction documents are usually produced by a local architect in the country in which the project is situated, who will be responsible in dealing with the headaches of following local codes, permitting processes, and local liabilities. Add to that the generous construction budgets made possible by oligarchic real-estate environments, opaque lending institutions and government connections and cheap labor and you get the best of all worlds (from the designer type's point of view). From my perspective foreign projects are indeed fun even if quite demanding and are of great benefit to all sides, but one should acknowledge that they carry some of ethical baggage that does not tend to exist in the West.

The new global architectural marketplace has naturally benefited architectural firms with a fundamentally commercial character, the large majority of which are to be found in the U.S, the UK and Australia. Technical expertise on various building types is a highly-sought comodity, and the Western economies that have fostered a sophisticated service sector (especially in the 'Anglosphere') with a high degree of specialization have produced a broad array of firms in the position to generate icons and images for a new cultural identity with which developing countries desperately seek to rebrand themselves. This is a part of the story that is rarely focused on when the media marvels at the large-scale pace of construction and engineering feats: there have always been since the dawn of time steady stream awe-inspiring works that have amazed observers, but what makes today's accomplishments different is the scale to which cultural production has been overlayed from one foreign culture over another, namely from the West on to the Orient.

Just as movies made in Hollywood have become the main staple for popular entertainment in many countries throughout the developing world during the last century, building sleek glassy towers and megablocks in a style that was developed in western architectural capitals of London, New York and Rotterdam has become the preferred means by which people in developing countries express a sort of cultural and economic ascendance for the rest of developed world to notice, or in other words, 'greatness'. Where movies with action-packed story lines, special effects, larger-than-life characters and English dialogue have come to diminish the importance of local theatrical traditions and folk performance, an architectural vocabulary of glass curtain wall, smooth concrete, stainless steel or aluminum panels and high-tech steel structural supports (and increasingly LED lighting) has supplanted the local built vernacular - the most open and direct way a community or a society expresses its most unique qualities apart from the rest of the world.

Borrowing foreign building styles and suiting them to local conditions is not new, as the colonial architecture of many British Commonwealth member states demonstrate, nor is the embrace of modern industrial materials and methods in favor of more traditional modes in these places specific to contemporary times, as the ubiquitous 'International Style' that emerged in middle of the 20th century can attest. What was different in the past was that a synthesis binding outside influences to the local cultural reality occured, often initiated by the local artists and designers. For all the intentions toward universality and essentialism that characterized the International Style, architects throughout developing world adapted the style to native sensibilities and values that would later be characterized as 'critical regionalism'. The current wave of international projects have not reached this point, nor does there seem much interest doing so beyond what the designer in London/NewYork/Amsterdam/Dallas tries to conjure up in his office.

When I was first given the opportunity to work on the world's tallest building in Dubai, even if it was on a relatively small part of such a huge project, I was reminding myself that I was helping build the pyramids of our own time. In terms of the imaginative and intellectual endeavor, the testing of physical limits a man-made structure can endure, there was a bit in common with the pyramids at Gizeh. And yet it was easy to forget this idea, since most of the people I worked with treated this as a typical international project no different from countless others that they had worked on. There seemed to be little spiritual resonance about the project, but instead became an unusually large headache in providing a commodified service to a distant client and land we cared little about. Somehow the project seemed shallow in significance (the firm can lay claim to having designed many of the world's tallest buildings for decades) due to the fact there was zero cultural attachment to what we were doing, that it didn't speak much about who we were as Americans nor did it say much about Dubai except that it had lots of money and a ruling family with an outsized ego. At least the pyramids at Gizeh revealed lots about the ancient Egyptians, from their religion and social structures to their technical advances. What both Dubai and Ancient Egypt may have in common would be their deplorable treatment of manual labor, which doesn't say much for the formers current assendance in international 'greatness'.

If there is any genuine greatness to be found in the contemporary world of economic globalism and computer assisted engineering innovations, one could argue that it's the creators of cultural icons and man-made environments. The artists, graphic designers, branding specialists and architects of North America, Western Europe and Japan have been able to project a look and feel to distant places at a rate and breadth never before witnessed. Romans may have had the whole Mediterranean (and Britain) to render a uniform style to the look and feel to the cities under their control, but this Western-based army of environmental designers have all habitable continents to take advantage of, with millions of acres waiting to be transformed overnight. One could question whether all of this is indeed a good thing, as much of this new building lacks originality and fails to convey a genuine expression of a locale. Still, such an abundance of opportunities has been aggressively pursued by this design corps, to the extent that there are numerous design firms who work almost exclusively on international projects. They opt to bypass opportunities in local markets that seem stifling in favor of foreign markets that embrace innovative and trend-setting solutions.

This internationalist orientation to design has been of particular benefit to that elite cadre Western-based 'starchitects'. Since their reputations for bold, self-referential designs express more about the designer than about the place a projected is situated, they find it often difficult to realize their vision in their more democratic and extensively regulated home countries. The boutique starchitecture firm is not much of a profitable enterprise within a regional or national market of designing exclusively state-funded cultural projects such as museums and libraries. Superstars of today such as Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Daniel Liebeskind and Zaha Hadid experienced prolongued periods of financial uncertainty even with a few signature projects behind them. The game would change once their work was perceived as a reproducible brand identity that could lend a heaping dose of sophistication to any place that wanted it. Called "the Bilbao Effect", where municipalities depend on a singular architectural tour-de-force to regenerate the image and ensuing redevelopment (as was supposedly the case with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain), the value of starchitects as a result has risen as cities compete with each other at a global level for foreign investment and real estate-based riches. It is now no longer the domain of select Western capitals, but has now become the desired silver-bullet strategy towards respectability in cities as distant as Tashkent, Uzbekhistan and Baku, Azerbaijan. Not too long ago one often had to go to a post-industrial country in the West to observe ground-breaking and daring projects that were often the concrete fruits of inquisitive and free exchange of ideas promoted in those countries. Now one travels to the far corners of the earth to semi-agrarian/industrial countries whose more traditional social structures repress experimentation and liberal cultural life. Such a disparity between a regressive local cultural reality and dramatic cutting-edge works highlights how current attempts at greatness in the developing world are an inorganic phenomenon which strips a valuable layer of meaning and tends to relegate these new structures as relatively shallow symbols. It reminds me of those glossy architetural renderings I frequently see that portray a futuristic space populated by figures in Arab Bedouin costume.

With the disembodiment of local cultural expression comes the Starchitect's ego that tries to imbue in these concrete, glass and steel carcasses a richness of meaning. That is what I interpret from statements like Steven Holl's, saying "In America, I could never do the work I do here. We've become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new." The architect justifies what he is doing as part of his commitment to his principles on what places need and his obsession for newness. Since there is no significant critical element that stimulates vigorous cultural debate so fundamental to the success of western culture, Mr. Holl uses the apparently Chinese consensus for the new as a carte blanche for realizing his personal design ambitions. This argument applies to other similar situations such as Norman Foster's grandiose schemes in Russia and Zaha Hadid's projects for Azerbaijan, which reveals certain ethical dilemmas regarding projects situated in countries known for their restriction of political freedom and accompanying static cultural development. The irony comes into focus, as these elite architects seek the most unencumbering environment in precisely those places known to discourage free expression for everyone else. It sure seems to reek of the practice of officially privileging the chosen few at the expense of everyone else on the outside, a proud tradition of one-party authoritarian regimes and monarchies.

From what I've seen so far, the new starchitecture going up throughout the developing world has been disappointing. Much of it is hideously overscaled, lacking in proportion and detrimental to the surrounding urban context. There is something to be said for designing not to overpower a place, but rather to mediate with it, to interact with its particularities. In my opinion, many of the starchitects' best work occured within the confines of their culturally free yet democratically regulated home countries, as their innate bold visions were forced to compromise with the mature urban fabric and highly mobilized citizens' associations and individual critics. The tension works and lends a place additional layers of desirable complexity. When that healthy tension is lost, the temptation towards an oppressive and uninspired architecture becomes much greater. It seems to be happening in much of the ballihooed projects going up in China, which is wasting the opportunity by furiously constructing a modern identity that is, to my mind, ugly and unhuman in its scale and detail. One can brag about the billions of tons of concrete, the millions more of new apartments, offices, and the tallest, most high-tech buildings anywhere in the world, but the overall quality is not of greatness in its original implication. It's undoubtedly impressive, but it's far from being great architecture, much less a symbol of true greatness.

Update: I've come across some recent articles that address the topics discussed above. The phenomena of designer cities is described in detail in the Wall Street Journal, in which foreign clients invite starchitects an unlimited hand in shaping entire city districts as a means of marketing these places as good real estate investments. Another article highlights how the Chinese government uses architecture to conceal abuses elsewhere, especially in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. For a revealing portrait of how a starchitect evaluates the ethical challenges of working for a dictatorship, check out this interview with Jacques Herzog of Herzog + deMeuron in Der Spiegel.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whatever Happened to Transcendence?

There was a time when people aspired to higher things: ways of thinking, manners, and even food. If this podcast is to be believed, those who lived in Italy during the Renaissance preferred to eat fowl, as they were the food found closest to the heavens. So while we partake in earthbound animals like cows, pigs and chickens, those eating in the 1400s enjoyed more lofty fare, as one more way to be closer to the angels. Undoubtedly, this was a luxury more commonly found among the elite, and perhaps the same is true today as not everyone can afford land leases, shotguns and duck blinds.

But it wasn’t only the food of course, but all of the arts aimed to lift the souls of men upward. Listening to motets of the day, one can very easily imagine that this is the music of the angels. And even if it isn’t, it’s certainly what the best composers imagined being sung in more transcendent places. The painted and sculpted masterpieces of the era reflect tedious, time-consuming and advanced art that sought to offer a glimpse of what heaven might be like, a hope for something beyond our hard labor, plague and sin.

In other words, transcendence was valued. It’s not to say a majority of those in the past lived saintly lives and didn’t enjoy a dirty joke from time to time. Nor is it to say that transcendent thoughts pre-occupied the lives of everyone. But at least in the art that has survived from past eras, there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Church and on the part of artists to move men beyond the gutter they often dwelled in. (The churches that have survived from these eras certainly concrete this hypothesis.) That’s no judgment; we might forget that most people did not enjoy cubicles, air conditioning and extra money. Most merely subsisted and enjoyed a precious few creature comforts. Perhaps that is the necessary context for our thoughts to be elevated upward. Maybe we’re high enough already, so we longer see the need for transcendence.

At least, that’s what I’m assuming. As I look at the prevailing trends in American church life, transcendence is either being embraced in more dramatic fashion or being left at the church doors, never to be glimpsed by those who worship. It is being embraced by those (like myself) who are returning to a more liturgical sensibility that seeks to offer a stark contrast to secular media and methods. It is being ignored by those who are seeking to come to God in the most ordinary and the most plain of languages, those who use luxury cars as props for a sermon or dress in $200 denim jeans, and those whose music is tragically reminiscent of the fare on American Idol. The idea here seems to be, “Let’s bring God down to the most ordinary of ideas, the most pedestrian terms. Let’s bring God down to our level.”

But this is the exact opposite of worship’s innate function. It doesn’t ask God to come down to us, but rather, that we strive to go up to him. That’s what worship is, a sacrifice of praise where we commit to transcending above our everyday worries, contexts, and sins. Yet, how can we talk about transcendence, about leaving the very worldly things that tie us down, when we use such worldly language as rock bands, designer clothes, and messages of inspiration loosely based on the Bible, if at all? And more to the point, did anyone ever think it might actually be spiritually dangerous to talk about God in such blatantly ordinary ways? Did any church every stop and think that taking God so casually might also be even worse than taking him for granted, and that he deserves more respect than that? Are these sanctuaries, er, auditoriums, filled with people ready to say “The emperor has no clothes,” or do they soak it all up, as though talking about a transcendent God in such pedantic terms should be no offense? I’m not saying we should wear sackcloth and ashes to church, but did it never occur to these hotshot pastors that there is something fundamentally hypocritical about preaching in a $500 outfit?

This is not to say that we cannot approach God through ordinary means. Indeed, a sacramental theology tells us we can do exactly that. The problematic ordinary way to approach God might be to use rock music and worldly styling to talk about a God who is really just one of the guys, one of our buddies, someone as approachable as a friendly dog. The problematic extraordinary way of approaching God would be to be surrounded by gilded aesthetics and to speak in dry, lofty language about a God who is so far above our understanding, we’re lucky to even be in this ornate sanctuary to hear his beloved gospel.

The beauty of the liturgy is that we are given ordinary things, and they are made extraordinary. We are given ordinary water, and when combined with the Word, we receive baptism and the promise of family and forgiveness. We are given ordinary bread and wine, and coupled with some of Jesus’ last words, are given Communion, the promise of reconciliation and presence. It’s not that God is too far away to approach, or that God is so near, any old worship will do. It’s as though the liturgy has appropriate boundaries, by holding God in an infinite light, but remembering that he came to us through an ordinary laborer.

Jesus offers us clues to transcendence, in that he lived a rather hard life, only to be resurrected. Why do our churches forget this value? Why have we chosen to speak of God in such ordinary ways, that we no longer offer those longing for meaning the very things that can produce it? I ask again, whatever happened to transcendence?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Archi-Types: The opposite personalities and cultures in the architectural workplace

In social situations there is often a tendency to tie the personality of individuals to their job. It is not uncommon to hear of someone being described as the lawyerly type, or the analytically scientific or engineering type. To label a person a good businessman is to endow that individual qualities of persuasiveness, risk-taking, salesmanship and above average pragmatic financial sense. Doctors are often characterized as having extraordinary intellectual and analytical skills that are then supplemented with human empathy. What are the social assumptions on personality type of a architects?

To answer the question is to remember what my assumptions were before I decided to commit to an architectural career. Sine there weren't any architects in my family, all I had to go on were things like television shows, architecture magazines and books. On the one hand, there was Mike Brady of the "Brady Bunch" who seemed to never be at work in the studio (a consistent trait among all TV and movie architects), but who seemed to be a credible everyman and decent father figure. On the other hand there were the somewhat flamboyant appearances of the cape-wearing Frank Lloyd Wright, the thick horn-rim glasses and big bowties of Le Corbusier, I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. Then there is the most famous architect protagonist in literature, Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead who becomes the embodiment of a true philosophical hero, while also being kind of uncompromisingly stubborn and emotionally vacant.

By the time I began to take architecture courses in college, I started to notice visitors at the crits showing up in a sort of uniform that entailed black dress shirts or turtlenecks, black slacks and distinctive (and usually black) eyeglass frames. I was told that this look derived from Greenwich village in New York, but by the time I went to grad school it became apparent that some architects dedicated themselves to that look while others looked indistinguishable from your typical engineer or contractor. It was at that point that I realized there indeed were a variety of personality types in architecture, and, whether unfair or not, what they wore revealed quite a bit about their cultural and professional orientation, the level to which they valued how they were to be perceived by their peers.

There are those laymen who perceive an architect to be a sort of artistic-minded snob, at times pompous, idealistic while peppered and exhuding an aura of self-importance. Other laymen share the favorable, albeit naive, view of the TV and movie architect, a balanced individual who is grounded in the reality of construction but also elevated by his concern for beauty and the power of abstract ideas. This makes it convenient for the architect to be a protagonist in the story, since he isn't brought down by the negative cache of a slick businessman, a greasy lawyer, or a socially awkward engineer, nor does his work has any ability to drive the setting and story line like that of a doctor. Ever wonder why they never made a drama series about an architecture firm? There's nothing dramatic or sexy about drafting and model building like there is performing surgery, empathizing with patients or dating young medical residents at a hospital.

As most who have been around an architect should know, we are seldom quite like the way we are portrayed in showbusiness, nor are we quite like those guys who show up on Charlie Rose's late night talk show or that are being ridiculed in the local news when presenting an outlandish scheme for the city. To those who have known architecture students while in college, they are a relatively bright segment of the student population that tends to spend entire days and nights at the studio with little to no time to party and socialize. They often feel exhausted and embittered by the countless hours of work, and become even more so when they begin their professional career and notice their former classmates earning much higher pay in other jobs that demanded less time in school to prepare for. For those who don't know an architect personally, we are perceived as earning good money, since what else is one supposed to think of such sharp dressers? The truth is, for every sharp dresser there are just as many more who don't mind wearing plad shirts, kakis and even jeans and who prefer to drive a pick-up truck or korean sub-compact.

That is one of the good things about my profession: there is a lot of room for a wide variety of personalities. The very nature of the job dictates this, in which not only is it expected that we generate an idealized design concept for a building or a group of buildings, but also that we produce a highly detailed graphic manual for the construction of that concept. There is an obvious element of artistic thinking, rational problem solving, as well as modes of communicating that are both highly abstract and redundantly specific. It is quite rare to find one person good at all of those things, and the complex set of skills required to complete a project from start to finish encourages individuals to specialize, especially as a firm grows larger.

The more people specialize the more difficult it becomes for specialists to communicate to each other. When one person spends their day sketching on trace, modeling on a computer and rendering pretty perspectives, the last thing on their minds is the headache involved in how the mechanical louver servicing an electrical meter room will interface with the building envelope. Likewise, haggling with engineers, contractors and the client over unseen construction issues can isolate someone from the quality of the overarching architectural expression. Over time these opposite experiences reinforce a person's mature worldviews, with the artistic/conceptual oriented worker (designer type) dwelling on what is possible and what reality ought to be, while the detailed/construction-oriented worker (technical type) is reminded daily of the grinding reality on getting anything done right.

A deep, almost subconscious, antagonism takes root between these two personality types that, while mostly controlled under cordial relations, can boil over when an intractable problem occurs during a project's development. Often the designer type will argue in some degree to the idea that "this wasn't supposed to happen" while the technical type answers by stating "did you really know what was going to inevitably happen when you decided to design this?" In spite of the respect that each has for each other's knowledge and talents, they also share a little contempt for each other's weaknesses: the technical type's lack of concern on big ideas and beauty tends to annoy designer types, while the designer's lack of knowledge for how things tend to work and go together and the unpredictability of how things happen on site tends to frustrate the technical type. These contrasts of viewpoint lend to a caricaturization of the personality type: At one end, there is the flippant designer, a person who seems constantly aloof from reality, a real dilettante when it comes to construction and someone who resists giving specific answers to detailed questions, but would rather pour their energy and vast quantities overtime getting the fuzzy rendering to look just right. At the other end, there is the grouchy technician, whose stock answer to any design proposal seems to begin with "that ain't gonna work", and gets extremely irrate at last minute design changes since they would rather be out of the office by 5pm to go golfing/fishing, boating, etc.

Although the above is an exaggeration, it serves to clarify a frequent cultural rift in American architectural offices. The two sides will coexist, as they both rely on each other to provide services to the client, but to those working within the workplace, one's experience and professional goals will be deeply affected by the surrounding culture. And they are, in my view, subcultures to the extent that they possess consistent patterns of shared interests, outlook, and ways of relating to people. Over time I've observed where new recruits were coming from, their personality traits and what their roles in the firm became. New employees are usually selected according to their skills and aptitudes that may match what the firm may need at the time. If it's more technical heft that is required, they will choose someone who at school never bowled over the critics, who likely went to an architecture program that emphasized detailing and construction materials and methods. If it's more design prowess the firm wants, they tend to look for graduates who have stunning portfolios of school work, who have done internships at well-known (preferrably foreign) boutique firms, who went to schools that encouraged more concept-driven projects (or who were one of those rare design prodigies in an otherwise meat-and-potatoes architecture program). New recruits are then trained to assume greater responsibilities in the areas of the practice for which they have been chosen, surrounded by older employees that impress their values on them.

In spite of the desire to match needs and wants in a firm, many individuals find out sooner or later that their goals and interests have changed. The young technical type discovers he has a knack for highly creative conceptual design, while the designer type begins to find it difficult to tolerate his continued ignorance of construction detailing and technical coordination. In such instances, a firm may be flexible enough to accomodate to the changing preferences of their employees, choosing to hand such people assignments as a way of retaining them. Often, though, there is little choice but for the employee to leave the firm, hoping another firm will cater to his new-found goals. Since the architecture career can be characterized by lots of moving around from one firm to another, where an architect stays the longest says a lot about his values and cultural affinities. In the American architecture marketplace, firms often have proud reputations as either edgy design firms that cultivate young designers to become the next vanguard or technical firms that are known for their solid working drawings and capacity to execute in volume all sorts of functional building types. Ideally a firm should be both, but one seems to get the attention of the architecture journals, while the others are invited to teach technical workshops at conferences.

As the opposite patterns of culture emerge in the profession, it's difficult not to generalize the people who are part of either side. Designer types seem to have often grown up in established metropolitan areas, or if they are foreign, were part of upper-class families who were encouraged to follow a traditional and respectable profession. Their upbringing and education seems to have placed much attention to cultural history, philosophies and bourgeois sensibilities (there are, of course, numerous exceptions where the most brilliant designers come from the middle of nowhere, ie. Frank Lloyd Wright). If one didn't come from such an auspicious background, it is nevertheless necessary to go to places that promote an artistic community or contain a rich cultural and cosmopolitan character. The emerging designer-type must travel at some point, and as extensively as possible, and even better, find work in these culturally rich environments (Frank Lloyd Wright at Louis Sullivan's office in Chicago, for example). These experiences stimulate the young designer to explore further, and inscribes a pattern of thinking and problem solving that is global and receptive to new ideas (the drawback being that they tend to forget the tried and true.) Once a person is atuned to this way of thinking, it becomes quite difficult to go back and enjoy the more mundane (although just as important) responsibilities of architectural practice.

For those who excel and prefer the more mundane and fundamentally important responsibilities of architecture (and who form the core of billable services that makes architecture a viable and paying career), travel and exposure to more cosmopolitan sensibilities is not too high on their list of priorities. The technical types I have worked with in my career come from all over, most of them sharing middle class suburban and rural backgrounds, and were exposed early to construction-related hobbies. They see their profession not as a cultural undertaking but rather as a job that they happen to do, something they care to do well and accurately within the given time constraints of the workday. Executing a project as best as possible, in spite of all the obstacles that is the construction process, is what counts the most, since what is on the working drawings and specifications will be what is actually built, not what is on the colored rendering and cardboard models. They leave their work at the office and engage in hobbies and activities often unrelated to buildings. While they are quite knowledgeable in the techniques of construction, they often neglect the study of architectural history and contemporary design trends, while ignoring big ideas and big names in the field.

Such knowledge would require extra time away from the office, something designer types often make the time for. The most talented of designers seem to live and breath architecture, devouring publications, absorbing new published projects and revisiting historical references to mine old ideas to better understand current ones. A few will even enter unpaid architectural competitions, producing mountains of colored perspectives, models and other drawings, all done during afterhours at home. It is essentially working for free, and the odds of winning so unlikely that there is no evidently practical reason to do such a thing. What motivates a designer type isn't financial reward, but rather having the chance to create something dramatic and beautiful (with the added media attention being an additional bonus). Participating in competitions or extracurricular design charrettes more importantly engages the designer type with the major theoretical discourse that affects architecture and planning at that point in time. Lessons on how to make walkable cities, formulate sustainable planning strategies and understand contextual design responses are the result of these often laborious exercises. A designer type will also work hard to refine his (supposedly) unique stylistic signature, which is often influenced by their work experience at boutique high-design firms. It is not uncommon for the designer type to agree to work for little to no wage for a world-reknown architect, whether it be Peter Eisenman (who I've been told pays nothing) or UN Studio and countless European studios (who pay barely above minimum wage). From the point of view the designer, the calculus depends not on financial reward, but on architectural wisdom coming from a master. It also lends an added pedigree to a designer and further ensures future positions at the top of a firm's designer totem pole. To designer types, architecture is similar to a priesthood, foresaking worldly wealth in order to devote more of their energy towards the profound spirituality of building design.

The technical types view the above as nonsensical. Instead, the technical types are practical and economic types as well. They are atuned to the bottom line and structure their tasks around the project budget. They do not hesitate to be matter-of-fact about feasability in general. They are careful planners, and they see no practical benefit in spending a bohemian existence working as a virtual volunteer for a boutique experience. There is no time to waste in building a career and a modest lifestyle for their hobbies. Technical types are quite balanced and relate better to laypeople outside, who they are most likely to befriend (and be married to) and helps reinforce a very grounded sense of perspective. In contrast designer types, in my view, have a tendency towards skewed perspectives which has the potential drawback of supporting misguided policy prescriptions and design solutions. Unfortunately the inherent intellectual indifference of technical types give the designers the megaphone in representing the interests of the profession as a whole. The practicality, balance, and wiser understanding of realities on the ground that technical types possess in vast quantities could do much to temper the destructive side-effects that result from designers' blind loyalty to unexamined ideas.

Oh, and by the way, the designer type tends support the politics of the left, while the technical type is often a conservative. Knowing this and other aspects about the two personality poles that define the profession, you can get a slightly better idea of what is it about contemporary architecture you might not like.