Friday, January 02, 2009

Architects in a Downturn- Is it time to make buildings that matter?

If it is not obvious to most people already, there is no doubt: the current economic recession has had devastating consequences to the building trades, in particular architects. As any of my colleagues can tell you, our profession is very sensitive to economic cycles, and a feeling of vulnerability accompanies us throughout our careers. Being laid off multiple times is not unusual (sometimes it's seen as a right of passage) and is one of the reasons people leave the practice of architecture in droves in favor of something more economically immune and higher-paying. Once an economic recovery is underway, firms suddenly realize that the pool of employable talent is remarkably thin, as the previous downturn harvested some of the best and brightest towards other more productive endeavours. In a perverse way, part of one's advancement in the profession is therefore to simply stick it out by working one's way up the ladder as vacancies are left unfilled.

The mood in firms right now is predictably quite different from just a couple of years ago. Back then, workers at all levels would suddenly dissappear out of the blue as a result of taking job offers at rival firms that offered a considerable pay raise. There would be new hires starting at the office each week, and new cubicles were being built into every nook and cranny to accomodate them. It felt cramped, a bit noisy and the hours were long. Now many desks are empty, it's much quieter and the hours are much shorter (or it could simply be the winter). Older architects will reminisce about their experience in previous downturns, often making it seem that it was a lot harder back then. Jobs would be so scarce that workers would migrate from one firm to the next as soon as word spread that a firm landed a major project.

There's no telling whether the current recession will be as bad, but times like these encourage some of us to be a bit more reflective about what it is we are trying to do. Without all the backlog of work to consume our schedule and sometimes our judgment, there is time to reassess priorities and restore quality in the work that luckily remains. Most typical businesses respond in this way, but overall, a good year is simply when revenues are high, while a bad year is the opposite. For many architects this quantitative view pales to their concern for quality. Success is seen differently by many of us, who would rather be proud of a beautiful project done during a time of scarcity than collecting year-end bonuses for voluminous yet mediocre work delivered during times of plenty.

Staying true to one's convictions in the face of financial hardship is a perennial romantic ideal among 'serious' architects, even as it is a major cause of why the practice of architecture is comparitively unprofitable (Rand's The Fountainhead, anyone?). The more designer-type architect is often a less than rational economic entity, who perversely revels in expending valuable talent, productivity and time in exchange for the slimmer than slimmest chance of being noticed. It is during economic downturns that firms participate in architectural competitions, since they are a means of keeping busy and honing one's skill once the seemingly endless project stream runs dry. While they promise to launch the career and reputation of the lucky winning firm, for everybody else it is large monetary loss despite the small consolation of having attractive glossy renderings handy for a variety of marketing materials.

As with any person caught in bleak situations, some architects have taken it upon themselves to make lemonade out of lemons. They console themselves to the belief that architectural output improves in quality in inverse relation to the decline in the overall economic climate. When times are going well and private money is flowing, the thinking goes, there is a temptation to substitute decadence and showy effects for thoughtfulness and social responsibility. Once the money becomes scarce and government funded projects are the only game in town, there is an assumption that the resulting buildings will be endowed with more noble virtues, since governments only build for those in most need that were otherwise not in the interest of the 'greedy' private sector.

What follows is a widely embraced conceit that designing for noble or charitable ends will more likely result in a higher level of design. Such is the overall tone of a few articles I've come across recently in architecture websites and professional newsletters. Nicolai Ouroussoff, an architecture critic at the New York Times, basically starts and concludes his piece with the assumption I just described:

...But somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn. As commissions multiplied for luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices in cities like London, Tokyo and Dubai, more socially conscious projects rarely materialized. Public housing, a staple of 20th-century Modernism, was nowhere on the agenda. Nor were schools, hospitals or public infrastructure. Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich, like private jets and spa treatments...

Still, if the recession doesn’t kill the profession, it may have some long-term positive effects for our architecture. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to invest heavily in infrastructure, including schools, parks, bridges and public housing. A major redirection of our creative resources may thus be at hand. If a lot of first-rate architectural talent promises to be at loose ends, why not enlist it in designing the projects that matter most? That’s my dream anyway.

It is implied that high-budget private commissions unleash the baser instincts from high profile architects, while injections of government policy and its attendant largesse will naturally bring out our more noble, and thus better, selves. Government is seen in this context to be the great arbiter of what 'matters', since private investors with the free-market system puts too low a price tag (which translates into mattering little) on things that are highly valuable (in a cultural and political sense) to the community at large. Government involvement in the construction businesses is lauded by many architects, since it allows for an ideal harmony between one's professional duty and his desire to insert himself in helping solve the supposed social or environmental problems.

Not enough of this was happening in during the recent global real-estate bubble, apperently. At at time when architecture firms around the world were swimming in private cash flows and freer than any prior time to push the envelope, the profession's leading lights failed to deliver. Or so it would seem from a blog post's comment about the quality of architecture of the first decade of the 21st century:

Take this article from New York Magazine on the architecture of the last building boom. None of it is great. I don't think any of it is good. Most of it is mediocre. A lot of it is awful. Architects not only got drunk on the methylated spirits of the last building boom, they went blind as a result. As a historian I seem virtually nothing of worth in this decade. Recently I had to give a lecture on the architecture of network society and I found plenty of it by OMA, MVRDV, Herzog and de de Meuron, FOA, and others. Unfortunately all of it was from the last century. Am I getting old? I ask my younger friends and they can't identify anything good new either. CCTV? That is a sad joke, an example of a once great architect doing a lousy imitation of Peter Eisenman for an evil client. I can't take it seriously. Good thing Corb never worked for Mussolini. You can only imagine what he would have done. Overexposed and uninteresting, I predict CCTV will sink like a rock. Gehry hasn't made a single good building since Bilbao, although he has built some unbelievably awful structures at MIT and on the West Side Highway. Herzog and de Meuron are boring beyond belief. I guess whatever talent worked for them in the 1990s went its own way. It's bad out there.

While I will admit that I have become over time more and more bored by the current architectural output that graces the magazines, I don't think it's fair to judge their merit until time and critical distance have had a chance to inflate (or deflate) their significance. The author does seem to suggest that the past decade's building boom seems to have clouded the judgment of these highly-regarded designers. Almost all of the architects mentioned above experienced tremendous growth in the number of staff, the variety of building types and services offered in the last ten years. Once they had won praise for a singular project (often realized during times of financial struggle within the firm) that would eternally cement their worldwide reputation for the rest of their career, these top designers aggressively tried to grow their practice to enable them to tackle even more opportunities that were previously closed to them. Their studio-like practice soon became a business, catering to an endless train of foreign and institutional clients that would require sustaining large teams of designers and builders. This development, however, often risked diluting what made the firm distinctive in the first place.

Had the leaders of such reputable firms refused to grow in this manner and instead focused exclusively on government or institutional projects, which are often awarded by competitions, they would no doubt be much smaller. Fewer architects would be employed by them and with it fewer young minds being offered the opportunity to learn from masters and participate in sophisticated design practices. Granted, firms shouldn't exist simply to provide jobs to those who want one. Rather they exist as a manifestation of the designer's core values. It's just that often this admirable loyalty to core values makes pursuing architecture career much less accessible for many people. It is not a coincidence that countries in which the state is a major client coupled with a comparatively weak private sector (eg. France, Spain, Germany, Japan, Finland, etc.) are home to some of the world's most celebrated firms, which not known for their volume of work but for their discipline in taking the time to do quality work. They are also places where many bright young people who prepared themselves for an architecture career face very limited opportunities. The few who are fortunate to practice do so with the likelihood of meager financial gain and fragile job stability. The rest go to the U.S or the U.K. to work for corporate firms that will sponsor their visas.

With private commissions drying up and in the spirit of times we live in, many architects are looking forward to a sort of government bailout for themselves. As part of his strategy to stimulate a weak economy, the incoming President Obama proposes massive infrastructure spending, which includes increasing efficiencies in government buildings by making them greener and in promoting alternative energy sources. By way of either massive deficit spending or by printing more money (inflation), many architects are elated that federal money will be headed their way not only to stabilize their shrinking practices, butalso to put their talents to more virtuous uses. They recall fondly of the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, in particular make-work programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and how it yielded elegant federal buildings, stunning infrastructure projects (Grand Coulee Dam and TVA) and beloved monuments. While the New Deal policies of the Great Depresssion did help foster memborable works of architecture, the historical record shows that it failed in reducing permanent unemployment and had a negative effect on economic growth. The more recent example of Japan during its "Lost Decade" of the 1990s is evidence that a massive program of public works projects throughout the decade delayed its economic recovery for more than ten years. Sure such Japanese luminaries like Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and Arata Isozaki were able to benefit and create some spectacular institutional buildings with all the government largesse available to them, but at great cost to the overall dynamism of the Japanese economy.

The main reason major public works campaigns fail to generate a meaningful stimulative effect is that they fail to allocate resources and capital efficiently. By taking capital away from the more efficient and accountable private sector (tax collections) and transfering to the most inefficient and unaccountable player in our economy (the government), productivity declines and with it economic growth. The free market is the most efficient way to choose winners and losers, between those that fulfill real needs and others that don't, in spite of other important, yet uneconomic, values. A market interfered heavily by the government yields the opposite result, since government, blinded by political gain and philosophical idealism, chooses winners that should often be the losers (Big Three auto bailout, anyone?). Thus our national competitiveness is futher compromised and growth languishes from the declining productivity of enterprises that would not survive without the state propping them up.

But who said that architects behave as homo economicus? For many among us, the quality of the built environment is of paramount importance and is always in need of an enlightened architectural response. It transcends concerns about monetary policy, pricing mechanisms, market values, interest rates--things that, though difficult to understand, tend to make the world go round. There is an admirable moralism that drives the agenda of many architects which unfortunately isolates them from a healthy curiosity in the inner workings of systems that govern how money moves around and how goods and services are exchanged. It's the reason why many of the prescriptions we give to solve urban problems tend to fail, favoring the directness of inefficient subsidies over the indirect yet more bountiful result of long-term profitability. It is also the reason why many architects tend to favor top-down solutions, that, while enabling the construction of what they would prefer, has the effect of making the practice a studio (which are economically difficult to sustain) instead of a business (which are structured to be economically viable-or at least try to be).

Just as the political winds maybe shifting in the midst this deep recession, leaders in the architectural profession will have to decide what policies they want and how to structure their firms accordingly. Should we continue to make the practice of architecture profitable and viable way for many people to have fulfilling careers and answering to real economic needs, or should we emulate the studio model that relies on government patronage, closed to only the most elitely talented and self-sacrificing individuals who often deliver delightful buildings no economic value? Architecture salaries grew at the fastest rate in the last decade due to the real-estate bubble. Is this trend worth abandoning so that we can make buildings for the "greater good" even as it impoverishes us?

UPDATE: Further reinforcing my argument that economic downturns encourage designers, rather than the opposite, take a look at this article in the New York Times.

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