How Architecture Will Get Its Groove Back
March 8, 2012
Architecture has been getting a bit of a bad rap in the media as of late, with its questionable culture of artistic martyrdom beginning in architecture school and continuing into a notoriously insular and hierarchical professional world plagued by an almost 14% unemployment rate. Scott Timberg’s resounding thoughts on “The Architecture Meltdown” became one of the more poignant summations of this moment in architecture, lamenting the demise of the lofty practice.
There have been different takes on this grim revelation; some have proclaimed the very death of the architectural profession, and some see the hard-hitting recession as part of a boom and bust cycle, comparing it to recessions of yore, when talented architects had to essentially lay low, cull the herd, and then come back with a vengeance, marked by the recent waxing and waning of ‘starchitecture.’ Writer John Cary revealed a more optimistic response, proposing that now is the time when architects can rethink the profession and reorient it away from its preoccupation with private interests and towards its original notion of public service. Read on.
In an article in Good Magazine, Cary drew an unexpected comparison between architecture and healthcare: “Like public health did for medicine, the emerging field of public interest design offers a new direction for architecture, on that takes into account the needs of the other 99 percent…while architecture has divorced itself from related fields like environmental psychology, landscape architecture, and urban planning, public interest design seeks to reunite them—not for the good of the profession, its image, or its bottom line, but for the benefit of society.”
It’s true that pro bono architecture and architecture ‘for the public good’ has been receiving more attention. Architectural Record keenly alluded to the AIA’s Code of Ethics recently, which states that its members “should promote and serve the public interest in their personal and professional activities.” The publication also hailed the work of the less than one percent of U.S. design firms that are not-for-profit, including MASS Design Group, Architecture for Humanity, and Public Architecture.
Bryan Bell of the Raleigh-based nonprofit firm Design Corps explained to Architectural Record how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development supplied three grants totaling $1.1M, the National Endowment of the Arts contributed an additional six grants totaling $600,000, and the U.S.D.A. (yes, the United States Department of Agriculture), has contributed about $600,000 as well over the years. “If you look at all the funding sources in government that have design potential to them, you’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars,” says Bell.
While public interest design is by no means a lucrative field at this moment in time, Cary views the initiative as standing “on the brink of becoming a self-sustaining profession and making a tangible impact on the world.” The way Cary sees it, if architects are consistently resigning themselves to jobs that barely pay the bills, why not channel this toil towards solving the problems that are “enormous and interconnected” instead of those that are “tiny and disparate?” While such a mentality may seem like the thinnest silver lining ever on a rather ominous storm cloud, if you truly believe it, it’s admirably silver.