Let’s get real. What we generally call Reality is not something we should lose sight of at this juncture, when our economy is still faltering, protests are erupting in cities across the country (you have heard about this, right?), and conservatives are arguing that taxing the rich will derail the engines of prosperity for all. So much for that “recovery.” Not in sight.
On top of this, we are thinking of starting a trade war with China, Bank of America is going to charge you $5 per month to get at your money (so they can afford to pay their CEO more), Netflix is having an identity crises, my Facebook settings and features keep changing, and the postal system might shut down entirely—not that I use the postal system. There will be revolution in the streets when we start getting charged for sending email. Yes we can has morphed into Aw, come on, man!
If you have been watching the stock market (and you should) you have probably noticed that it has not been reacting well to these items of interest and to other negative economic reports.
When we accept what our current economic, social, and political reality is we are one synapse closer to dealing with it before it gets any worse. And, yes, if you think things are bad now, wait until we get closer to The Bottom. For many Americans, The Bottom was already hit months, if not years ago. Many economic sectors, including AEC are still well within sight of The Bottom—despite Zaha Hadid winning the RIBA Prize…again!
With that framework in mind, let’s get to the point: we have to be real when we talk about the business of architecture and where it is currently as a sector. This doesn’t mean that some firms aren’t doing well and prospering. Some are even hiring—not many, but a few here and there in some cities and for certain strategic positions.
What we look for in reading a sector are the big moves, the broad and deep currents that indicate the great river of financial health is flowing toward the ocean of great prosperity. (Note: Incidentally, the period 1947-1977 is what economist Robert Reich calls The Great Prosperity and this is something worth checking out).
Though it might be annoying to further build upon the previously-suggested river metaphor, I’m going to do it because it works and I’m moving too fast to stop and try to think of another one. So, this river might be flowing but it is a lot shallower and narrower than it used to be. There are a lot more stones and boulders showing and it has become significantly more treacherous to navigate. In fact, there are places where you simply have to walk because there is so little water. Ouch! I just skinned my knee on a rock!
Yes, it still flows to the great ocean of prosperity (where the banks and the top 1% are) and fiscal stability, but it takes more skill, luck, talent, balls, and risk to get there. If you happen to already be cruising on the ocean, then you are doing fairly well and you don’t need to read these lunatic, middle-class ravings anymore.
Reality must take front and center when discussing the economy. There might be debates about what the real consists of exactly, but no matter what one’s political orientation might be (DADT, right?) the one thing we all have in common is the goal to set the terms of what reality consists of. This is the only way to address the real issues we must confront.
It is ironic that architecture, an economic sector so dependent on economic reality, has so much trouble talking about it and confronting it. This might be because architecture is one of those fields that relies on perpetual optimism to keep itself going. Perhaps there is a correlation between the culture of optimism at its core and the high levels of risk that must be accepted in order to participate in the profession. I don’t know if any studies have been done on this, but I would venture to say that architecture is more risky than practicing law or being a doctor. You can kill more people at once with architecture, there are vast sums of money at stake, and people sacrifice a lot of themselves for the work (long hours, high stress levels). The true costs of doing architecture are staggeringly high and require vast amounts of will-power, perseverance, and, ultimately, capital. On a day-to-day basis, you almost have to exist in a universe of denial to function in this profession. Some of us are better at it than others. Some of us absolutely love it and need it the way we need oxygen. If this makes us passionate (or crazy), so be it. But this psychology can become dysfunctional when trying to cope with systemic economic challenges.
This might be how one pushes through all that fear and trembling (did you get that reference?) associated with high-risk to get to the high-rewards…and then do it all over again. But to sustain a successful business, one has to be consistently and ruthlessly in touch with reality.
Here is the denouement: ever since this recession started, countless members of this profession have professed upbeat optimism, framed by a judicious tone of confident caution—that must surely mask the terror of the abyss! Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to be JUST fine. Everything is fine DAMMIT! Here’s another metaphor (because I know you like them). At what altitude, before the free-falling plane hits the ground, does the pilot finally lose his cool? Maybe that’s not such a good image since we are supposed to be in recovery mode and, well, optimistic.
The point is that discussions about the recession in the architecture field have been less than up-front and honest. Much of this is related to the need for firms to do internal damage-control while continuing to project a positive brand out into the marketplace. Media permeates every aspect of the business now. Even negative Tweets could have repercussions. Potential clients read blogs and Facebook pages (even with those annoying new settings).
Thus, there is a firewall around what is really going on most of the time. Very little about the reality of the current economy makes it through the firewall. The silence will usually tell you more than what you read. Trying to get accurate data on architectural layoffs is like trying to collect accurate data on masturbation techniques and frequency.
The only reliable indicators available are the macro-indicators: the ABI, interest rates, general unemployment statistics by region, new home sales, construction starts, major demographic statistics, industry trends, real-estate data, mergers and acquisitions, bond measures, AARA funding, just to name a few. There are others to be sure. There is also the old trick of listening to what people outside of the profession are saying about the businesses they are in. Of course, a lot of architects don’t have any time to hang out with people in other professions—they are usually at the office late while the other professionals are at the pub or playing a round of golf.
Imagine walking down the street and in succession meeting a number of still-employed low- to mid-level architects and aspiring architects (because you can’t call yourself an “architect” until you jump through all those official hoops and pay all those fees), mid- level management types, then, at the last station, where Kurtz resides, the higher-ups.
The low’s tell you things are fine, things are looking good, we are busy, we just got some new projects, etc. The mid’s tell you they are having panic attacks because the existing projects are running out and there is nothing new except some little renovation and they don’t know how they are going to keep all the low’s busy. The higher-up’s tell you things are improving, things are looking up, their strategies have paid off, they are cautiously optimistic.
Where is the real in all this and what accounts for this schism in perceptions?
The bottom line is that this has little to do with perception (people aren’t stupid—OK, well most people aren’t that stupid) and everything to do with projection.
The low’s don’t want to say anything negative that might make it up to the high’s. As individuals, when pressed and assured that what they say will be off-the-record, they express genuine misgivings about their situations. They often sense they are not being told the entire story in their offices. This creates a general mood of unease and throbbing (I can’t believe I just used the word throbbing) anxiety that many of you might be familiar with by now.
The mid-level management types will often just tell you straight out what their concerns are. They don’t have the time to mess around with optimism since they are too busy trying to deal with the reality of chasing down the work and getting it done with reduced staffs. They are often the ones fighting the battles in the trenches.
When the high’s are put on the spot about how things are going the reports that come back are basically marketing propaganda, designed for consumption by the greater audience. They are speaking directly to the future clients out there who are listening with their wifi. In essence, they can’t be honest with anybody aside from their spouses, lawyers, or therapists. And of course, their own guarded inner-circle.
So where does the real reside? Somewhere in-between what you hear from the different levels of the professional ranks, somewhere in the schizophrenic matrix of economic indicators, and, in some sense, it’s right here, with us now on this page.
Does this firewall serve a firm well in the long run? Probably not. The firms that have been weathering the recession in the best shape seem to be more transparent about their coping strategies and willing to share their collective pain across all levels. They also recognized early on the impact the recession was bound to have by being honest about the numbers—in other words, they didn’t wait until earlier, more optimistic performance projections started falling off.
A little story: I once met someone whose relatives were so well-off that they didn’t even know there had been such a thing as the Great Depression. They hadn’t even noticed. This leads me to the firewall that exists between those who work for the firms that have been relatively stable or even doing well and those who have been less fortunate in firms that have struggled and even shut down. If you are fortunate enough to be working for the former type of firm, you occupy one reality. If you have been less fortunate, you occupy another equally real and possibly more real reality given the broader economy right now. What is important is to maintain an honest connection with both and not lose sight of either one.
When all the numbers and indicators are tallied up the results are staggering. It’s possible that at the height of the recession, close to 40% of AEC professionals were unemployed. Compare this to the 9% general unemployment rate. AEC took a big hit. Where have all those people gone? Plus, there are all the new graduates. What is their fate?
I won’t shut up until things start to significantly improve, when the indicators start to turn around. None of us should shut up until this happens. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, #occupywallstreet.
Have you experienced any disconnect between broader economic trends and the “reality” of your office? Are you even in an office? Is management transparency really that important? Are things as bad as they seem? Have you experienced a lay-off or are you struggling to get into the profession after having graduated in this difficult period? We’d like to hear your opinions.
Guy Horton writes on the business, politics, and culture of architecture. He is a frequent contributor to Metropolis, GOOD, Architectural Record and other design publications. His new book, co-authored with Sherin Wing, is titled, The Real Architect's Handbook. You can follow Guy on Twitter @guyhorton.
Guy Horton is a Los Angeles writer and author of the critical blog, The Indicator on ArchDaily.com, which covers issues ranging from the culture, politics, and business of architecture to theory and aesthetics. He is a frequent contributor to The Architect's Newspaper, The Atlantic Cities ...