Of course, we know why architects are quiet on these fundamental issues of wealth and inequality. On the one hand they are just too busy trying to run their businesses and chase after ever fewer projects for less and less money. The other reason is that architects depend on the wealthiest segments of society for their livelihoods. Thus it seems to provide an obvious reason not to support a movement that stands for social and economic justice and an end to rules that favor corporations, banks and wealthy individuals over “everyone else.” Again, if you aren’t sure what the ruckus is all about, you can do some investigating on your own—start by reading outside the architectural press.
But here is an interesting paradox that hasn’t occurred in the architectural bloc just yet: if the people #OWS are talking about , the so-called “99%” were doing better financially there would be a vastly larger pool of potential clients for architects. This might sound simplistic, but it just might make sense. Think of it this way: architecture’s wealthiest clients are still doing well in the recession. In fact they may even be doing better than before. But architecture itself was one of the earliest and hardest hit industries.
Studies have shown that the wealthy top 10% and the super-rich “1%” are incapable of generating sufficient economic impact to sustain capitalist prosperity and fuel economic growth. This happens only when there is a strong working- and middle-class base. It makes sense. 1% of the people, no matter how wealthy, cannot and do not, consume as much as a strong, solvent, working- and middle-class, i.e. most of the people.
This is because, for all their ostentatious displays of wealth, the rich are notorious for being stingy penny-pinchers. Ever had a wealthy client fight you tooth and nail over the budget for that luxury home you designed or the fee you charged for your professional services? Moreover, the wealthy are the ones who pull the plugs on larger institutional or speculative investment projects because the economy put them in a mode of extreme caution.
It’s worth repeating: Architecture needs more consumers, not less. Architecture depends on a growing economy, not a contracting and ever-stratifying one. The only effective way to grow the economy, many economists argue, is to have a strong middle class capable of supporting it and driving demand. The wealthy alone can’t do it and evidence shows that when the economy contracts, they won’t.
History has also shown that when the middle are doing well the top does far better. This could be one reason billionaire investment banker, Warren Buffet thinks he and his cohort should pay more in taxes. He understands how a capitalist economy works. He and his pals win more when we are all #winning.
Architecture, as an economic sector, wins when these basic economic principals are being strengthened. So, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the AIA should be lobbying congressional leaders in support of fair and equitable taxation of the wealthy, even though for now, this is where the dominant client pool resides. But if they helped create wealth in all of our classes of society, we would all have more clients, not fewer.
That means that the AIA needs to stop just lobbying for more stimulus money, more federal building projects, and funding for the “greening” of federal buildings. These strategies do not do enough for the profession because they are short-term, band-aid fixes. In short, stop asking for handouts. Instead, have foresight and look at the long- term. Because what will have a more far-reaching impact will be lobbying for what economists (and now Occupy Wall Streeters) have been arguing for years.
Here is a good example of how the AIA and OWS actually have a lot in common: the debate over the deficit. How does this work? First, the AIA’s most-recent lobbying efforts in Washington DC have been focused on educating the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction on the importance of not making cuts that would impact the built environment, i.e. architects and their colleagues in engineering and construction. Please, please, please don’t make any cuts to the Federal Budget that would further damage our profession that has already been severely damaged by the continuing recession. As Christina Finkenhofer, manager for AIA Federal Relations, noted in her recent report, “AIA members have stressed that cuts disproportionately affecting the built environment will stunt America’s growth, jeopardize the safety and reliability of the country’s infrastructure, and stifle the already struggling economy. Only time will tell whether the Committee agrees with that assessment.”
While the AIA is technically correct in its assessment of the importance of the built environment (no surprise there), it is ignoring the fact that this is a very narrow interpretation, one that is solely concerned with the architecture industry and seemingly cares nothing for anyone else. It also ignores the opportunity posed by OWS to inflect its lobbying efforts toward a greater good, which is the re-structuring of the financial and banking sectors and an end to Bush-era deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. Repeatedly, the AIA has shown itself ignorant to the fact that sound financial practices that promote the growth of a strong working- and middle-class (and by extension a stronger upper-class) will strengthen architecture as an economic sector. That is the true trickle-down theory at work—though it’s more trickle up.
Therefore while the AIA might be interested in helping to protect the narrow interests of wealthy clients it should keep in mind that it would do much better in the long-run to support the wider interests of the middle majority, the vast numbers of people currently being represented by the concerns of #OWS. The reason #OWS is growing in popularity is because increasing numbers of rank-and-file citizens, feel #OWS better reflects their concerns about the economy than the government.
Attempts to gather information concerning #OWS from architects and architecture
students have been met with silence so far. It is likely that people in the profession don’t see how it is relevant to them. This passivity might be aggravated by either generation or by one’s membership in either the management class or the architectural working class.
But when it comes to the economic well-being of the nation, especially with the possibility of a “double-dip” recession looming, architects have more in common with #OWS than might be apparent. They, along with the AIA, should be on the same side of the economic argument. After all, architects are famous for making utopian proposals. Then how about making a utopian proposal rooted in sound economic principals that will foster long-term growth and lead to greater economic stability? The middle has been weakened and chipped away at for the last three decades and we are now seeing the outcomes of this. And that fact has not served architecture well (despite the nice projects you see in the glossy magazines—that is only a small part of the picture).
So, here is a utopia to imagine: Imagine a society where there is a strong working- and middle-class that is well-educated in public schools funded by taxes and that these well- educated folk are interested in the health and beauty of their built environments. Imagine the middle majority in financial positions stable and well-off enough to hire architects for custom homes and “green” renovations on existing homes (there was a time when architects did homes that were not merely for the super-rich but for the middle because the middle could afford it). Imagine architects being able to run their businesses so that all their employees were in the middle class, able to pay off their student loans and able to purchase architecture of their own. Just imagine the impact this would have on the crumbling built environment, on people’s shattered optimism and confidence. Imagine what architecture could do with a fraction of the passion being expressed by the swelling ranks of #OWS. This is why architects should pay attention to what is finally being expressed by the people.
Archinect's anonymous #ows survey is closed. Thanks to all of you who participated! The results will be analyzed and shared in next week's Contours feature article.
I write THE CRIT, Archinect's new series on criticism. I also co-author CONTOURS, Archinect's featured column on the culture, politics, and business of architecture. I'm a frequent contributor to Metropolis Magazine, GOOD Magazine, Architectural Record, The Architect's Newspaper, and Architect ...