Hello! Author here. Just interjecting at the onset of this article to make it clear that, yes, I am indeed biased and this is not intended to be purely objective in any sense. I’m also blatantly stealing this device from David Foster Wallace, who used this little tactic in his posthumous novel, The Pale King. Have you read it? Quite good, I think, as long as you can get beyond the fact that he hanged himself. That’s depressing. Another subjective P.O.V. on my part. Sorry.
So he used this device of coming clean to his audience about what lay just behind the veil of his narrative and now I’m following suit to sort of lay the foundation for the raison d'être behind all this blabbering on about unemployment and the economy and those pieces about #Occupy Wall Street, which must have mystified some members of the architectural audience because, well, they weren’t strictly about architectural things. But, that’s sort of the raison d'être for Contours in the first place.
Of course, maybe David made it all up, anyway, and it was just an elaborate joke, in which case I’m not really borrowing it properly or in the spirit for which the device was intended. Too late now. I’m already three paragraphs in and there is no turning back. What’s more, by turning this in to my editors in the middle of the night the day before it’s supposed to go up, they won’t have much time to do any editing or fact-checking.
At any rate, here I am and this is what I think. It’s not all just opinion. There are statistics, studies, reports, and experts that I often cite. Sometimes I don’t bother, because, well, it’s a lot of work and sometimes I don’t want to interrupt the flow of my writing. But, I could start inserting notes and links all over the place, if that would make you feel any better, or if there is any interest. On second, thought, no. Don’t ask for any proof of anything. That would be far too much work on my part. I think, you will just have to take my word for it this time. What’s more, again, once I write this, I don’t want to go over the same ground another time. It’s frankly too darn painful. I’m dredging up a lot of stuff in this one.
All of this being said, the following is absolutely true. It is intended to illustrate the point I brought up last week about the “disconnect.” It seems like that article sparked a somewhat heated debate among certain readers. This is valuable and is to be encouraged.
So, now that the Author’s Introduction by Way of Disclaimer has concluded…shall we begin? And just be forewarned, this could turn out to be a multi-parter of which this
would be Part One. Unless, of course, my aforementioned editors deem this pointless and alienating to the Archinect audience, in which case this will be Part One and the final part at the same time. In fact, I’ve already written enough for this to be Part One and I could say you have to wait until next week to get the rest of the story. As this move would indeed be alienating to the Archinect audience, I won’t do that.
Oh, and one more thing, this is also my modest attempt to reach out to all the still- unemployed or under-employed archi-people who have felt left behind and ignored by the mainstream press’ take, &c, &c. You are not forgotten and keep trying to make the best of it. And remember, nobody really cares…except for the 13.9 million who know what the title means.
My 681 days of unemployment started off well. I was off to a good start. I am not being sarcastic. No. Really. I’m not. It was an auspicious beginning and for a while there I was feeling like this unemployment thing wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It couldn’t be that bad. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you.
I hadn’t even finished my unemployment paperwork before my calendar started filling up with interviews. I went back to my old firm to pick up a DVD of all the projects I had worked on and was able to walk in with my dignity intact and a self-assured smile on my face. I was able to make Management feel better about themselves by letting them know it wasn’t such a big deal and that they needn’t feel bad about having to let me go. Everything’s fine, I said. I truly believed this. And I felt good about making them feel good for something bad they had to do, or felt they had to do. It would be much later that I would want to make them feel bad for the bad thing they had done.
This is how stupid I was about my situation. The disconnect I mentioned last week? Here it is. In those early days of being unemployed I was still naively optimistic that someone such as myself would be snapped up by someone. I didn’t need rescuing. I figured, despite the economic news, despite the fact that the stocks I did hold had dwindled to almost nothing, that I would just find another job in some big firm that still had a lot of work.
In fairness to myself, or to let myself off the hook, as it were, this didn’t last long. Reality started to set in after the first few interviews turned out to be no more than opportunities for people in my network to be emotionally and professionally supportive. For this, I was grateful, but there was an emotional edge to it. At the height of the recession, I walked into each “interview” thinking this would be the one. But each one was not the one. What they saw coming was a dead man walking. What their expressions conveyed most of the time was, Man, it sucks to be you and I hope I am never in your shoes. This was around 2009. As you can see, I’ve completely recovered. : )
The only real offer I received—and I was grateful for it—was from an internationally- acclaimed boutique firm willing to hire me for their Beijing office. Wow!, I thought. I’m
finally going to fulfill my potential and work for a “name” firm. I was so full of myself and still pumped up from my M.Arch “successes” that I truly believed I was special enough to dodge the recession bullet. So this famous firm wanted me! The catch: I would have to get myself and my family over to Beijing on my own dime, get housing on my own dime, and work for China wages. Could I leave the family at home, perhaps? Less trouble? I actually did a spreadsheet to see if there was some way I could make this work out.
Being unemployed was not my fault, but after rejection after rejection and being told on so many occasions that I just wasn’t quite what they were looking for, or, as mentioned above, that the interview was just a get-to-know-you-in-case-we-have-a-need-in-the- future-when-the-economy-improves-and-we’ve-heard-good-things-about-you-so-we- want-to-keep-you-in-mind-and-we-anticipate-a-need-in-the-future-at-which-time-we- would-look-forward-to-bringing-you-on-board-type of meeting, I began to feel that it was my fault.
After a lifetime of mostly #winning—not bragging just illustrating how mentally and emotionally unprepared I was for a major loss—nothing could have prepared me for this. I had suddenly been disconnected. Everyone I knew who was still employed couldn’t understand me and I was having difficulty remembering what it was like to be like them. They were now on the other side of the disconnect, where the lights were still on.
To compound issues, at around roughly the same time as the commencement of my 681 days of unemployment, I received news that I had failed the one ARE exam that would have made it possible for my old pass scores to remain valid under the new system. Of course, my excuse for failing was that I had been too dedicated to my former office and had pulled countless late nights and some weekends to see a project through. Oops.
Since my schedule had opened up significantly, I thus commenced to write NCARB to let them know what I thought of their new system on a near daily basis. Besides NCARB, I also wrote just about every architecture firm in Los Angeles (Hi there!) employing all manner of clever device to stand out from the thousands of applications they were sure to have gotten. I also did this because unemployment was making my brain melt and I had to do something to keep myself entertained. After the first few cover letters, it becomes monotonous. Plus, from what I had heard on the inside, the odds that my letters were not getting read were extremely high.
As an aside, I also wrote to President Obama on a near daily basis, offering all manner of advice about how to fix the economy. I had plenty of time to read. So I figured I would share what I had learned from various economists and scholars and historians, &c. I actually got a few polite replies. Sometimes I wrote just to let him know how things were going on the shady side of the economy. I wasn’t trying to be a cry baby. I was just telling the story the way I was experiencing it.
I did not have a trust fund I could readily tap. What I had—and thankfully still have— was a full-blown adult life with a wife, child, two cats, student loan payments, insane Los
Angeles rent, bills, gouge-rate auto insurance, and all the other stuff that comes along, one decision after another on the march to adult responsibility.
My then NCARB mentor, who shall remain nameless and probably doesn’t read Archinect, offered me some valuable advice soon after I was laid off. After all, he was my mentor, the guy who signed my IDP forms. Surely someone with his experience and FAIA status would have something valuable to offer. The advice was simply this: Try to live as simply as possible even while fully employed so that when tough times arrive you can weather it. The way to go about this in more specific terms was to have a lifestyle based on half the income you actually pulled in. I totally agree with this in principle. In reality, however, this meant I could not be living in Los Angeles, working in the architecture field and thus listening to him.
In short, I concluded that he was from another planet. I also concluded that what he was talking about sounded a lot like that offer to go to China and work for next to nothing. At least there the cost of living is a little lower. However, I couldn’t envision moving my family over to China to live on essentially $30,000 a year. Plus, there would be the issue of salary when and if I ever got hired in the US again.
That was the last time I saw my NCARB mentor. I couldn’t afford the fees anyway so all that business of licensing and IDP credits and AIA committees got put in a box like a time capsule to be opened at some future date unknown.
Damn. I’ve exceeded the word limit. Recommended length for blog posts is 300- 500 words and I’m now at 1,655 (as in the word “at” was #1,655). As predicted, this will continue next week. Unless my editors receive so many complaints and negative comments from readers that they have to politely tell me to trash it. Which, would also be OK because then I wouldn’t have to dredge all this stuff up.
Next Week: How I Learned to Live with It. In which I shall describe hilarious behavioral changes brought about by long-term unemployment and how that forever altered my understanding of the profession. Or, another article approved by my editors.
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 ...