By Sherin Wing & Guy Horton
We sit here in the joyous wreckage of The Holi-daze listening to one of the forgotten tunes of 2011, “Soothe Me” by the London-based band, Yuck. We think, yes, soothe us. Please. Just give us some good news. Anything. ABI? Unemployment? A functioning Congress? How about some cool projects that give us some hope that architecture matters in more than just narrow aesthetic terms? Too much to ask for?
That’s what all those “Best of” lists are about. They are designed to soothe us. They are the temporary drugs, the primary-color pills to make you feel just a little bit better. And there are lots of pills to take. They are supposed to keep the sparkle of hope in your eyes, your hand on the mouse, and your wallet open.
The “best of” replay comes every year like a virus. But honestly, enough is enough already. You will be subjected to so much “Best of 2011” b.s. in the coming days and weeks that you will completely forget how f$%&d up the year was.
So rather than a CONTOURS “best of,” let’s instead look at what had real impact. Let’s look at some of the most powerful political, economic, and social forces of the year that have direct bearing on the architecture profession. It ain’t about good or bad. It’s about what’s real. And, yes, there are always plenty of projects to cite. There are always more projects. Others can tell you about those.
Economically and politically, it has been a tumultuous year of change all across the world. From the Arab Spring, which in certain countries has lasted through this winter (witness Egypt) to the collective Occupy movements, people of different social, economic, and racial backgrounds have assembled in order to voice needs and demands that, a year ago, would have been unheard of. The economy has played a huge role in enabling this.
This turbulence has been mirrored in architecture. While no violence of the physical sort has occurred there has been violence on other existential levels.
The effects of the recession are ongoing and trenchant. In a survey by the Wall Street Journal—which incidentally is supposed to help people choose the best college major—they cite that the official unemployment rate for the architecture industry is 10.6%. Median earnings linger at $60,000, which is terrible after taxes and student loan bills. And of course it doesn’t include those who are underemployed or who have dropped off the unemployment rolls, which occurs anywhere from 1-2 years, whenever your benefits run out. It is no accident that the term “lost generation” is now part of the lexicon.
As Mike Konczal reported recently in The Nation, “Every indicator we look at—job openings, the rate at which people quit their jobs for new opportunities, the number of hours worked in the economy—has stayed weak during 2011. With job growth failing to exceed population growth each month, and with no serious increase in the percent of Americans working, 2011 was a lost year for the economy.” And the consequences are long-lasting, especially if one occupies vulnerable demographics, primarily the older population who are usually paid more, hence if they are “just” workers and not upper management, they get fired first and hired last.
Certain initiatives, like President Obama’s green tech, fleet, and energy initiatives—the so-called Green Economy—while they have the potential for generating more employment for architecture, have thus far not borne fruit. What’s more, some glaring statistics have come to light about the building industry.
According to one proponent of passive green building technologies at Utah University, Joerg Ruegemer, “The building sector consumes two-thirds (77%) of all electricity in the U.S. and is responsible for producing nearly half [italics mine] (46.9%) of US CO2 emissions in 2009 [alone]” But, he argues that through site-specific research and design combined with passive technologies, the projected 70 million housing units that will produced over the next 30 years can produce an energy savings ranging between 30%-45%.”
So, while it’s definitely the right time to promote broader sustainability policies and initiatives, it has also not been the right time. While 2011 may have seen some progress for sustainability in terms of a few more successful projects, overall, the broader political support for sustainability has been thwarted by the effects of the recession and recession thinking. In 2011, the Green Economy was one of the casualties of bi-partisan fighting over the direction “recovery” should assume. So much for putting people to work greening existing buildings and for any role architects might have had in that. So much for architects designing all those new green federal projects.
Student loans, another big policy issue unveiled in October, also has an enormous impact on architects and designers. There is the option that allows people to repay their student loans commensurate with their income, rather than paying a fixed amount based on what Sallie Mae or some other large student loan service has calculated based on interest rate and their profits. What’s more, forgiveness of remaining debt begins 5 years earlier than it did before, at 20 years rather than 25. And really, unless you are independently wealthy or have grandparents willing to pay your school bill, you’ve probably got some hefty outstanding student loan debt.
Women in the workplace have also formed another important discourse supported by studies from The World Bank and the German Institute of Economic Research, to name a few, have found that there are institutional barriers preventing women from both working full-time as well as achieving positions in the highest levels of management. These include the unspoken bias against women who have or want to have children, pay disparity, and a men’s network that privileges people like themselves for promotion: men. Moreover, women also spend more of their time on unpaid, domestic labor, i.e. housework and childcare. Specifically, they spend twice as much time as men do on such work. Yet many of these articles argue that hiring women significantly benefits the companies they work for because they are as or more well-educated, and they tend to work harder in order to achieve the same amount of respect offered men of the same job level.
Immigration has been another potentially incendiary issue, especially given the vitriolic rhetoric that has dominated the Republican presidential race. It is no coincidence that the NDAA or the National Defense Authorization Act, has already been passed by both the House and Senate, given the intense anti-immigration rhetoric overshadowing the media. Together, these have formed a binary discourse that globalizes immigrants into those who “take ‘our’ jobs and money” and those who “take our technology and educational know-how back home.” Both of these arguments are patently wrong. First, for low-paying jobs, immigration, legal and illegal, drops off dramatically when the economy is sour. And for professional jobs such as those in architecture and design, immigrants actually help increase business opportunities for their employers by making introductions and connections, and providing a readily available guide to negotiating the cultural, economic, and political differences that exist.
Finally, there is Occupy, which began as a domestic movement but has spread throughout the world, to developed and developing nations alike. And while it began specifically as an indictment of Wall Street-based corporate greed and exploitation of government loopholes, it has inaugurated an entire set of heretofore obscured issues. They include homelessness and poverty, corporate accountability and civil rights regarding police militarism and the NDAA. Indeed, the Occupy movements have offered both a collective and individual voice to people who normally feel they have none in joining social and political discourses. What’s more, it has mobilized these people into action, giving them agency and empowerment during a time that has increasingly devalued individual voices.
All of these political, economic, and social movements directly impact people in the architecture sector. From unemployment and student loan debt relief, we have fiscal conditions/issues that have significantly impacted the economic well-being of individuals who are either sinking under crushing debt because they have jobs with too-little pay, or they are unemployed or under-employed. The social/political issues of both women and immigrant populations in the architecture workplace are also issues that have come to the fore because of political discourses as well as a plethora of studies that have argued for their benefits to colleagues and their employers. And the Occupy movements have enabled people who have felt unable to change their immediate environment opportunities for empowerment, engagement and change. These forces have and continue to directly shape the lives of people in architecture. And if there is one lesson we can learn from all of these movements, it is that architects must all engage in the movements and processes that are meaningful them. They must be thoughtful about them. And become involved directly. Because this is the time of true change.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...