As if the narratives and infographics of Occupy weren’t loud enough by now, Catherine Rampell, an economics reporter for The New York Times, decided to bang the drum a little louder by writing “Want a Job? Go to College, and Don’t Major in Architecture”.
To date, 134 comments and counting. Seems she pissed a few architects off. Goodness. Mustn’t do that. Must have been the “don’t major in architecture” part.
It’s a good piece of reporting, properly grounded in statistics and economic data. In other words, she’s not just making this stuff up. She did her research, talked to people, read things. After all, she went to college, too. She doesn’t seem to have any bias against architects, per se. Why the harsh treatment?
Like most articles of this sort, it’s not bullet-proof. There are always ways to argue with the data. It takes this into account, but not that. Yes, but…. Despite this, the basic picture the information paints, especially when coupled with broader economic indicators and social data, remains stable and correct. Don’t try to adjust your monitor.
The result, to cite Paul Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal”, his New York Times blog post of January 14, is something we’re supposed to be quiet about. I would add that the most obvious and loudest problems of the economic sort, those elephants in the room such as inequity, earnings, growth, and distribution, are usually the sort one is supposed to be quiet about. Shhh…. Don’t wake up the elephant. As he writes, “This is real stuff, not some trivial envy-driven concern.” (1)
Architecture is not unique in not wanting to wake up the elephant. As the past weeks have demonstrated, the liberal narrative of capitalism (mediated and adjusted by government policy) has elevated the lexicon of inequality and the flattening of family income in relation to GDP by citing data, not relying on emotion. It is now almost impossible to bring up inequality and envy in the same breath. (2) The economic arguments can no longer be dismissed as mere liberal whining. (3)
So, then, why, when the evidence is out there, were a number of architects so defensive about the “Don’t Major in Architecture” article? Why are they whining? My conclusion, so far, is that this touched a nerve precisely because this isn’t new information to architects (and those architectural workers not yet allowed to call themselves architects). The “Don’t Major in Architecture” narrative is already intrinsic to the profession.
How many times have you heard architects say something to the effect that they would never want their kids to become architects? They all seem to want their kids to major in fields that are viewed as more economically-profitable. Architects tell this to their young! Don’t major in architecture.
When insiders say it, it can be taken with a dose of irony and humor because we all understand that we are in this for many reasons, not merely for financial gain. When an outsider says it, however, it takes on a more sinister, depressing tone. It’s seemingly OK if architects all secretly know (wink, wink) that the profession has its downside. But we don’t like to hear it from the “general public”. We hear enough negative things about architecture from the general public as it is. Now we have to listen to them tell us we don’t get paid enough? Thanks, but we can do this on our own.
Along these lines, one of the more interesting argument threads that subsequently ensued after the article appeared (4) is that architecture is not about being economically profitable or about raising one’s own lot in relation to GDP. Architecture is a much higher calling that should not be debased by such concerns. This may, in fact, be another intrinsic element to the cult of architecture: the abhorrence of seemingly common concerns in the midst of important, if undervalued, artistic and cultural pursuits.
If there are architects who do not like the economic contingencies of the profession, they, of course, are free to leave. The other approach is to find ways to increase the value (in all senses) of architecture within the general culture. We all value it highly. But we have elevated it as a cultural practice and discourse to such a high realm of exclusivity and insider-ness that the general culture has become alienated and suspicious.
This is the divide that binds us. Architects need the general culture and the general culture actually needs architecture—they just don’t think they do. The status quo, that so far doesn’t show signs of letting up, demonstrates that the public thinks architecture is an unnecessary luxury. What we are left with are a lot of architects thinking highly of themselves as cultural elites in opposition to a public that simply doesn’t understand.
If one has to go through the rigors of architecture school in order to “understand” the importance of architecture, then we are faced with a significant problem. Notice how we go crazy giving awards…to ourselves. We present lectures…to ourselves. We publish countless articles and blog…for ourselves. (5)
This divide ultimately impacts the business side of architecture. It is a service industry. (6) But it is also an artistic practice and academic discipline of investigation. Perhaps one problem is that we put so much energy into the artistic and cultural aspects of architecture, mimicking what we learned in the academy, that we have simply lost the ability to communicate our worth effectively to the public.
When architecture turns toward the public, as business and cultural practice, it needs to recalibrate how it communicates meaning and professional values. It has to become an advocate and listener rather then the arbiter of provocative positions, the assumer of stances.
In order to bridge this divide, the public and architecture must be recombined in multiple and minor ways rather than as two monolithic absolutes pitted against one another. (7)
If architects don’t want to hear that they are underpaid they need to adjust the discourse and modify their positions within the culture. (8) By shifting position, the business can be elevated. This would also entail an adjustment within the academy. (9) The way architecture is presented to the public must not merely follow the foreign language of architecture learnt in the academy—architecture for architects.
Until architects address this issue, the public will continue to willingly pay premium rates for legal and financial services while asking architects (and non-architects who can supposedly do the same things architects do) to offer their services for the lowest possible rates. Culture is grand, but you can’t eat it, or buy a house with it, or send your kids to college on it—those kids, by the way, whom you say should not major in architecture.
1 - Note the jab at GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney for his claim that the issue of inequality in our economy is driven by envy of those who are just more successful. Author, Jeff Sharlet spikes this kool-aid with a little irony when he Tweets, “As far as I’m concerned, Mitt’s got it right: I do envy wealth. It’d be nice to not be paying for an emergency appendectomy month by month.” He is also right to identify that Mitt Romney is not the first to discover the existence of class envy in our culture. There is certainly an anathema against it in part because of how our nation was founded in ideological opposition to the class society prevalent in England. This obviously has never meant that the issues of class were not reproduced here.
2 - Unless, of course you are Mitt Romney and genuinely believe that envy explains economic disparities and class divisions. This view explains why many GOP lawmakers favor mandatory drug-testing and volunteer work for the unemployed. They are, after all, just lazy and obviously do not work as hard as those who are successful.
3 - But they are and that is not going to change anytime soon. As the chart cited in Paul Krugman’s blog diverges more, the rhetoric of the whining, envious, and lazy lower classes increases.
4 - It was actually a Facebook thread on the Architecture for Humanity page. I obviously can’t reproduce it here. It was one of the longest comment threads I’ve seen on Facebook, and much of it was fierce opposition to the “Don’t Major in Architecture” article. Most of the comments against it were elaborated as a passionate defense of the superior cultural position architecture should occupy and that architects are, in fact, working with the truth, whatever that means. Journalism was attached as false and fabricated, essentially meaningless in culture compared to the significance of buildings. At some point, Cameron Sinclair, head of Architecture for Humanity, expressed amazement that this touched off such a firestorm of criticism. He also Tweeted to me that having a social impact through design is not about building more stuff, it is about the evolution of the industry. By now, perhaps we can agree that we have evolved significantly in terms of design and technique, but we are still in need of evolving in the realm of business and the social impact he speaks of.
5 - Notice all the architects who are more busy producing cultural products not related to the public than they are producing buildings. Not that there is anything wrong with this. This, in fact, is a strength. But it could be a stronger cultural position when more integrated with the public domain outside of the discipline itself. See the recent article in The New York Times on Pedro Gadanho, for example. Nothing new for those in the profession—especially all you adjuncters and bloggers. Such cobbling together of careers is the not-so-new normal that often comes out of economic necessity. Having come from the humanities, this is a condition that is all-too-familiar to me. The similarities are striking.
6 - The architecture license looks almost exactly the same as a cosmetology license. Of course everybody needs a haircut at some point. I wonder if there is more value placed on good hairdressers than on good architects. More people interact with hairdressers than with architects and architects seem to spend a good deal of time surrounded by other architects. I wonder if hairdressers get together and talk about how great they are or what current theories of cosmetology are important, or if they hold up certain hairdressers from the modernist era, say, as heroic, father-figures. Similar to architects, hairdressers also tend to exhibit good fashion sense. Though this is debatable. Hairdressers might have the jump on this. Hairdressers get tips, too. And they can charge insane fees for their services and clients won’t even blink. Architects, meanwhile, seemingly have to offer services at Filene’s basement prices or developing nation prices (global economy bargain basement). Have you ever heard architects complain about how they can’t afford to pay their employees or even themselves? Do hairdressers have these same issues?
7 - Deleuze has implications for economics when he postulates that culture is a system of endless recombinations and potentials that are minor as opposed to major. He uses the terms to signal a shift away from a tendency in western culture to valorize absolutes and universals as part of grand narratives of progress. He considered these terms to be traps.
8 - And what is all this talk about architecture being diluted by other professions that invade it and claim mastery of what was once exclusive to architecture? Architecture is constantly being defined in terms of lack and as an object of attack. Is it really this easy to attack and cause architecture to disintegrate? This is why Deleuze deserves a second and third look in relation to architecture. Not for aesthetics or as mere theoretical motivation, but as an instigator of political and economic strategies. How can architecture combine and recombine to incorporate the broader culture and then communicate this back to that culture in powerful and compelling ways that command and draw investment? Architecture needs to be in charge rather than lamenting the loss of power.
9 - No, this does not mean just incorporate a few shallow business courses. You don’t think financially- successful industries learned everything by taking a few business classes, do you? It’s an issue of what architecture values and whether or not the pursuit of economic success is mutually exclusive to cultural or aesthetic success. Where did this binary divide between monetary aspirations and cultural aspirations come from in the first place? I think it comes from the trope of Enlightenment divisions of disciplines and the historicization of architects, for example, as cultural leaders somehow outside of and above the common economy. Perhaps we need to bring Marx back into architecture.
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 ...