Not twenty years ago, if you wanted to start your own firm, you could do so on a Mayline drafting board in your basement. Sharpen your lead holder, unroll a length of vellum and you were ready to go. There were no promises of your skill or success but the tools were within reach. Today, my partner and I sit on our couch as we write up a wishlist of basic softwares we might need for a fledgling practice: Revit Architecture, Autocad, Rhino, a decent rendering engine, Adobe CS, maybe Sketchup Pro. Meanwhile, a small house addition and competition briefs await on the coffee table. We click around on the internet for single-use licensing costs, tally the price tags, and the bottom line drops like an anvil: just over $15,000.
Much has been written lately, mostly about other industries, on the unequal access that unpaid internships afford. Affluent students who have the ability to spend summers working for free start out their careers with connections and experience with which their less well-off peers struggle to compete.
“While many colleges are accepting more moderate- and low-income students to increase economic mobility, many students and administrators complain that the growth in unpaid internships undercuts that effort by favoring well-to-do and well-connected students, speeding their climb up the career ladder,” Steven Greenhouse wrote for the New York Times.
This unlevel playing field, for better or for worse, transcends disciplines and manifests itself from internships to the C-suite. Budding architects, however, face a unique obstacle in starting their own firms firms in the prohibitive costs of design software. (Working for others, of course, is always “free.”)
In the vast playing field of young architects, many — while working for others or attending school — are moonlighting in their bedrooms and basements on competitions and small projects in the hopes that eventually they’ll see their names on a door as well as a stamp. Yet when it comes to purchasing software, the costs of programs like Autocad and Rhino could be resulting in a self-selecting pool of designers who are able to compete, at least initially, at a higher level. It remains unclear how the effects of high software price tags could be affecting the course of architecture at large by shaping the next generation of young design firms.
we need to develop an awareness of the fact that architecture is affected by the tools of its production at all scales
How necessary are these software programs? Digital production has, of course, garnered as much criticism for its soullessness as it has for its precision or ability to wow. Analog methods, from hand-sketching, to model making and prototype development, have been relied upon for centuries for construction. A building as complex as the Hancock Tower — wherein every floor plate was different — was drawn by hand, and its almost-poetic choice of significant details and limited number of sheets is arguably as successful as the phone-book sized CD sets of medium-sized projects today. Maya Lin won the competition for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial with a blurry, hand-rendered sketch of a thick black line in the haze. But times have changed: the winning entries of recent widely-published architectural competitions, like eVolo, are thick with unearthly renderings. Recently issued RFPs and many contract docs, even for small projects, include BIM deliverables. LEED certification — or other more holistic methods of “sustainable design” — require energy modeling; and new advances in thermal calculations and daylighting rely on digital building data. Whether or not we continue analog methods for design and how they are integrated in an architectural process is besides the point: to be competitive, cutting-edge digital design programs are integrally necessary.
There are alternatives to paying the full cost for an armory of design programs. Open-source, free programs like DraftSight, GIMP, and others attempt to compete with the big names. Students, while enrolled in school, are able to use programs on university computers or purchase less expensive “student versions” of many software. Yet these alternatives can hamstring a small practice in a post-educational setting: consultants expect coordination with mainstream programs; and student software cannot be used legally for commercial projects. The mainstay alternative for many are “cracked” programs — using downloaded serial numbers and/or a combination of sneaky softwares to circumvent licensing. But using “cracked” programs is not an optimal choice: they are time-consuming to install, don’t play well with other programs, and, of course, illegal.
Architecture softwares, from CAD to rendering engines, are costly because of their research and development costs; their proprietary code; the ongoing profitability of “upgrade” and subscription services; and most significantly the crucial factor of optimum market price. They cost what we are willing to pay.
So what are other solutions than working in the dark on “cracked” programs? Corporate architecture firms and universities have close relationships to companies like AutoCAD because of their large subscriptions, and partner in the development of these programs over time. Schools and businesses could simultaneously invest in the best open source alternatives, or reach a fiduciary hand out to smaller developers. Its in the interest of the industry to bring up worthy competitors; new softwares bring fresh takes which allow for innovative design practices and challenge rote methods that have become the norm. Frank Gehry / Gehry Technologies is a forerunner in this type of sponsorship with CATIA and Digital Project, now used to develop the oscillating facades of complex curtain walls. Architecture schools should play hardball with the large software developers; they have leverage because the programs they teach become the programs that designers use for the rest of their lives. A new type of student license, which could stay valid for a few years post-graduation and are legally usable for commercial work, would go a long way in changing the balance of privilege for architects striking out on their own.
A more holistic solution comes from an internal shift on design methodology. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have written a paean to slowness and their intimate awareness of the tools they use throughout their work. Hold for a minute your skepticism and look again at the corporate / meditation cliche: “How we work is as important as what we do.” I believe that we cannot wait for the cost of software to go down, likely it never will. Instead, we need to develop an awareness of the fact that architecture is affected by the tools of its production at all scales. We need to understand the finiteness of detail by choosing between drawing with a thin pen and a thick one. We need to consider the weightiness of real materials when scrolling to an infinite precision in Autocad. We need to assess our form-making and how it’s affected by the “boolean” tool in Rhino versus “solid tools” in Sketchup. We need to reevaluate how we consider the cataloging of architectural systems through the ubiquitous layer naming standards of the AIA.
A mantra of feminism is: “You can’t bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools.” Going to great lengths to crack illegal programs means trying to game the system through established means. Instead, we need to question all types of methodologies which have become core to the practice of architecture: from an awareness of the effects of costliness of design software, to the shape of formwork on concrete, the far-ranging questions of Dada who injected dreams and the subconscious in the production of art. The implications could reach beyond the cost of a single program. What would architecture be like if we replaced Revit with surrealist automatic drawing? What tools can we appropriate from other disciplines — sociology, robotics, poetry or statistics — to change our understanding of how to produce buildings? What new types of buildings would result?
This divergence in thinking about the tools of design, and using them to subvert and challenge traditional means, is more than a “work-around” for the costliness of design programs. Competition juries will flip through hundreds of entries and pause for a half second on those that sparkle those most. Clients need to be shown work that challenges their ideas of architecture while also inspiring it. It will take effort and risk to step out of the digital rat race to gain critical distance. This is the work of an entire career as an architect.
In the meantime, start saving for AutoCAD 2014.
Ann is a SMArchS candidate in History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture & Art at MIT.