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    People these days – they think they're so 'special'

    Kevin MacNichol
    Jun 3, '12 2:46 PM EST

    Creative people do creative things, but that doesn't make them architects. Yet why is it that the portfolios of young designers are often crammed with sketches, photography, and sculptures? Should these activities be considered parts of the field of architecture?

    Of course not, but they are nevertheless crucial to the development of any designer. Such creative exercises are highlighted in job interviews and graduate school applications because they display a readiness for experimentation, craft, abstract thought, etc. which can be translated to solve challenging problems. Architects are best prepared to serve diverse clients by experiencing and learning as much as possible throughout life, and not simply “specializing” in construction technology and spacial design.

    Hold the phone. Specialization is actually what makes capitalism possible in the first place. People are happy when they have a little moolah, and we need to be productive to bring home the bacon. To increase productivity, we specialize. An economist would say people pursue their “comparative advantage:” we produce what we're inherently adept at producing, and trade for everything else we need. This is how society is organized today, of course: specialization makes everyone more productive, thereby making us collectively wealthier and better able to fulfill our individual needs and desires. Case in point: I enjoy Mad Men, and also macaroons. So I went to college for five special years, got a job at an architecture firm, and recently purchased season 1 of Mad Men (as well as two macaroons.) Yeah boi!

    So far I've concluded that specialization is super duper. So shouldn't architects continue to pursue specialization and trim down the bloated scope of our profession? Many of our more technical responsibilities can be achieved by consultants: engineers for the steel, writers for the spec., landscape architects for the site, and envelope experts for the shell. As for our creative responsibilities, interior designers have the furniture, casework, and materials figured out, and owners or municipal urban planners often make the macro-scale decisions of building siting and massing. That leaves facades for us, which are the best part anyway!

    If you're still holding the phone, you're probably too far gone for me to bring you back. The giving away of professional responsibilities to other disciplines has defined architecture for the past century. This is the dark arts, my friend. In business, we often hear people talk about “trimming the fat” (this is not a reference to steak) and “oiling the machine”. But we need to be careful not to conflate streamlining with scope reduction.

    Planning, designing, and executing a project (whether it's a building or not) requires someone to oversee the operation of the machine without becoming one of the gears themselves. Architecture, urban planning, interior design – these tasks are complicated, and necessitate a big-picture mentality. Architects can handle this role, but in order to do so we must continue to learn new ideas and methods throughout life, and must not experience our education in a vacuum. We need to connect the dots, and frame our architectural decisions in sociological, philosophical, economical, infrastructural and (insert non-architectural discipline here) contexts. If we don't, our daily activities could (and do) have unintended impacts on certain populations, environments, and clients.

    In truth, architects do specialize a great deal, focusing our learning on design, construction, and project management. Much of this learning takes place in the workplace, not in a university, illustrating the life-long role of education (however informal) in some professions, especially architecture. Despite this specialization, if architects broaden our personal knowledge and experience, we will help reclaim some of the professional scope long lost to related disciplines.

    A quasi-rejection of specificity in answering the question, “What is architecture?” will help us to make more favorable decisions in professional practice. Architects may become slightly less productive as a result, but our designs will be more thoughtful.


    [And a big thank you to Nicole Fichera for allowing me to be a part of her inspiring blog!]

    • 1 Comment

    • "What is architecture?" is a question too few designers of architecture have asked. Nice post.

      Jun 18, 12 1:43 am  · 

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We live in uncertain times. Let's use the uncertainty to redefine the way we are valued and the way we measure ourselves, to create the context for the change we want to make.

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