07.30.04 Reasons to be Optimistic
#7. Recycling Bins
Last week, we received an email from a reader named Louis Smith titled, “Ten Reasons to be Hopeful About the Future of Architecture.” You can read his own explanation below, but essentially, Mr. Smith was inspired recently to write down reasons to feel good about the future of the profession. He sent out an email to a few folks, and that email got passed around and discussed, and passed around some more. Today, we’re sharing it with you–though less because we hope you’ll feel warm and fuzzy about Mr. Smith’s optimism, and more because we hope you’ll be motivated to think of your own reasons to be optimistic.
Just as Mr. Smith did last week, five years ago we sent out an email to a few friends, which also got forwarded and passed around. Rather than being cynical and defeated about the then-state of architectural internship, we were optimistic and somewhat idealistic. And little over a year ago, we redesigned the ArchVoices website and added the phrase “Believe in the Future” to the masthead.
We have heard and seen that sometimes optimism and idealism fade in the harsh light of real world experience. Instead, our experience over time with young designers across the world has only strengthened our original idealism. Young people are hungry. Every single time ArchVoices has offered opportunities to participate in this profession, you have responded. From the 70+ people in an overflowing room at our BuildBoston symposium last year, to the 300+ essays we received through the ArchVoices Essay Competitions, to the 5,000+ interns who completed our national survey with the AIA, to the 16,000+ people who continue to subscribe and respond to this email, we have at least 21,370 reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Pressing “send” every Thursday evening continues to be an optimistic experience for us. We hope you’ll take a moment over the next few days to tell us about some of the reasons that you believe in the future. Your future.
“Ten Reasons to be Hopeful
About the Future of Architecture”
By Louis B. Smith Jr., AIA
At a recent summer social event at my local AIA component I heard several people bemoaning the soft market in the area, the dearth of talented professionals with the right amounts of experience, and general frustration with various aspects of the industry. A week or so later, while vacationing, I visited the house of a friend who is an avid reader of Oprah’s “O” magazine. In the March 2004 issue, I found an article by Martha Beck, a sociologist and author. She wrote on “Ten Reasons to Feel Good About the Future.” The list was intriguing because the reasons varied from feminism to frappuccinos. It started me thinking, though, about why we should feel good about the future of architecture. Here are my ten reasons:
1. Emerging professionals
I am constantly amazed when I deal with recent graduates and current graduate students by their enthusiasm for the profession. Often we lament that the schools are not providing the right technical training. But I rejoice in the fact that they are keeping creativity and enthusiasm in the profession. It would be a dim future indeed if this were not the case.
It’s fair to say that the iPod has nothing to do with architecture. And Apple’s Macintosh computers hold only a minority share of our industry, though often preferred by small practices. Nonetheless the world wide fascination with Apple’s iPod is about more than music. It is about the value of quality design, and the world gets it. It is not often that good design wins out in the popular market. It is more common that low-priced, poor design wins. It may turn out that way in the music industry as well. But for the moment, the iPod is a shining example of how good design can create more value for people than poor design. And people are willing to pay more for it. Tell your clients that architecture is to construction, what iPods are to portable transistor radios.
3. Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava
With a few important exceptions, I am not impressed with the work of Frank Gehry, but I am very impressed with the work of Calatrava. What is important about these two men is that they have captured the interest of the public. They have allowed the public to expand its vision beyond simple boxes and conceive that something beyond what we call “core and shell” might be worth substantial investment–even with public funds! Bravo to them both!
4. Digital Communications
Cell phones, email, and the internet have changed the nature of research and construction administration in the industry. Sweet’s is trying hard to keep pace, but the ability to find and directly access information and details on building products and materials has never been swifter. And while the future promises to get better, it certainly has allowed for the faster resolution of design and construction issues. It has not, however, substituted for good judgment. This avalanche of information has made architects’ skills at analysis and decision-making even more valuable to clients. Yes, everyone can pull up the details on new roofing products. It is still our job to make sense of them.
5. Sarah Susanka
This one woman’s ability to engage middle-income Americans in the discussion of the design of homes has been critical to transforming the image of our profession in residential markets. The transformation grows more ubiquitous with every book she publishes. While she has had some assistance, it cannot be denied that she is primarily responsible for expanding architects’ reach into residential markets. I only hope that more architects will follow her lead and provide enhanced designs on low-budget projects.
6. Digital Tools
Of course computers have transformed the industry. And management software is sure to become as omnipresent as word processing and CAD. But what gives me the greatest hope in the digital tools area is software like Dr. Beam, DOE?2, and the energy code software from Battele Labs. The discussion of software is moving from simple productivity to content analysis and qualitative issues. The importance of architecture will be maintained by an increase in quality. The more issues we can successfully manage in our designs, the more value we create for our clients and the more fees we can generate for our firms. When people begin to see and understand a deeper value proposition, our services will also generate more value for us.
7. Recycling Bins
While they are not quite ubiquitous across the country, they are present in ever more places. Their presence and the idea of recycling no longer raises eyebrows or causes instant scorn. This indicates that environmental awareness and responsiveness is becoming a core value in our society. While the conversation will not always go the way we might like, we can now discuss environmental issues with our clients. As architecture is a major consumer of energy and materials this discussion bodes well for the world but also for our increased value to society. Did I say that increased value creates increased fees?
8. Technical Innovation
Pick your area. Nanotechnology? Steel alloys? Aerated autoclaved concrete? Environmental products? LED-based lighting? Engineered wood products? The advent of new technology into the construction arena has always brought design innovations. As cast iron was used to create the Crystal Palace and concrete was used to create the Guggenheim, we too shall create as we innovate with the new materials available to us. It may not look revolutionary now. But the revolution will be obvious once a truly creative solution has been applied.
9. Cultural Awareness
While it is true that the profession as a whole is moving slowly toward becoming institutionally multicultural, the society around us is swiftly moving in that direction. The result will be clients who demand more cultural awareness in their architecture. They will want true cultural responses and not simply culturally inspired decoration. This will draw people with more varied cultural backgrounds into the profession. (Culture, as used here, is not a synonym for race or ethnicity though there may be overlap in certain individual cases.) The result will be more innovative solutions to address these cultural needs. By providing those solutions before the cultural consultants do, we will create additional value for our clients. Did I mention that additional value creates increased fees?
There seems to be a resurgence of storytelling in our society. It is manifested in audio books and the plethora of Harry Potter books, memorabilia, and movies. Movies are now seen as a vehicle for telling a story. Even sermons in churches are becoming opportunities for a short tale. This is good for architecture in that stories bring across complex interactions between people and sometimes their social and physical environment. This is also good for architecture because it makes it possible for us to tell out clients our own stories. It is not a matter of making excuses for what we failed to accomplish. It is more a matter of being able to express to our clients the value and complexity of what we do. As they perceive that value they will respond. Did I mention that additional value creates increased fees?
Well, that is my list. I could go on. I could tell you about terrorism, cable television, Home Depot, talking sticks, drum circles, charrettes, community activism and more. But perhaps you would like to share in this as well. What are your reasons to be hopeful about the future of architecture?
Louis B. Smith Jr., AIA is a founding principal of Ascent Design PC in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the immediate past president of the Huron Valley Chapter of the AIA and also serves on the National Advisory Group for the AIA Small Project Forum.
As always, we welcome your thoughts by email at email@example.com.
ArchVoices is an independent, nonprofit organization and think tank on architecture education and internship…