Rethinking Architecture in the 21st Century

Getting Some Common Sense Before We Die Out as a Profession

OK, I’ve been trying to get my Structural Homework done and it has caused the following rant:

Architecture excludes the poor and jobless in the world today. It shouldn’t be a question of money, but many simply can’t afford to be an ‘architect’ these days. I have never had this problem with my other two careers. I am eligible to take all the exams but could barely afford the study materials, nevermind the exam fees, dues, etc, which would all go way up if I passed the exams and were still unemployed. And does the exam even matter? Life is short and these are all questions I keep asking myself.

When I look at some of my favorite architects, they were pretty much self-trained and not checking in with an outdated bureaucracy every 3 months to pay money or get credits. Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, Luis Barragan and Tadao Ando – of course, these are no names to scoff at. Yet, nowadays, the more you try to branch out on your own, the more you are penalized and isolated.

Architects who are interested in learning shouldn’t be discouraged through exams that are too expensive to take, especially minimum wage interns or those out of work. It does not help that there are no used books to study and you must spend thousands of dollars to get all the recommended study materials or attend a study group. Through this process the profession is being killed off. We have the Internet now and all this material could be published online to enhance the profession as a whole instead of private corporations who make money from study guides and continuing education. The economic downturn could be used as an opportunity for out of work architects to become more knowledgeable in technology and the changing world around us, but it seems that this information is restricted to only more privileged souls.

The field is definitely split in two, between the idealistic professor PhD architects versus the realistic AIA architects that are currently in practice. Two completely different worlds at odds with one another. The practicing architects who are completely bitter with the idealistic picture some had painted of architecture in school. Especially at my last job, I was considered to be one of the design school architects, determined by those without much formal education to be useless in the field. The big ideas don’t matter in construction – you simply need to slap that thing up no matter what it looks like or we won’t make any money.

So now there is also the pretty much silenced “what the heck” branch that I fall into. Too poor to take the exams, too poor to continue going to school, wondering what to do next, reading a lot, writing, rendering, doing competitions, learning software, taking exams, most likely ready to fall out of the field altogether.

I haven’t even mentioned all the mistakes in the textbooks that cost thousands of dollars. Should I even be wasting my time trying to learn all this material and rote memorization for the exams if it may not even be correct? Plus, I know for a fact that I won’t use most of this information in day to day practice. There is a huge discrepancy between architecture, reading, and writing. The teacher from my latest course has explained that my current structural study guides are riddled with mistakes. Is this really the correct way to train people who are designing buildings? If it is really this nonsensical and unregulated, shouldn’t it at least be fun in some manner?

Likewise, it shouldn’t be necessary to waste time learning an outdated, nonexistent software program in order to pass each portion of the exam. The practice program would not even run on my computer, even with a special CD I had mailed to me from NCARB. So I must purchase a new computer with a new operating system to simply practice a program I will never use again in real life.

The current role and future of the profession as a whole is not being properly considered and evaluated, especially in regards to rapidly increasing technology. For most jobs, firms seem to be looking for a pretty much cookie cutter idea of what an architect used to be, yet at least from my experience, my career has been completely divergent and not specialized in one area. I have done everything from design to graphic design, writing, and accounting. This is not considered strength as one is expected to simply specialize in one of 10 or so areas based on code design expertise, Commercial, Residential, Corporate, Healthcare, Institutional, etc… Ultimately, all of these universally accepted distinctions seem hollow and really mean little to me, yet I must explain I have experience in all of them at every place I apply. I guess ultimately we have do determine whether to sell out and survive in this lifetime or struggle to make buildings that will be appreciated most likely after we die. Perhaps a universal question for most fields, but it does seem very pressing in our field at the moment.

So where does one focus nowadays? Any thoughts?


About Meghan Dufresne

Meghan R. Dufresne, LEED AP is an architectural designer and writer based in Boston. Interests include sustainability, gardens, art, sound, touch, experience, and merging buildings with the surrounding landscape.
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