Sunday, July 13, 2008

Call to Arms

A few weeks ago, I met up with friend and classmate – one who escaped our profession for another path. A year or so ago, he decided he had had enough. Enough of the constant battles, the clients with overzealous expectations, the bosses that were more than willing to bend over backwards, the feeling that the hurdles asked of us by our profession were just not worth it. So he made a change, applied to graduate school for something entirely different, and decided to never look back.

The funny thing about the study of architecture is this: you might end up hating it, but it will stay with you. Maybe you won’t end up practicing, maybe you might not even graduate, but you’ll still find yourself fascinated by it. At least, that’s what’s happened with all my friends who have chosen something other than the profession they first professed their love for.

Despite his protestations of being done, he couldn’t help but be preoccupied with major Architecture issues – the responsibilities of the profession, the obligations of its members, the missed opportunities. His mind still spun over the things that bothered him – that preoccupy me. And after a good long discussion, we parted with a weight lifted off his shoulders and placed squarely on mine.

We agreed that the current climate is ripe for change, for a re-evaluation of the role the profession has in today’s society. The collusion of energy concerns, the ability to deal re-build after natural disasters, the massive urbanization of nations around the globe make the role of our profession tremendously important. But, while there are those in the field making significant headway – Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture come to mind – our profession, as a whole, is not seen as the authority to turn to in these trying times.

Perhaps my perception of our profession’s stature has to do with the area in which I currently work, but I feel that, as a whole, our profession carries a certain gloss of frivolity. People see the work we do as nice, but not ultimately a necessity. And, lately, being called the “designer” by others has really meant “the one making things complicated.”

We draw, but don’t build, we create, but don’t construct, we dream, but do not develop. When you hear your own office colleagues deride your experience as secondary to theirs, even though they haven’t even trained in architecture, you being to see how the world views your place in it.

As long as I have known him, my friend was in search of something that had purpose, meaning. He wanted to contribute to the world, change it. He had aspirations for architecture to do just that – to change the world for the better. But his experiences made him feel more and more disillusioned, year by year. He felt he was moving farther and farther away from what had inspired him in the first place. So he went to a field that would engage our pressing social, cultural, and political issues on a day to day basis. I don’t blame him.

It is me, or have we lost our guts? Maybe, it’s because we can’t afford to do otherwise. So many other people have their hands in any architecture project. And the more people impacted, the more hands dig in. More people shout out what is right, what is wrong, what needs to be done. A developer shouts about his bottom line, community members speak of the destruction of their way of life, a city demands revisions to accommodate new codes. And the Architect? They revise, redraw, reissue. They negotiate, they balance. They accommodate. Rarely do I hear of an Architect who has put their foot down. An Architect who has stood firm, demanded people to trust them, their expertise. Not too many Howard Roarkes are out there any more.

That’s what bothered my friend so much. Despite being a “profession”, we are not considered experts. Despite our training, everyone thinks they can do what we can do. And often times they think they can do it better.

We aren’t the medical field, the law field. Those professions have established a degree of respect for those who work within them. People trust their evaluations, their suggestions, their directives. Well, for the most part.

In my world? The client changes finishes on a whim, without consulting our team. They skim on due diligence and act surprised when we present them with the impossibility of their expectations. Any on-site conflicts? They would rather handle those issues without us. Granted, they have plenty of experience, plenty of construction know-how. But, knowing that they would rather by-pass us than engage us annoys me.

I admit it, I am an idealist. But, idealism is always apart of what we do. We idealize our projects - their purpose, their design, their concept. Then we compromise – adapt to city codes, client comments, restrictions, budgets, community boards. The list goes on. In the end, if we are lucky, the final product is but a distant cousin of that ideal first.

But, if we are good at what we do, that final product is even better than its beginning. Because our training, our experience, our education are supposed to give us the ability to address these issues, these challenges, better than anyone else. That’s why we are hired, paid for, right? So, shouldn’t we, at some point in time, feel like we can, perhaps must, say no? Say things need to change? That we should be listened to? Say that, perhaps, the compromises we are being asked to make shouldn’t be asked of us in the first place?

When we parted that night, my friend and I had figured out little. However, he left me with a mission – a call to arms, one might say. It is time for this profession to transform itself, to emerge as an entity with a manifesto, an attitude, a direction. We needed specific goals, for both our profession and its role in engaging those social and political issues that face us all. We need to be leaders, experts. We need to be a force. The time is ripe. Now who’s going to take that stand?