I’ve been thinking a lot about this article lately.
Having spent the last couple of years working in the retail sector, it is without a doubt that what I do has more to do with creating a product than some form of intellectual inquiry. Despite any other ideas we may have, the ultimate goal is to design environments that enhance the items that are stored within. If we do our job well, then what we do encourages visitors to buy our clients’ things. Our design’s value is equated to rise in foot traffic, the time a customer spends within the store, the dollar amount turned over.
To that end, what I do right now has little more value than the commodities it houses. Relevant for a frame of time, the designs I have worked on will likely be deemed obsolete some years from now, replaced by the latest, the recently conceived. Transitory at best, my work will likely turn to dust.
Realizing what my work is worth has been bothering me. It is probably why the article struck such a cord. While Mr. Ouroussoff’s observation of high-end architecture becoming commodity should not be shocking, the implications for architecture, as a whole, should be. Sure, interest in architecture and architects is good. For those getting the seemingly unimaginable commissions, it must be a god-send. Architects are building in revolutionary ways – ways that, admittedly, would have been written off just a decade ago, when I first entered school. And that is what we wanted, right? Patrons, clients with oodles of cash, willing to take a chance, believe in the vision and foresight of those leading our profession?
The problem with becoming a commodity is that it ties what we do to some type of imaginary value – a value not based upon tangible evaluations (performance, utility), but on the potential of its association (stardom, fashion). And, as I’ve so often confronted in the past two years, the latter values are subject to change, fluctuating wildly from one new tread to the next. As it is, Architecture has currently becomes less about movements, ideas, theories, and more about people, or rather, personas – the publicly created image of what an architect, or a firm, wants people to see.
The other problem with being a commodity? Falling out of fashion. As Heidi might say, “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” And, what happens when architecture falls out of fashion? Wrecking balls and the next new thing. It’s the gamble of moving architecture into the realm of celebrity, stardom. You can fly high while the cognoscenti are blowing your sails, only to crash land if they see something flashier nearby. Or you might transcend it all, and rise to the distinction of the revered few, and land a place in history.
Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. But knowing that my work will meet its end well within my own lifetime is, well, not exactly how I imagine things to be. It wasn’t what I wanted my professional life to be. I wanted what I did to mean more than that, to do more than that.
I am not naïve. Even the greatest works or Architecture have had their facelifts, their nips and tucks, to keep them functioning, current. But not the work I’ve done. It will be wiped out one day, its existence maintained only in my memory and the photos taken before its demise. Knowing that made my decision easy: I resigned from my job. In a month from now, I’ll be doing who knows what. And in this economy, who knows where. But, for the moment, I feel as though I’ve taken a big step towards keeping myself from being commoditized.