Monday, March 16, 2009

Surviving the next cycle

Lately, I find myself coming back to thoughts I made in this post. Though made a year and a half ago, I am still asking the same questions today, especially given the current plans to "green" our way out of this historic recession. Green has moved beyond fad. It is, apparently, Architecture's way forward.

The economy has hit Architecture hard. There's no pretty way to put it. But, then, our profession has always been susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy. It's not rocket science, given that the money that drives construction in turn drives the need for the services we primarily provide. If people are building, we're in business. If people aren't building, well, we're screwed.

But, I would also argue that the profession has made itself increasingly susceptible to these winds of change. We have become increasingly "market-driven", you might say, relying on flash to get across the value of what we do.

Let us take, for example, the NYC construction scene. Last year was the Year of Architects, you might say, with projects big and small drawing great press for professionals. The glamorous openings of condo developments by Jean Nouvel and Herzog and De Meuron lead to record setting sale prices for the units they designed. The opening of the New Museum could be easily considered the turning point for the transformation of the entire Bowery.

Piece by piece, projects inserted themselves into NYC, their noteriety gaining them press which gave them, and their creators, credence for other projects, which would hopefully, for those fronting the money, provide the same returns and press that the intial projects provided. Celebrity begets desire begets profit begets new projects begets greater celebrity.

But, when the money dries up? What happens? The work gets cut. The designs ideas that were so effusively promoted by the marketing machines and architectural press get eliminated for their extravagence.

The "green" road is suppose take us out of this recession - save our profession from the decline we are now suffering. But, unless the profession takes a greater role in the development and implementation of the practices that will guide us, we'll be in the exact same place as we are now. We'll be out specifying green materials or integrating green energy products into projects until the money dries up, the stimulus money runs out, or the market decides that, without tax rebates, the products don't make financial sense, which will end the demand for our work retrofitting/ungrading/remodelling. Then what? The hunt for the next saving grace?

Our profession will always have an aspect of salesmanship. We will always be relying on people looking to trade in, trade up, buy new. But we need to be more than that. We have to be if we want to survive the inevitable downs that following the ups.

What happened to the profession that challenged the way people lived? That proposed grander visions of life - aspirations that, in failure or succeess, at least led people to ask hard questions about the status quo? We need to lead, to take positions that direct the change that will shape the future of our profession. And, since it seems like many of us are out of work anyways, this might be our chance. The chance for architects to take their knowledge and skills into politics, into lobbying, into consulting, into think tanks, into policy making, into the companies that we often promote to clients. We've always been capable of more than what the public has acknowleged. It's time to shown them.