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Wide Open

Young designers discuss their professional horizons and architecture’s future.

On a Friday evening in December, Nicole Fichera, designer at Hacin + Associates, gathered seven of her peers from across the city for a conversation.

Nicole Fichera: I’d like to begin with an observation. When I look at the websites of young architects, I often don’t see any “architecture.” I see graphic design, photography, installation art, competitions, sculpture, painting. What does it mean for architecture if the definition stretches like this? Is this a generational anxiety, not wanting to limit our options?

Lian Chikako Chang: I don’t think it’s generational. There are so many different ways of practicing architecture. I see two sets of people in the field: those who group architecture with other “design” fields — graphic or industrial, for example — and those who group architecture with fields related to the built environment. Are we primarily interested in design, or are we primarily interested in the built environment?

Meera Deean: Sometimes I think, as architects, we talk so little about buildings. That’s part of my issue with the profession — and part of why so many people leave it for other things. Architects don’t know how to define themselves. It makes us unnecessarily modest, as if we shouldn’t think of architecture as this big world-changing thing when we talk with other people. If you don’t find your niche, something that’s easy to explain, you feel engulfed in the “architect” stereotype.

Boback Firoozbakht: I actually never wanted to be an architect. I’m more interested in finding existing property; working with an architect to redesign the building/space; and then managing the final product, generating all-in-one efficiency. I’m a developer addict. I went to RISD to study existing buildings, and to see how performance can be measured based not only on economics but also on design. Design should be integrated in the process of a developer’s project from the beginning to start evaluating its performance early. That’s the only way to know the return on investment and the return on design — the “ROD.”

Colin Booth: I think that’s a key shift in the architect’s role: being more integrated all the way through the entire life of the building. I’m training myself to focus on design not only as object creation or experience creation. Of course, I still have passion for that, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle. But we can’t let the goal of a pretty picture in a magazine or our fear of getting sued dictate how we create the built environment and how we make a living.

As architects, we don’t do legitimate post occupancy evaluations. I mean, we say we do and we kind of do, but nobody really does. There’s real opportunity for better-quality construction — and a business model that is less susceptible to economic swings — if architects continue to work with clients to fine-tune buildings over time.

Nicole: So the relationship between how long our projects should last and how long we are contractually invested in them is out of balance. Our relationship with our buildings and our ability to get new work is measured in fleeting terms: aesthetics, pictures, press, awards, beauty. But beauty can be long term, no? Shouldn’t we be proud of the fact that we believe in beauty? There’s something aspirational about that, that people do respond to.

Colin: I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I want the environments that I’m in to be exciting the way that fashion is exciting. But it’s really too bad that there are huge skyscrapers that take years of time and effort and money and resources, and then people react with a dismissive, “I don’t know if I like it. It’s a little bit like that other thing.”

Beauty runs deeper than that, deeper than fashion. I always feel like I’m betraying my artist/designer roots by bringing up sustainability. Yet someone can be physically beautiful, but if I found out that they were also horribly abusive, I wouldn’t care about the beauty.

Meera: That’s a good analogy.

Nicole: Something can’t be beautiful if it’s poisonous.

Meera: What I think I hear you saying is that what architects do and what we are capable of doing is too important to just get caught up in pure beauty or what we think is fun.

Colin: People don’t understand what we do because we don’t understand what we do. We don’t collectively know what value we have to our society and its future. Yes, beauty and design affect lives. You go to old, beautiful cities, and they make you feel fantastic. They give you energy; they make you feel alive. And we want to represent ourselves with our own version of that energy. But we’ve got to balance that with the fact that we’re quickly eating up all our resources, and it’s only happening faster, and —

Nicole: And the beautiful cities become escapist places.

Lian: The ancient Greeks didn’t segregate beauty into a separate concern. They had the very same language to talk about warfare or politics or health or craft, or what we call architecture. They thought of these things in equivalent terms and thus used the same language to talk about them. So beauty and strength, something working well, being powerful on the battlefield — all these things were bound up together. Something works because it’s beautiful; it also creates economic value because it’s beautiful and because it works; it’s green because it works; it’s beautiful because it’s green; it’s all of these things together. When we’re at our best, we are able to do that. When we fail, we try to achieve some of these things at the cost of losing others.

Nicole: So value is a really big part of this conversation. What is our value, and how are we measuring it? How can we make that value “thicker” than it is right now? Because right now, architecture has a “thin” surface value: a pretty building to which we are connected for a very short period of its life. We have no external incentives to make sustainable, durable buildings.

Colin: Exactly. It’s a building. It should last 100-plus years, not be past its prime in two. Architects should be able to end their careers knowing that their buildings aren’t poisonous to the world. We need to adjust our business models and our contracts to allow us to have financial benefit from the long-term quality and performance of buildings.

We shouldn’t wait for codes to tell us how and when to make sustainable buildings. We shouldn’t complain that clients are too unenlightened or that there isn’t enough money for what we want to do. We need to find out how to make more money delivering the quality buildings that we have a responsibility to deliver.

We have a role to play in moving architecture away from being a service industry of a throwaway society. Our entire modern way of living is throwaway. And the buildings are throwaway. Sure, I want to be a craftsman, and I want to get lost in sexy details, but I keep running into bigger and bigger issues. Based on the global challenges we face, that form of architecture is outdated specialization. World-renowned Alvaro Siza once explained how we must collectively defend our roles as “specialists of non-specialization.” We need to redefine the “master builder” as one who creates a context for the architecture we know is worthwhile.

Boback: A big part of the reason I came to my firm was the chance to do programmatic development for developers. Designers should be inserting themselves in the process earlier. We should help determine the program from the beginning because we care about making buildings work better, and we are used to thinking about how people use space.

Nicole: So you’re talking about starting our involve-ment with a building much earlier, and Colin is talking about continuing our involvement with our buildings much later.

Boback: While I was working with a prominent architect at another office, a client came to us and said, “We want you to do the interiors of these residential floors in New York City.” We proposed that the developer put a public space on the ground floor with a cultural program — engage the public, enliven the street. It was our responsibility and vision that significant projects should have public space within them. We never got that job because the developers did not see a good return on their investment. We ran that risk because sometimes the architect has a responsibility to convince a client to create a better place with them.

Nicole: The ability to persuade is so important. Really, you can’t get anything done unless you can tell your story well enough to get people excited — help clients or whomever understand your intent in a way that leaves them with a sense of experience, a sense of inevitability: If it already feels real, then making it real becomes less of a stretch for them.

Dana Maringo: Yes. When I got out of school and started working, I never realized how much we would be managers of people. It’s not talked about enough in school. Developing communication skills and managing people are really what architects do.

I worked on a few design projects in Nepal with Architecture for Humanity. We functioned as a collective group who gave advice to other groups. There were lots of social conversations, government-related questions, and logistical things: how you get things built in a remote area, how you get materials. Not much of what is considered actual “design.”

Nicolas Biddle: You have to work hard to create alliances with other people in your industry and other industries, and understand that you’re working toward a common goal.

Nicole: Nicolas, you were a finalist for the 2009 SHIFTboston competition with a proposal to activate the underutilized Boston waterfront with a network of barges. You’ve done some real legwork on making this happen. Is there an update?

Nicolas: We’ve collaborated with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. There are plans to have artist installations on barges in the harbor, working with the huge artist community in Fort Point Channel. The paperwork is still in process. We’re looking forward.

Dan Connolly: It’s good to hear about the side projects people are doing. How do we, as young architects, keep each other informed about these projects? I don’t know how we do that, whether we present our projects to other people or have a co-working space where we could work together on our side projects. I think that the interaction within our generation is something that we should build.

Boback: Yes. Despite all of the frustration — or maybe because of it — people are changing architecture. We’re all doing side projects, chasing our interests. And maybe it needs more discussion. The problem I have with conferences is that they always generate ideas. They activate. But there’s that word that’s missing again: maintain. I worked on a conference once that we called Generate-Activate-Maintain. But nobody maintained anything. People deflate. You get excited, you go to this panel, and you go home and that’s it. We need to find real ways to activate and maintain the ideas we generate.

Nicole: Yes. So “maintenance” again, but this time it’s in terms of keeping up a conversation. There’s a relationship there: the fleeting value of an image versus the long-term value of a good building; and the momentary nature of a conference versus the maintenance of networks and proactive conversations over time.

Dan: There’s no conversation going on among architecture firms in social media. At our firm, we encourage social media; but we talk to other architecture firms, and they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid of using Twitter.

Nicolas: It sometimes depends on the specialty of the firm. My firm specializes in retail, so we’re in competition on superconfidential projects. We can’t really share much information.

Dan: Social media doesn’t necessarily have to promote your projects; just use it to build up communication and talk with people.

Meera: Yes, that’s what we do, we blog. We try to take what other people are doing at work and connect it to our research or try to tie in what students or teachers are doing in school, and we write about it. It’s part of the way we practice.

Boback: Firms sharing details and specifications would be amazing, if that could happen on a large scale.

Dana: Have you all heard of Open Architecture Network [now called WorldChanging]? It’s an open-source architecture website where you can share project ideas and start collaborating to get them done. It’s less about glorifying your own ideas and more about sharing them. You put your ideas out there, and hopefully someone comes across it on this website and helps pursue it. The idea is the important thing, even if you don’t have time to do it yourself.

Back to side projects — Google allows their employees to work on whatever they want to for 20 percent of their time. Maybe it sounds absurd. But these personal projects end up seeping back into the company’s overall success.

Nicole: What’s interesting about the Google model is that it’s legitimizing something which is obviously happening anyway.

Nicolas: For me, it’s a question of ownership. If you’re in a corporate structure — the way I am, essentially — a manager tells you what to do and you do it. But if you work in a more collaborative environment, you have ownership over what you do. Even if you have a specialty in one particular area, you’re collaborating with people who have specialties in other areas. That assembly of people works on things that you don’t have access to if you’re in a specific concentration. It’s frustrating when you’re only connected to one small part of the process.

Dan: Young people look for firms that value collaboration. I like map-lab because it’s a place that values everybody’s ideas. It’s not a top-down business model where the principal makes the decisions and everyone follows them. After the economy tanked, we found that being small, we’re more flexible. We have three core staff members, and we’ve built a group of collaborators that we like working with and that likes working with us.

Some of the collaborators have their own businesses, and they work independently. If we find a client that needs help, we can look in our pool for somebody who can help them.

Nicole: So if we are serious about collaboration and maintaining a conversation, how do we start? We have hopes and frustrations and ideas. The frustration eventually needs to move into something else.

Fear is a big part of the equation. There is a perception that young people are afraid to talk about their ideas; that it can be hard to get them to express themselves. Yes, we’re young. No, we don’t have it all figured out. But the world is full of voices, and we should not be afraid to use ours. And I have a suspicion that it’s not just young people who are afraid to talk: it’s most people. How do we push through this fear? It gets back to creating a context for the architecture we want to produce. If we want to change the world — and it sounds like we do — it’s our responsibility to create an environment where we can talk about this change with each other, with our employers, with our clients, and with society as a whole.

Dana: I think it’s important to go out and let people know what it is I do, and let people know more about architects. We need to get the word out there that maybe we’re different than the stereotype. If you want to pursue your own projects and try to build yourself up, you can’t be modest.

Colin: Especially with the economy changing. It might get a little better, but it’s never going to be like it was, and that’s probably a good thing. Crisis equals opportunity. Things need to change — we need to change them before things are changed for us. I want to be invested in the buildings I create. If I can’t live in them and use them on a daily basis, then I want to know for sure that they are performing in a way that I can feel good about.

Nicolas: I’m a fan of a “less thinking, more doing” attitude. I want to see young people out of school be more proactive — more entrepreneurial. You have to figure out what you care about and go at it full blast — something productive, something tangible — instead of just pontificating all the time. I want to see stuff getting done. I’m frustrated.

Nicole: Less pontificating. Just do stuff.

Colin: Just do stuff.