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On the path ahead

How does the architectural profession look from the point of view of a student?

Well, it’s complicated.

The world is in crisis ecologically, economically and politically. And the profession is in crisis: The rise of starchitects since the 1990s has led to strong public awareness of the work of architects, which might lead us to expect high levels of design literacy and appreciation among an increasingly sophisticated audience. But all too often it seems that the average person lacks faith in what architects can bring to the table, seeing us as fashion designers of the kind of high-culture projects that look good in magazines while having little to do with mainstream culture—or as building technicians that dutifully perpetuate the status quo, providing developers with “business as usual” designs for suburban single-family homes, shopping malls and banal office buildings. 

And can we blame them? The work that gets the most attention from within the profession often celebrates the architect as a decorator of exterior form and lapdog of the rich, while the kinds of built environments in which most people spend most of their time remain unconsidered, inefficient and soul-destroyingly impoverished. At a moment when we need to mobilize rapid and profound cultural changes to take on major challenges as a species, this is not very good.

As a graduate student at one of the nation’s top architecture schools, one might expect me to be confident that I will be able to enter the profession and become part of the solution. But the path is not so clear. 

Let me say, unambiguously, that I’m getting a fantastic education in my MArch.I program and that I have no regrets. But, by definition, the world of academia—especially, but by no means exclusively, in an Ivy League context—grapples with issues that are often remote from the realities of how most buildings get built. We’re strong in theory, conceptual speculation and schematic design. And we’re trained in cutting-edge practices in parametric design and Building Information Modeling, digital fabrication technologies and visualization. But outside the often-esoteric projects of our professors, it can be difficult to see these tools deployed, and even more difficult to see them deployed in ways that directly and honestly address the issues we worry most about.

So on one hand, we have a generation of future architects with energy, idealism and skills, and a world that is hungry for a fresh perspective. On the other hand, the gulf between our training and the current practices of most in the profession is so wide that it’s not clear what the scope of our contributions might end up being. My worries have to do with the fact that much of what we learn can also be seen as part of the problem: The technologies in which we’re fluent are putting people with a lifetime of experience out of work; our slick design sensibilities are easily made to perpetuate a culture of consumption; and our agility with theory risks leaving us without a solid ethical ground. Then, of course, there’s the economy. Will we even have a chance to apprentice, hone our skills and strike out on our own? Or will we repeat the circumstances of the early 1990s, when soaring energy prices and a depressed construction industry resulted in a lost generation of young designers?

Is the situation really this dire?

I think it is, at least in our worst fears. Of course, we’re hoping for the best—after all, the unemployment rate for architects in the United States has been falling for almost a year. But we’re also planning for the worst: many of my classmates have found or are strategizing ways in which to make their own jobs or venture into para-architectural fields. There are, as there have always been, alternative avenues for practice, including product design; various artistic practices; design/build; graphics and Web design; visualization and fabrication; materials and construction research; research, thinking and teaching; design and planning of urban and landscape projects at various scales; emergency infrastructure and the development of facilities for underserved populations; advocacy and public policy; and so on. The culture of entrepreneurism is strong, and we can leverage our wide-ranging—if difficult to define—skills in many ways to mark out new territories.

We need to understand this as something more profound than a hustle to find individual job security in an uncertain world. Through our individual forays (however tentative and naïve) into different modes of practice, students and recent graduates today are part of a wider project and struggle to define—that is, to justify and expand—the architect’s role. And what task could be more urgent or more important than making the case to ourselves and to the public that the skills and services of our profession are worthwhile, that we are not just decorators for the rich but that we can—and must—act as leaders and innovators within our culture?

Lian Chikako Chang has a PhD in history and theory of architecture from McGill University and is currently a MArch I student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She loves tennis, gardening and food.

Photograph by Unai N. Novoa. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.