The Architecture Meltdown: End of An Era, or Start of a New One?

My friend Scott Timberg has been writing a very interesting series for Salon about the “creative class” and what he sees as its decimation, largely by digital technology and the internet economy (and the resulting loss of ability to monetize “creative” careers), but also by the recession and other obstacles to self-employment like staggering healthcare costs. It’s really worth a read. His latest target is the architecture profession, one that he cites as the quintessential cool creative career, that now stands in tatters.

However, on reading his story, I had a very strong sense of deja vu (and advancing age!).

I first visited Los Angeles in 1987 and the joint was then jumping for architects, as it was in many cities caught up in the building boom of that time. Then I moved from London to LA in 1991 and found all my new architect friends out of work, in the economic slump of the early 90s. The New York Times was running articles like this one, that sounded remarkably similar to the Salon piece in their “it will never be the same again” declarations about the profession.

Many architecture grads then moved directly out of school into alternative careers, like movie production design, some temporarily, some for good. In fact, at a panel I hosted at LACMA last week, Benjamin Ball, one half of noted installation designers, Ball-Nogues (see their 2005 Maximilian’s Schell in picture, above), recalled how he took that route on leaving SCI-Arc in 1994. But Ball’s work, as well as that of other very talented architects who have used the time not spent building buildings to experiment with new ideas, is a reminder that in the architecture world recessions, while indisputably brutal for ones livelihood, can be a time of regeneration for the art and science of building. Schools fill up with students and out-of-work practitioner-teachers who use the time in academe to test new theories. Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and other hotshots of the go-go late 1990s and early 2000s famously spent the recession of the 1970s dreaming up the ideas on paper that found form much later.

Architecture follows real estate, which moves in boom and bust cycles (a fact that makes me continually wonder, why don’t architecture schools teach economics and real estate development?). Even now, I sense from architects and developers an uptick in the economy and in building opportunities. The interesting question is, what comes next? What building types will dominate, where will the demand be, and what language can we expect from the next generation of recession-surviving architects?

One further note: a popular reaction to the market crash, and resultant loss of architecture work, has been to read it as a welcome end to an era of “starchitecture.” This Metropolis commentary by Thomas Fisher, lauding the architecture for humanity works by the likes of Cameron Sinclair and Emily Pilloton, makes that argument.

It ain’t gonna happen.

Back in the recession of the early 1990s, the New York Times article, mentioned above, quoted an architect who anticipated an end to the phenomenon where “developers collected architects the way they collected art in the 80’s.”

After a brief pause for breath, architecture as art — and commodity — was baaack.

Architecture is an expression of our primal need to reshape our environment, and it takes many forms and serves many kinds of clients, a diverse picture not always reflected in the media, which tends to focus on the extremes of “star” architecture and its perceived antithesis: socially conscious, collective, community projects. Those forms can be lavish and extraordinary as well as functional and socially improving (sometimes a piece of architecture even manages to be all those things at once!). They can also, at worst, be mediocre and degrading.

As the economy picks up, I think we can expect architecture to continue to run the full gamut, and for many people to continue to aspire to be architects. As the French — who gave us Versailles and Jean Prouve’s pre-fab, low-cost housing — would say, plus ca change. . .

If you have thoughts on this, let me know as we may focus on this on an upcoming DnA.