The last few years haven’t been kind to architects. The once-booming construction sector has been brought to a near-standstill by the housing bubble’s burst and the economic downturn that followed. But if the last few years were tough, the past few months have been downright brutal, with a barrage of media coverage predicting the outright death of the profession.
“New study shows architecture, arts degrees yield highest unemployment,” a Washington Post headline announced in January. Based on 2009 and 2010 Census Bureau data, the Georgetown University study showed a nearly 14 percent unemployment rate among architecture school graduates. Skeptics questioned if the numbers were too high or too low, but the damage was done.
Weeks later, in a Salon article titled “The Architecture Meltdown,” Scott Timberg effectively compared the storied profession to a delicate house of cards—uniquely vulnerable to economic and market forces. “A once-thriving profession, one that requires considerable education and work ethic, and which has traditionally served a wide range of functions — designing mansions for the 1 percent as well as public libraries — is in trouble,” Timberg wrote.
How did a noble, still-romanticized profession—purportedly licensed to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public”—fall so far? The myriad reasons are reminiscent of the problems that have plagued medicine for a century and a half and paved the way for the creation of the public health field—which aims to take a more systemic approach to health care than traditional medicine, focusing on policy and broad-scale community engagement. Public health may provide a viable model for those who became architects in order to make people’s lives better, not just cater to the proverbial 1 percent.
Architecture conjures up all sorts of images in the minds of non-architects: rolls of blueprints, soaring buildings, a life of glamour and fame. But even the most famous architects say the past and present realities of the profession are markedly different. Becoming an architect today requires grueling hours, a disproportionate amount of education, years-long licensing hurdles, and finicky clients, while yielding relatively low pay and career stability compared to other learned professions.
More detrimentally for both the public’s perception and opportunities within the field, architecture remains a luxury available only to a privileged few. The field has long wrestled with its elitism; books have been written, conferences staged, and museum exhibitions mounted around estimates that architecture and good design are accessible to only a select sliver of the population. Yet architecture shapes everyone by creating the environments around us, impacting our collective quality of life. As philosopher Alain de Botton once wrote, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”
Like public health did for medicine, the emerging field of public interest design offers a new direction for architecture, one that takes into account the needs of the other 99 percent of the population that has historically been marginalized or disempowered from shaping their environments. While architecture has divorced itself from related fields like environmental psychology, landscape architecture, and urban planning, public interest design seeks to reunite them—not for the good of the profession, its image, or its bottom line, but for the benefit of society.
Jane Jacobs, in The Death & Life of Great American Cities, spoke to this aspect of architecture and the built environment generally, writing that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Architecture, however, is most often driven by private interests, rather than the public good. This is exacerbated by the way architects have structured their practices, waiting for self-interested clients to come their way rather than actively seeking ways to improve the world (one notable exception is the Via Verde housing development in the Bronx, which The New York Times credited with “rewriting the rules” of low-income housing).
Decades in the making, the public interest design field, with its defiant rejection of architecture’s unsustainable ways, is coming of age. Its emergence is seen most directly in dozens of nonprofit design organizations. Like traditional architecture firms, however, these organizations almost universally rely on low-paying fee-for-service work supplemented by modest philanthropic support from foundations and individuals. The hard truth is that they risk the same vulnerabilities and inefficiencies that have plagued the architecture profession at large, limiting innovation, scale, and social impact. Accordingly, the majority of these efforts are tiny and disparate, while the problems they are tackling—and have the potential to solve—are enormous and interconnected.
After a century and a half, architecture’s fate may be sealed, but the emerging field of public interest design stands on the brink of becoming a self-sustaining profession and making a tangible impact on the world. This is the moment that government agencies, foundations, generations of design professionals, and the public at large (whether they know it or not) have been waiting for. So let’s get to work.
Drawing courtesy of Moh’d Bilbeisi