Post-Meltdown, The Rise of Architecture for the 99%

While the traditional work of architects may remain depressed for some time to come, non-traditional job opportunities for architects have never been better.

Project H Design Flickr Photo

Scott Timberg’s article “The Architecture Meltdown” (Salon, February 4, 2012) asks the question “Where does architecture go from here?” without offering an answer, so I will. The piece makes a compelling case for the demise of  “star-chitecture,” which rose with the recent debt-fueled construction bubble. But Timberg presents only a fraction of the story. While the traditional work of architects designing for fee-paying clients has declined and may, as Timberg observes, remain depressed for some time to come, non-traditional job opportunities for architects have never been better and while it may take some time for these markets to mature, they seem likely to grow much faster in the years to come.

Think about what Timberg documents as part of a shift from the architecture of the 1% to the architecture for the other 99%. That shift has led to the rise of “public-interest design,” serving the needs of the billions of people on the planet living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. The SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) Network has become a clearinghouse of myriad community-based design projects around the globe, and it is one of myriad efforts engaged in a public-health version of architectural practice, focused not on the wealthy of the world who can pay design fees, but instead on everyone else who can’t and yet who need the services of designers as much or more than the top 1%.

This new form of practice often takes the form of a non-profit, in partnership with other NGOs, universities, foundations, or government agencies.  Examples of it range from the work of Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller, whose Project H Design engages and transforms students left behind in our public education system, to the work of Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, whose Architecture for Humanity has a network of over 50,000 architects working on community projects around the globe, to the work of the MASS Design Group, which operates under the sponsorship of Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health to design schools, housing, and clinics in Africa, Haiti and elsewhere.

Along with the emergence of public-health architecture has come the realization, especially in the healthcare community, of the value of architects’ design-thinking skills when applied to the invisible, but no-less-designed world of processes, procedures, policies, and flows. Medical systems like the Mayo Clinic and the Allina Hospitals and Clinics have hired architecture graduates, like Jess Roberts and Allison Verdoorn, to design – not their facilities, but their services. Architects, says Roberts, are “well suited to dealing with big, complex problems that require a lot of people to achieve an outcome,” and those same skills apply to the redesign of healthcare delivery. Verdoorn adds that “the methodology of architecture effective in understanding the problems in healthcare settings,” giving us “a set of tools that get people to think and see things in new ways.”

For-profit design-thinking firms have also thrived throughout the recession by focusing on strategy and innovation, rather than on delivering a pre-ordained product, like a building. IDEO epitomizes that trend. It applies design-thinking to a remarkable range of problems from the reinvention of public- and private-sector organizations, to the creation of systems and processes that spur innovation to the development of products, services, and spaces needed by people across a wide spectrum of cultures and income levels. And they have just scratched the surface of the demand for this work. In a 2010 survey of 1,500 CEO’s conducted by IBM, 60% of those polled listed creativity as the most important quality they look for in their employees, with ethics as the second most desired trait. In the highly competitive and fast moving global economy, innovation has become essential to success and there is no better education than architecture and design in acquiring the skills required to achieve it.

At the University of Minnesota, we see growth in the global demand for architects who think creatively. We have put in place a flexible undergraduate Bachelor of Design in Architecture program that focuses on broadly educating designers who are able to apply their skills across the economy and the globe. We are planning a public-interest design program that builds on extensive work we have done in places like Biloxi, Mississippi and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And we are piloting a program in which students conduct research under the aegis of architecture firms to expand the types of services and the number of people the profession serves. All this while also teaching the same design principles that have long lay at the heart of architecture. With this education, we believe we can send entrepreneurial students out to the world prepared with the skills, knowledge and tools to succeed.

Timberg rightly observes that “People will always need houses, cities and nations will always need schools and libraries and civic buildings,” and with an exponentially growing population across the planet, those needs will also grow. Ultimately, this answers Timberg’s question of where architecture goes from here. There remains so much work for architects to do in the world that we should see the decline of traditional jobs not as a “meltdown” of architecture, but as the beginning of its rebirth.

Thomas Fisher is the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

Categories: Architecture, Ideas