24 December 2012
I started writing this post months ago and put in on the shelf. Now that it is year’s end, I’ve been thinking, frustrated, and thinking again. Posts over this past year from some of my favorite bloggers and virtual friends are getting at the reality of being an architect. By the way, it is not like those days in architecture school where we would spend most of our time “designing” when in reality, most architects spend very little time “designing”.
To me, this ‘reality’ of being an architect is exemplified in the overlooked small firm. There are hundreds of important tasks that need to be done to manage a project and often the time allotted to designing can’t be savored because the reality of practice insists on efficiency and quick, smart moves because “time is money” and fees are low. Those working in a small firm must master this multitude of tasks simply because there is no one else to delegate these tasks. I often feel they are overlooked in the media for making the real difference in the architectural community. Even though we gravitate towards these design journals for inspiration or even a diversion from the day-to-day, they can potentially do more harm than good as they often venerate the usual suspects that alienate us as architects from the general public. Architectural Record just published their yearly Design Vanguard showcasing up-and-coming firms (which are typically small firms). I wouldn’t want to do away with this promotion of young firms yet I’d like to see something solely American and something that more people (other than architects) could relate to and interact with easily.
I’m not here to promote myself by any means but offer credit to the countless number of sole-proprietor architects and architects working in very small firms who juggle a litany of tasks that frequently go unnoticed. (According to various sources including an AIA Firm Survey from 2012, 91% of architecture firms have less than 19 employees and 81% have less than 9 employees). I’ll go on to give extra-credit to those who are balancing work with their personal lives, architects who have given up or avoided the lure of the big city and big name firm because they’ve chosen to make more time for their families and/or contribute to a small community. Yes, you may be able to do this successfully if you work in a big city and/or for a big firm (I’m not being ‘exclusive’), but I am impressed at the architect who lives in a small town who is active in their community and finds time to drop off their kids at school or perhaps pick them up daily. These architects may be working on less visible or less glamorous projects simply to pay the bills yet they sacrifice for something far more important. Furthermore, their projects may mean far more to the clients who hired them than the clients of large corporate projects.
I admit that a large cultural institution or similar major public project can be the catalyst for change in a city’s rebirth and by no means am I minimizing the contributions of any group of architects. But one great project in a small town can have more impact on it than another project in the vastness of NYC. I’m simply seeking balance and rooting for the underdog.
Instead of giving so much magazine space to another star narcissist, let’s feature architects in a more accurate light so the public can find a better way to relate to us. (***gasp*** would that sell magazines or magazine advertising?) In other words, let’s give press to these unsung (majority) heroes making a difference in their communities offering design to forgotten areas that really benefit from the thinking and planning architects offer. Wouldn’t it start to benefit the practice as well as make architects more accessible to the general public?
So what do you think? Am I off base? Am I inaccurate? How can we measure who is really making a difference? Interview the clients? Interview the users? I’d love to hear your stories.
top photo is from swopedesig’s stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)
click on subsequent photos for source