Liz Gerber, Breed junior professor of design at Northwestern University, has taught Millennials for 12 years. She sees many students like Berg who are invested in human-centered design careers that don’t follow the prescribed boundaries of traditional practice. In 2009, Gerber founded Design for America (DFA), a national network of interdisciplinary student teams and community members that use design for positive social change. The award-winning program allows students in myriad fields to usurp the typical boundaries of discipline and rally around pragmatic design solutions.
“The Millennial generation has grown up with social computing, which has made it possible for them to connect with people throughout the world, learn about problems and solutions, and do so independently and—in many cases—independently of traditional authority figures like parents, teachers, bosses,” Gerber says. “Social computing raises awareness of the importance and urgency of problems to be solved and lowers the barriers to resources to solve them. When Millennials see their peers making a difference through design, they ask themselves, ‘Why not me? What’s stopping me from directly engaging with the world’s problems?’ ”
This isn’t an outlier sentiment. Social responsibility as an accepted standard of good architecture is an ideal that’s also found among young associates at large architecture firms. “People are much more socially motivated than they were before, and Millennials are looking to make a difference in the world,” says Phil Harrison, FAIA, president and CEO of Perkins+Will.
Perkins+Will conducted an informal survey among its Millennial staffers a few years ago. In 2035, the firm celebrates its 100th anniversary, and so it asked future leaders—some who are not yet 25 years old—where they see architecture heading in the next quarter century. One respondent voiced a widespread idea among associates by replying that “the problems that we are going to confront are going to be bigger and more complex than the traditional structure allows.”
As a result, many believe that architecture will become more about systems and infrastructure than designing objects, and that research-based practices incorporating energy modeling and sustainability will be a given. Rapidly expanding global urbanity will give rise to more renovations and greening of existing building stock, while disaster-relief architecture and specialties—such as pioneering solutions for flood-prone areas—will be necessary to “clean up from the human errors of what we’re doing right now,” according to one associate. Fields from nanotechnology to neuroscience will shape building materials and influence the way architects design, while practices themselves will be composed of integrated teams harnessing the expertise of economists, demographers, performance engineers, and others. The practice will, to quote another respondent, “completely move away from disciplines and market sectors of traditional architecture firms.”
It’s important to note that Millennial employees aren’t the only ones advocating a more expansive definition of the architecture field. Design-savvy, younger clients are also pushing the agenda. “As a profession, we tend to underestimate our clients,” Harrison says. “We did that with sustainability. We thought we had all of the answers. And almost overnight clients became more sophisticated and their requirements for sustainability outpaced our capacity.”
Brown notes that clients, like younger associates, crave participatory design. “It’s what the clients want,” Brown says. Being able to tell the story of the firm—the story of architecture and the value of its ideas—is an increasingly important asset. At a time when everyone from a computer engineer to a politician is the “architect” of this or that, it’s incumbent on architects to recast themselves in a world of competing design thinkers. “You cannot go into client meetings the traditional way. You have to connect on an emotional level. You have to be able to tell a good story,” Brown says.
It would be facile to claim that this evolving and expansive vision of architecture delineates cleanly along generational lines. The taproot of change to the profession already exists—seeded by practices like Rebar, SHoP Architects, Interboro Partners—that redefine when, how, and where architecture happens.
Lateral Office, founded in Toronto in 2003 by Mason White and Lola Sheppard, describes itself as using “design as a research vehicle to pose and respond to complex, urgent questions in the built environment.” The firm’s portfolio encompasses architecture, landscape design, and urbanism.
“There is a compartmentalization of our environment, of our world intellectually and territorially, in terms of who belongs to what, and we’ve found it empowering to be a little more promiscuous about the possibility of the architect,” White, 39, says. White and Sheppard undertake projects addressing multifaceted issues, such as water and ecology in California and food supply networks in the Arctic.
White is quick to add that he’s not encouraging an end to architecture as it exists. “I love form. I love the production of space. There is an ingenuity that only architects offer, and there should be those true to the core of the discipline. But that’s not all that we are,” White says. “We can have a significant impact in other areas of design and somehow our teaching and education and certainly our business models, the organizations surrounding our disciplines, have a narrower view. That’s a missed opportunity.”
Advancing a broader definition of architecture is nothing new in the profession. Consider mavericks like Buckminster Fuller. But White, who is also an assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design at the University of Toronto, says that what is distinct about this generation’s pursuit of that broader vision is its access to information and to one another, to that social computing that Gerber mentioned. “They can find each other, they can network, they can form micro-practices,” White says. “It’s like looking at the revolution in Egypt. You can have these mini-revolutions in a profession that are supported by this powerful connectivity.”
What may be new today, then, are the sheer number of Buckminster Fuller–type individuals interested in experimenting and driving new ideas within the field of design. Fueled by technological connectivity and the belief that what they do matters, Millennials tend to trust in the agency of the individual, in work as a service to the greater good, and in the need for action versus rising-through-the-ranks passivity on the job. “If they can’t find the organization that can take them where they want, they will likely create it,” White says.