Credit: William Stewart Photography
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.” That’s how Wayne Gretzky described his skill on the ice.
Lately, I’ve been reading commentators who have in effect penned obituaries about the future of the architectural profession. Their forecasts have been so consistently dark—often using the same words—that I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve been locked in an echo chamber where the next person speaking simply repeats the last thing they heard. Are these writers in fact predicting where the profession is going, or are they fixed on where it is now?
Even though recent reports from many AIA members and current stats from the AIA Billings Index suggest that the economy is beginning to show signs of life, we have been through a difficult period. Many firms are still hurting, and newly graduated students are feeling it in particular. I understand the toll it’s taken. I’ve been there.
When I left architecture school, the going interest rate for construction loans was 14 percent. The high cost of borrowing scuttled a lot of projects or value-engineered them almost beyond recognition. A few years later, my home state, Texas, was hit first by the Savings and Loan debacle, and, right after that, the oil bust. Some firms had to shut their doors. Those that did survive—and many did—learned some tough lessons about how to keep treading water during our industry’s periodic boom–and–bust cycles.
If I had I taken stock of my prospects based on what was happening around me, I might have sought employment at a booming company such as Polaroid or Eastman Kodak. At the time, they were the bluest of the blue chips. But now they are on the ropes. As they say in the fine print at the bottom of every stockbroker’s prospective: Current conditions are no guarantee of future returns.
Our profession is traveling down a road few if any of us are familiar with. In a February 2012 article in Fast Company, the reporter Robert Safian wrote: “The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating—fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies—and our visibility about the future is declining.” Safian went on to say that the only certain things are uncertainty and flux. Are these necessarily things to fear? Are we slowly (some would say rapidly) being marginalized; or are we, in fact, on the cusp of a transformative and revitalized future?
That’s how Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, sees it. The dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, and contributing editor for ARCHITECT, writes in a February blog post on the Metropolis magazine site: “There remains so much work for architects that we should see the decline of traditional jobs not as a ‘meltdown’ of architecture, but as the beginning of its rebirth.”
He’s not alone. In a new four-hour PBS television series, Designing Healthy Communities, former AIA public director Richard Jackson discusses the connection between bad community design and burgeoning health issues. If he’s right—and I think he is—identifying design as sound medicine is a new approach to a growing problem that architects will play a key role in solving.
Next month at the AIA’s National Convention, architects old and young, recent graduates, and educators will have a unique opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives about the future of the profession. Who should we be listening to? Where’s the puck going?
As you listen to these presentations, I would pay particular attention to those who counsel adaptability and celebrate the opportunities of change. In the meantime, don’t count out architecture as a richly rewarding career.
Join our conversation at aia.org.