Beyond Buildings


The Death and Rebirth of the Architecture Profession

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Things fall apart, including architecture firms. When I lecture about sprawl—which I believe is the most important issue confronting architects as architects (as opposed to the larger issues that confront us as citizens, before you focus on designers' skills and knowledge)—I point out that it is no more and no less than a symptom of the ever-increasing instability, spreading, and mutability of our social, economic, and perhaps even our physical structures. The monolithic state, family, and corporation is a thing of the past, and many of us doubt even our own autonomy and singular coherence as human beings. It should be no surprise, then, that the tidy world in which architects used to work seems to be undergoing much of the same change.


The spate of reports of troubles at the conglomerate RMJM highlights these developments. I have to admit that I shed few tears for the travails of a firm that I believe has mainly figured out how to take formerly trendy formal ideas and turn them into the kind of flashy buildings that use up too many resources, have no clear idea, and are often too big. I do empathize, however, with the fate of the many employees who have apparently not been paid, in various firms RMJM gobbled up around the world, and rue the disappearance of firms, as a result of these takeovers, that once did decent work, such as Princeton's Hillier Group.


RMJM is just one of a new kind of mega-firm that has appeared on the scene in the last decade. One of the very largest, AECOM, started out of the logistics division of, all things, Ashland Oil. Another behemoth, Aedas, is a split-off from Norman Foster's firm and is by now as much an engineering and logistics firm as it is the home to a few design ateliers. Arup has moved the other way, inserting itself as a designer on the strength of its computer-driven structural-design prowess.


All of these firms are busy buying up, transforming, selling, and otherwise moving around smaller design firms. They establish profit centers, offices in hot markets from Dubai to Shenzen, hire high-fallutin' designers, fire them or lose them, and in general keeping changing in front of your eyes. The era of the hierarchy of large, corporate firms with a national and international reach, midsize firms with specializations such as school or hospital design, and small practitioners focusing on targeted projects with personalized design, which appeared at the end of the 19th century together with the rise of corporations, seems to be waning.


The other side of this development is that a young designer or small firm can design a skyscraper in Baku as easily as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill can. Hire in the necessary specialists, form alliances, and use computerized software, and you can do the tasks that used to take a standing army of drafting monkeys to perform.


I think the development is ultimately a good one for this reason, and also because it will break down the traditional identification of the discipline of architecture with the profession as national associations such as the AIA have defined it. I hope that there will be more hybrid firms that combine not just engineering and design, but also art and design, economic or political consultancy and design, or even performance and design. OMA has taken the lead in this direction, though traditional architecture still dominates in that case. I also think that some of the best architecture is being produced by people who are not trained as architects, from filmmakers to artists to writers, but, if they want to actualize their visions into built form, they need to have flexible vehicles that will let them ally themselves with individuals who have the expertise to make buildings—Aranda/Lasch of New York, working with artists such as Mathew Ritchie, seems on the right path here.


There is a brave new world of metastasizing architecture entities out there. I hope that these new conditions—which inevitably will tend to make design a faster, less-specialized, more-homogenized activity—will also allow for many pop-ups of creativity in our sprawling environment.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.