In the late ’90s, rumor had it that a certain famous architect would leap out of bed each morning, pump his fists in the air like Rocky Balboa, and shout, “Architecture!” You’ve got to respect that kind of passion. Right now, the profession needs all the passion it can get.
According to the latest projections, the U.S. GDP grew a dismal 1.3 percent in the second quarter of the year, the Architecture Billings Index has fallen three months in a row, home prices are lower than they were at the depths of the housing crisis, and consumer confidence, jobs, and credit remain scarce, to put it mildly. Pundits are wondering aloud whether the dreaded double-dip recession is upon us—assuming that the previous one ever really ended.
It’s okay to cry.
As for the debt-ceiling debate, let’s just say that the process hasn’t helped. Kermit Baker, the AIA’s typically restrained chief economist, didn’t hold back in a statement about the latest Billings Index numbers:
This seems to be a case of not thinking it can get any worse—and then it does. While a modest turn around appeared to be on the way earlier in the year, the overall concern about both domestic and global economies is seeping into [the] design and construction industry and adding yet another element that is preventing recovery. Furthermore, the threat of the federal government failing to resolve the debt ceiling issue is leading to higher borrowing rates for real estate projects and should there actually be a default, we are likely looking at a catastrophic situation for a sector that accounts for more than ten percent of overall GDP.
Who knows how the economy might react to the government spending cuts of at least $2.1 trillion that, as this issue went to press, were being heralded as the final solution to the debt crisis. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” which presumably means he’s opposed. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed. At this point, that’s all any of us can do.
Maybe I worry too much about current affairs. While architecture is my lifelong vocation, journalism is my trade. I consider it my responsibility to promote dialogue about the effects that politics, policy, and economics can have on the profession. An informed architect, I’d like to think, is an empowered architect.
But truth be told, I’m not just a committed journalist, I’m a news junkie. Occasionally I overdose, and my blood pressure rises to unacceptable levels. Architecture, by contrast, gives me goose bumps, a physical condition that both Martha Stewart and Dr. Phil would describe as a good thing.
Architecture calms the mind and lifts the spirits. So when the news seems hopeless, I focus my mind like a yogi and find solace in the recollection of skin-prickling moments. Here goes:
I got goose bumps the first time I saw the Pantheon in Rome. It was the summer of 1993, and the building had just closed for the day. So I pressed one eye against the slit between the massive bronze doors and gazed through the dusk at the still-bright oculus and its spotlight on the opus sectile floor. I can remember the cool ozone smell, the gritty feel of the metal on my skin, and my complete awe at the antiquity and pure, cosmic geometry of the place.
I got goose bumps leafing through a first edition of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s 1721 Entwurf Einer Historischen Architektur, seeing Philip Johnson at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, reading Mike Davis’s 1992 City of Quartz, climbing the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, and using the bathroom in the Farnsworth House.
I got goose bumps touring Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and the Church of the Society of Jesus in Quito, Ecuador. I got goose bumps looking at Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray’s archaeological renderings of Hadrian’s Villa, Piranesi’s etched section of the entrance hall at Robert Adam’s Syon House, and Eero Saarinen’s scale model of Dulles Airport.
I get goose bumps a lot.
According to my mother, my stock childhood answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was a confident, “The first married Pope-architect.” The Vatican wasn’t in the cards, as it turns out, but my vocation to architecture has never wavered, and I’m guessing that yours hasn’t either, despite all the uncertainty in the air.
So give yourself a break. It’s August, and whether you’re working on your tan, your resumé, or a set of drawings, why not take a moment to share one of your architectural goose-bump moments? Write an online comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll include the most passionate responses in an upcoming issue, as a kind of psychological antidote to the recession.
All together now: “Architecture!”