It is five days before commencement, and the students of UCLA's architecture and urban design program have gathered to exhibit three years of work to the world. In one converted classroom, a collection of swollen masses has been tiled in mirrors, suspended in the air, and illuminated in the dark. "There may be no other architectural object simultaneously so powerful in effect yet so dismissed by our discourse than the disco ball," the exhibit explains. "In terms of effective 'bang for the buck'—an increasingly vital criterion by which to judge design value in these difficult economic times—nothing else compares."
The same cannot be said for UCLA's own program, which charges non-resident students $33,000 each year to advance new concepts in architecture (like the "difficult, perhaps multiple readings" of tumorous disco balls) before releasing them to the grimmest job market in decades. This year, 40 of UCLA's newly-minted Masters of Architecture will attempt to find work with degrees that skeptics, including The New York Times, value below even those of journalists. Architecture school’s tuition is rising while its graduates’ stock falls—young graduates now face a 13.9 percent unemployment rate.
Faculty and students at Rumble, the program's annual year-end showcase, had this to say about their job prospects:
"What job prospects?"
"Nobody has any."
"Do you have any jobs?"
"This is the most irresponsible decision I've ever made in my life," says Michael Smith, who after three years of "extremely stimulating" study is scrambling to find real-world work to support his wife and month-old baby when he graduates this week. "Here's the conundrum: I came to UCLA so that I could work for exciting design firms, boutique firms, avant-garde firms," Smith says. "And because I went to UCLA I can't afford to work for them." He's currently fielding a tentative job offer with a firm in Utah.
The depressed architecture market has upset the field’s relationship between art and commerce, theory and practice, leaving the academy and the market at odds. UCLA AUD program chair Hitoshi Abe's opening note for Rumble refers only obliquely to "the challenges our field is currently experiencing," then reaffirms the program's signature commitment to "idea-driven work.” "Curricula in schools changes more slowly in response to economic forces than one might think," says UCLA assistant professor Heather Roberge, who secured her own Master's in Architecture in 1991 at the depths of another architectural downturn. Only after several years of the latest bust is the program "starting to have discussions about that," she says. This year, Roberge took care to tweak her students' final projects toward the sectors that are "hiring more aggressively," like "multinational corporate offices working on large-scale development in Asia" or the field of "digital modeling and surface modeling."