During my conversation with Thom Mayne, FAIA, and Lukas Feireiss in Berlin two weeks ago, an inevitable (and justified) question came from the public on what the role or job of the architect is going to be in the future. The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, the nature of design is changing because of social conditions. As I mentioned in my last article, the work at hand for architects will have to do more and more with renovation and reuse, as well as with manipulating codes, systems, and hidden infrastructure to create the openness, sustainability, and beauty we all desire. The making of iconic forms or the choreographing of new spaces will be the elite pursuit of a few architects who can gain the freedom to create such forms for their elite clientele, and these works will remain isolated forms in a sea of sameness.
On the other hand, the day-to-day work of producing designs, in whatever form they take, is increasingly being automated. The effect of all this is that the traditional employment for all those with architecture degrees who do not rise to the top of the profession is under threat, just as it is in law and most other professions. You don’t need an army of drafting drones and master detailers anymore, you don’t need a huge woodshop to build models, and you don’t need an army of project managers to make sure your office runs efficiently. Almost all of that now can be outsourced or automated. Moreover, the design of buildings has become so systematized that you don’t even need an architect to design a house—or at least that is what many people think—and soon the same will be true for larger buildings.
So what are we educating our architecture students to be? Theoretically, we’re training them to be those few at the top of the food chain who create these made-to-measure “suits” for top executives, whether that is their corporate headquarters or their multimillion-dollar homes. The lucky few who become successful at this will be able to operate virtually on their own, hiring help as they need it and for as long as they need it, while outsourcing drafting, accounting, and just about every routine activity to the cheapest provider.
But what about the vast majority of graduates?
There used to be honor in being the one person in the office who could create perfect window details or figure out the trickiest flashing, in the same way that there was honor and a livelihood for both of my grandfathers, one of which was a tailor and the other a tool and dye maker. Those days are over. Craft is now something we push to the fringes of our society.
This is all part of a larger issue, which is that craft is not actually dying out, but it is becoming a class prerogative. You can buy a perfectly good shirt from Zara, but if you want one that is beautifully handmade, you have to either spend exponentially more or devote many hours searching eBay or likeminded sites. In the same way, you have to command a great deal of resources to be able to hire an architect, and only a few architects can afford to have the aforementioned craftspeople on staff.
Because of this increasing preciousness of craft, it is becoming more and more valued. And this, in turn, is part of a larger development: When mundane tasks are easy and everything around us is standardized, we value experiences that are difficult to obtain. Perhaps that will mean that wages for craftspeople will rise high enough to attract more entrants, but so far there is little sign of that, mainly because we do not put sufficient social value on craft. This is one of the ironies: The products that rely on craft are becoming more and more valued, but the labor that is producing them is not.
And here we stumble onto what might be the biggest picture of all: Reality is becoming a luxury. Architects not only want to make things real—that’s the job, in its most basic sense—but to also make the real “good” in every sense of the word. To do so is increasingly a luxury few can afford, whether in the making or the buying. So, then, how do we make the real affordable again?
One answer is through art. That’s to say, using the skills and knowledge we have to mirror, map, reveal, and figure the reality that is still out there in a way that is affordable—perhaps by making use of computer and communication technology, perhaps through appropriation, or perhaps by creating tactical interventions at a small scale.
Another answer is to reimagine reality as something that is not real, however paradoxical that might seem. If we accept the power of a virtual world and make it critical, can we make it our own and find a place within it? Is there a craft to making virtual spaces?
I am sure there are many other answers, but the two I mention get at the essence of architecture in a time of scarce resources and an increasing global chasm between the haves and the have-nots. To make architecture means making space real, but doing so in a way that is open to all. In that sense, the craft and discipline of architecture is not to make the most refined detail, use the finest materials, or find work for our graduates, it is to find crafty ways to use what is at hand to produce wonder for all.