New directions for young architects in a credit crunch economy

Ten years ago Napster had just been launched and it was the beginning of the end for the recording music industry as it was known then. Its decline continues but a new model is emerging out of the ruins of the old - p2p, iTunes, Spotify and others are pointing the way to a new direction. Each is dealing a lethal blow to an established business model and they have precipitated a clear paradigm shift in the inudstry.
I cannot help but feel that a shift of similar magnitude is underway in the world of architecture. The beginning of the shift can be traced back to a particular date – not the demolition of a housing block – but a fracture in the global financial system. On August 6th 2007 American Home Mortgage Investment Corp filed for bankruptcy. A few days later French bank BNP sent another shockwave through the system and the credit crunch had begun. We are now almost two years in and the financial world has changed more than just about anyone imagined. The West has been the most careless and is now feeling the brunt of the pain but the phenomenon is global.

For all the talk of ‘green shoots’ and recovery I subscribe to Robert Reich’s view that there will be no recovery – in effect that there is no going back to the ‘old’ economy of July 2007. Earlier this month the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported an almost 1,000% (one thousand percent!) increase in unemployemnt for architects since last year. Architectural firms of all sizes are suffering and the layoffs continue, but of course the universities are still pumping out graduates. Most of these graduates are not going to find work any time soon so its begs the question – what should they do? The same applies to architects made redundant and the self-employed who are under-employed. My experience of architecture school was often like a fairground ride passing through a series of technical and creative worlds leaving me as passenger a little unfocussed but a lot enlightened, and eager to try almost anything. Unfortnately the realities of the world of work quickly dull that enthusiasm, but what if that intervention is delayed, aborted or avoided altogether? What are the realistic career paths for young architects?

These thoughts emerged as a conversation with myself watching business slow, fees negotiated down and opportunities delayed or cancelled. They are symptoms of a systemic decline in the profession which even prompted the president of the RIBA to send a letter to all members warning against (literally) devaluing their work. Unfortunately stimulus spending by the state by nature favours large, established firms. Young entrepreneurial professionals may get some trickle down but ultimately they are in a tough spot.

I have heard stories of graduates trying to wait out the crisis by working in bars but again I do not see the old economy coming back. Reich himself ends with a question mark about what a new economy will bring and this is what brought the music industry to mind.  The distribution of music, whether the industry likes it or not, has become social and the companies and systems that have harnessed the power of the idea are the new players. We still have pop stars like we did ten years ago but the relationship with their fans has been revolutionised.

The relevance for me as an architect? – the need to think different. Whether or not the Chinese word for crisis really is a combination of danger and opportunity the argument is correct because there are opportunities to be had. Naturally what works in the end will depend on what a ‘new’ economy looks like.

This is a thought in progress so for now I will mention the first two paths that have come to mind. My main requirement is that you should maintain and exploit your core competencies, but crucially expand on them by acquiring related, new skills. So my focus for grasping the opportunities is a willingness and effort to learn:

  1. Technology
    We already know how much CAD and 3D have changed the way we do things, but there is more change to come. Companies such as Case and Design to Production are, in crude terms, your IT department on steroids – both, ultimately computing consultants – Case more about how to create and Design to Production about how to deliver. They are an inspiration for the more digitally minded graduate. [Update: follow-up post here]
  2. Entertainment
    Architecture is about space and portable architecture is about spaces that you can take with you. Mark Fisher has been designing sets for the likes of Pink Floyd and U2 for over two decades. His work is physical and structural but also demountable and moveable.
    Entertainment architecture that never leaves the page or screen is the ultimate in portability.  Think of the environments of comic books,  film and 3D gaming. [Update: follow-up post here]

I’ll expand on these with dedicated posts in the coming weeks. I would also love to hear about your ideas which you can share by commenting below or by contacting me directly.

AJ: Unemployment continues to rise among UK architects

BD: RIBA warns architects against cutting fees


Further reading:

The Business of Design Keith Granet    The Architecture Student's Handbook of Professional Practice American Institute of Architects    Beyond Outrage- Expanded Edition- What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it Robert B. Reich

4 thoughts on “New directions for young architects in a credit crunch economy

  1. Hi John, thanks for the mention! One of the more important elements of education today, i think, is exposing students to the idea that there is more than 1 model for becoming a ‘successful architect’. Congratulations on your work.

  2. Hi John,

    Great article and something I’ve had at the top of my list to explore since graduating this summer. In 2006 I set up finalcrit for aspiring architectural students like myself to get there work out there, the numbers of designers creating portfolios on the site has gone up but the number of employers looking at the portfolios has nose dived substantially. I get asked constantly by graduates where the work is?

    I always suggest thinking laterally and look at all the other professions that could utilize the skills of an architecture graduate. We’re creative, problem solvers, team players and good with project based work – that alone should open doors the problem is opening the eyes and looking past the one profession.

    Lucky for me the skills learnt working on finalcrit has led me into a new career as an SEO executive, whilst picking up the odd bit of freelance branding and web design on the side to keep those creative juices flowing.

    Have I turned my back on architecture? Who knows, I may be back, but one thing is for sure I’m not sitting around.

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