Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Architects as Economic Catalysts or Luxury Hobbyists?

The Center for an Urban Future, a New York City think tank, recently released a report on the importance of Architecture and Design Schools to the City's economic future. The think tank argues that New York's design schools have become "critical catalysts for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth" by citing the fact that New York issues more than twice as many Architecture and Design degrees as the second and third largest cities (Los Angeles and Chicago). Of course New York is more than twice the size of both L.A. and Chicago, but never mind that for now.

The Atlantic Cities and The Architect's Newspaper have both picked up the topic: NYC's Design Future (Atlantic Cities), Will the City Ever Learn (The Architect's Newspaper).

On the surface the thesis of a design culture as economic catalyst is very attractive - particularly if you've bought into Richard Florida's "Creative Class" meme or dropped a $100,000 on a degree in architecture. It's reasonable to assume that creative people are essential to economic and cultural innovation - which is itself a primary driver of capitalism and our conception of "progress." Many young architects have creative talent and representation skills that are applicable to a number of disciplines outside of their traditional role of designing buildings. Indeed, a significant number of graduates pursue careers in fields like graphic design, interior design, film, animation and even fashion. But does that make Architecture graduates an economic catalyst in New York?

Economic Base Analysis divides activities into two categories, basic and non-basic. Basic industries are defined as those that export a product or service from a city or region and thus bring wealth into that region. Non-basic industries are considered part of a service sector that supports basic industries. "Basic" or exporting industries are identified by comparing a city's employment make-up to national averages. This tool is far from perfect, but it's a useful example of how one might begin to understand the difference between a business that is dependent on the local economy and a business that brings outside money into that economy.

So the question, really, is what percentage of New York's design industry is "Basic" (i.e. exporting design services and bringing money into the economy) vs. "Non-Basic"(i.e. supporting a local market). It's common knowledge that New York dominates the finance, media and publishing industries in the United States. New York is also home to the largest concentration of corporate headquarters in the country. These industries are almost certainly catalysts, but what about architecture?

Established firms that design buildings around the world seem to fall into the category of an exporter of services, or a basic industry, but not all architecture firms are the same.

Contemporary New York is a special case. For every firm that does work around the world or even operates as typical business there are a handful of boutique firms that are perpetually supported by independent wealth or academic salaries. These small firms may do intriguing work that inspires other architects. They may innovate fabrication or representation techniques. Occasionally they may grow to become legitimately successful firms and even leaders in the profession (DS+R & SHoP come to mind). But the vast majority of the small New York boutique firms do not produce a great deal of income. It's hard to argue that someone is an entrepreneur when their firm relies on external funding sources to survive.

Such "boutique" firms are, in many ways, extensions of architecture's academic culture. They occupy a small luxury niche. Much of New York's architecture and design scene is a result of income that the City has accumulated through other means. In this case architecture is not the catalyst, it is what has been catalyzed.

The Center for an Urban Future's report not only has their argument backwards, they're essentially conflating the role of architecture with that of tech start-ups and other cultural and media industries. Architects struggle to make a profit from their efforts precisely because architecture doesn't work very well as a commodity. Architects do not create a product that is easily consumed or even valued in the same way as a smart phone, web-site, novel, magazine or  television show. Apple, for example, became the most valued company in the world by creating an extremely well designed device that millions of people can afford to use every day. Like any economically lucrative commodity, the iPhone abides by a pattern of obsolescence - within a short period of time it becomes out-dated and needs to be up-graded or replaced. Every time you replace the product Apple makes money.

Architecture has far less liquidity than relatively pure commodities like cars and smart phones. Architecture adds value to specific places over long periods of time by encouraging social and economic investment. The High-Line in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago are recent examples of projects that have inspired investment in specific neighborhoods. One could certainly argue that the increasing attractiveness of urban living has everything to do with the value that traditional urbanism, architecture and planning create. Under these circumstances, architecture can be understood as a long term stimulus - but it's always more of a community asset or an element of infrastructure than a market commodity.

The fallacy of conceiving Architecture as a pure commodity (like cars and phones) is a tragic virus that has spread throughout both the discipline and the general public since the birth of "post-modernism." Our efforts to treat the built environment as a commodity - as something that we consume and disregard rather than cultivate - has brought both our country and our profession to a point of crisis and extreme anxiety.

Federal Housing Policy, "American Dreams" and Wall Street speculation collectively transformed the places that most of us live from homes and communities into housing commodities that were valued more in exchange than in use. Meanwhile, since the early 1970's the world of "high" design and architecture has increasingly retreated to a hermetic realm of iconographic "trophy" buildings, boutique installations and speculative projects. In its academic isolation architectural novelty has become confused with technological innovation.

Today, at a time when our society desperately needs to reconsider how it relates to its physical environment, architecture is perceived by most people as an exotic and elitist profession rather than something essential to every day life. People know that they need doctors. They understand the necessity of lawyers. But most people don't even think about architecture because they live in consumable spaces instead of valued places of investment and experience. They don't care about architecture because they don't see it as part of their lives.

It's incredibly ironic that an argument about the "catalyzing" economic effects of architecture schools was released only two months after another study found that recent graduates of architecture programs have the highest unemployment rate of all professions (higher than art majors). Architects that are employed are chronically underpaid and over-worked. A starting architect's salary in New York is about 50k a year (the equivalent of about 25k in the rest of the country). Starting attorney's make an average of 120 - 150k a year (3 times as much). Many of the most well respected "starchitects" and boutique firms pay the lowest wages. Unfortunately too many recent graduates are so intoxicated by prestigious names that they'll tolerate poverty-level incomes after spending $100,000 on their education. These conditions, which are worse in New York than anywhere else, have only served to marginalize architecture as a career that only the independently wealthy can afford to pursue. In this context architecture and design may be less of an economic catalyst than an extremely time-consuming and expensive hobby.

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