Sunday, March 1, 2009

Finding Opportunity in Catastrophe

In the last month and a half, cause of the week has expanded somewhat from its initial objective of easy actionable items to a broader set of calls, contextualized in positive ideological frameworks that support larger and more long-lasting evolutions. This is primarily the work of the four invited guests who raise the very valuable points that external change requires a kind of systemic vision of interrelationships (the taco and immigrant rights; health and the planning of sidewalks) and internal change a kind of reinvention of identity and purpose (practice as an activist and you are one step closer to being one). Encouraging everyone to capitalize on the vast value of design and designers has both internal and external implications and, by the day, seems more and more timely. Both small actions and shifting beliefs are valid and valuable, and I hope to continue to balance the small and the large, providing easy opportunities to act now with bigger inspirations for long-range influence.

This week's 'cause' is inspired by an email exchange among friends and former UNCC students. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed in the US increased an additional 598,000 in January to 11.6 million total. The percentage of unemployed rose from 7.2 to 7.6%. I can't quickly locate the numbers for architects alone, but I can tell you from simple anecdotal experience, reductions in the field are massive and pervasive. Not one person I have spoken to in practice remains unaffected. Everyone is either laying off or being laid off, cutting benefits or cutting jobs all together. As we're all beginning to realize, this is a problem that starts and ends at the banks. The layoffs are not simply from a loss of new work, but also from a freeze in work already awarded or in early stages of development where necessary financing is no longer available to move the project forward. In this instance, trickle down economics is most definitely working - to the detriment of all. Less loans mean less commissions mean less construction; a loss of jobs in architecture firms means the ranks of unemployed construction workers from drywallers to day laborers will be growing exponentially. No wonder the AIA sent lobbyists to DC to fight for a slice of the stimulus pie.

The loss of jobs and the overall downturn of the economy is most certainly disastrous. Yet, as Naomi Klein reminds us in The Shock Doctrine, and Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella in The Resilient City, the flip side of every disaster is opportunity.** Not to downplay the direness of the situation, but this email exchange I referred to above and the other conversations I've had with peers in floundering firms, seems to be proving Bryan Bell right and then some. Our training is solid and broad; our ability to be inventive and resilient is inspiring in the face of uncertainty. What the down turn in the economy seems to be doing for architecture and its aspirants is multi-fold, and well worth capitalizing on. Here are several ways to imagine collective optimism rising from the ashes of economic catastrophe:

First, the growth machine has come to a screeching halt. Finally. The neoliberal insistence on growth for the sake of growth has been a prime contributor to a quantity over quality mentality that has left our built environment a collage of steroidal disasters. The opportunity here is to shift the priority from quantity to quality and consider more carefully the what, where, and how of design and building. Or of shopping, for that matter, or of eating, or of our precious leisure time. With less to go around, it's twice as important to make wise decisions rather than simply make decisions. Some of the projects that have been halted are probably better off dead.

Second, we are a profession always short on money and even more short on time. This is the chance to hit a reset button and take back our lives. This is a chance to amend the abusive practices that have become ingrained in the architectural habitus. This is a chance to reconsider the 60 hour work week, the unpaid overtime, the under-paid intern. When firms rebuild post-recession, let's ratchet up the expectations we have of ourselves to be good stewards of our peers, our colleagues, our clients, and our employees. Let's not sell ourselves or our abilities short, but recognize that good work takes time, energy, vision, and commitment, all of which grow more sturdy in healthy individuals. This is not a call to laziness, but a call to some kind of normalcy we have lost. Reset.

At the same time, let's also reset our egos - but not our confidence - and embrace the opportunity to become a less autonomous part of a larger, interrelated world. At the same time, let's make contributing to the people and the places less likely to be served by our expertise a part of the new priorities.

An opportunistic part of these layoffs is also the current luxury of time. What I was most impressed with in these email exchanges among UNCC graduates is how many of them are using new found time to explore things they have had to shelve for years or to move forward on objectives they normally would have had to squeeze in between work and sleep. They are studying for and taking the Architectural Registration Exam (go Fish!), LEED certification tests, and the "NABCEP photovoltaic system design and installer certification" (go Nick!). They are attending workshops on energy and green design and going back to school in record numbers, according to Archinect and the latest stats on grad school enrollment (go Joe and his MBA in Real Estate!); and they are doing design competitions - a freedom of time, energy, and creativity often sucked away by the daily commitment of office work.

These layoffs, awful as they are, also are an opportunity to re-evaluate what you have been doing and what you hope to be doing next. Many, many of the emails and calls I have received start sentences with, "I will never again...." ... work for the man, sell my soul, be trapped inside for 60 hours a week, 'design' another hospital, sacrifice my health. Or, even more simply, will never work at a large firm or for corporate clients. So many of us boarded the train of architecture and followed its trajectory rather than leading it. Now is the chance to take that trajectory into our own hands, or hop this train for another one - even a very related one. My good friend Tim first thought that when his impending layoff came, he would come to California, camp on the coast for a few months and paint. He's an amazing landscape painter and never has had the luxury of time to pursue it fully. Yet, when he did get laid off about a week ago, he fortuitously found himself in conversation with representatives from the state about getting a job documenting and evaluating state park structures, a way to get back in touch with nature and interact with and serve the public - something he's been missing while sitting behind a computer for the last decade.

Finally, there is the question of the architecture that already exists and what's to be done with the market glut of the unsellable and the unleasable. Again, this bursting of the bubble is a form of much-needed market leveling, but that fact doesn't do much for the millions of vacant square feet of leasable space and thousands of unsellable or undervalued homes. Nate brought up this issue, as his property firm alone has 1.5 million square feet of unleased office space, and suggested that there must be alternative adaptation/reuse/reinvention strategies for what's already out there, underutilized. LA Forum ran a design competition in 2004 that sought new uses for dead malls. The conclusion in their case, I would say, was that the market-driven, privatized, single use model of the mall is no longer a naturally sustainable one. The best entries converted the inward focused and locally isolated mall into a region-specific, multi-use, public/private framework that capitalized on large spans, vast areas of flat pavement, and cheap space to invent new, socially-conscious and sustainable models of collectivity and commerce. Nate's question is a good one - and likely to be THE question for the coming generation of designers: what can we do with the underutilized stock we already have? Vertical farming, anyone?

Personally, as always, I'm inspired by the proactive nature of our UNCC grads and, generally, most of the architects I come across who work on a regular basis for long hours and for little money to make a mark on the landscape that elevates the experiences of all who pass by or occupy. It's no easy task, even when times are flush, to do good work. Yet, it seems this latest catastrophe might be the impetus for some reconsideration, and (fingers crossed) this stimulus package might go beyond repair to reinvention. This week, these weeks, how can we use this as a moment of pause on the often too fast road of our career pursuits? Like that sign I found in Biloxi post-Katrina, the house may be gone, but the people and trees are fine, so let's get to work.

And Obama, if you are listening, I know some hard-working experts looking for new opportunities.

**a much greater consideration of disasters and architecture from our PhD colloquium, Uneasy Urbanism: Incidents and Accidents under Dana Cuff, will be published this spring in PLACES magazine.


Andrew Whittemore said...

I wrote the index for 'the resilient city' - it was very boring. Love, Andrew

Andrew Whittemore said...

The job, not the book.
Love, Andrew

lcsamuels said...

I imagine index writing is no great fun, but the book is fascinating. You probably are, however, an expert on its content now, which would be the bright side things.

nathan said...

A bit of this conversation has continued between Linda and I. We have found that there is some 9 billion square feet of space availible on the market today! ( And there are 9,600 unemployed Architects/ Engineers, and 111,000 unemployed construction workers (

These numbers are seemingly outrages, however, even during good times there maybe some 5-6 billion square feet of space available. Perhaps we need a better way to determine what exactly a good market is, it seems to me that things can't be good if we have that much built space, but nobody to occupy it.

The next thing everyone (academics and professionals alike) should be doing is figuring out how to turn all of these vacant buildings into something that is usable, affordable, and environmental. I know, my company will be focusing on its existing portfolio and how to make those buildings more efficient and more marketable. I'm not sure how we are going to do that just quite yet, but certainly it involves LEED EB as a starting point.

lcsamuels said...

Thanks for the follow up, Nate. According to the chart you reference, those seem to be the additional unemployed added to the ranks between December 2008 and January 2009. In other words, an additional 9,600 architects lost their jobs (or simply left the profession) in that single month as did 111,000 construction workers. WOW. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' total number of working architects in January 09 is 1,411,500 - down from 1,452,000 in January 08.