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July 30, 2010 / Robert Ross


Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down. ~ Ray Bradbury

I logged on to Facebook the other day and found the above quote posted by a long-standing friend of mine. I immediately commented that I knew the feeling….!  Then while in the shower, it hit me that everything in my training ran counter to this concept. The quote refers to a reactionary life process. Flying by the seat of one’s pants. Architecture is the antithesis of this.

Architectural training focuses on the need for planning before acting. A large part of architectural education focuses on examining and exploring various solutions to specific design challenges. Students are taught how to read between the lines of a design program, assign weight to stated goals through the use of functional diagrams and matrices, and most importantly how to communicate their solution to a problem. How to plan in the present for a predictable future.

Unfortunately, the future the profession is currently faced with is anything but predictable. Projects that were to keep the office busy are canceled or put on indefinite hold.  Suppliers no longer stock or manufacture product. Companies that have been a mainstay of specifications are suddenly shutting their doors.  It is becoming increasingly challenging to actually plan for a project that may not be built for 2 years or more.  As a result, Firms are downsizing, merging and closing.  Needless to say there is a tremendous amount of angst in the design community.

Perhaps one of the more positive outgrowths to this recession is the outpouring of creative thinking occurring on line. A great deal of the architectural blogosphere is taken up these days with how to survive the free fall our profession has found itself in as a result of the dramatic downturn in the economy. The posts that are out there tend to fall into three categories

  1. woe is me
  2. what is everyone else doing
  3. Jumping off the Cliff

The “woe is me” posts tend to focus on blaming the other (fill in the blank) for the situation we are in. Complaining about the situation and countering every positive suggestion with a thousand reasons why they won’t work. I’m not going to dwell on this.

The “what is everyone else doing” posts are contributing to a lemming mentality.  The only way they get off the cliff is to follow everyone else. My theory is that one way or another these are people on their way out of the profession. They will either walk away willingly or wake up to find themselves left behind.

Most engaging to me are the “Jumping off the Cliff” posts.  These are from the risk takers. They are thinking outside of the box and applying their creative training to a  problem and searching for alternative solutions.  One of  the best that I’ve run across is John Morefield, the guy who set up a card table in a parking lot with a sign reading Architecture 5 cents. What I really like about this approach is that not only has he staked out a niche market, but he is also attacking the the idea that Architecture is only available to those of a certain social status.

This speaks to something I’ve noticed for a while now.  There is a seismic disconnect between the way professionals and John Q. Public look at Architecture. Professionals see the value of design in everything they do. The public sees it as an expensive luxury available to the few. This disconnect has been fueled by the “Starchitects” of the 80’s and 90’s as well as the portrayal of Architects in the media as arrogant bullies who inflict their design ideas on their clients. Howard Roark anyone?

It also shows up in a Kohler television commercial. For those who may not have seen it, it is an idealization of the Starchitect meeting with his clients for the first time.  After suitably impressing the couple with his credentials on the way to his office,  the autocrat is then asked to design a house around a faucet.  I think most of us recognize this for the fantasy it is. Unfortunately, it is the image most of the public has of our profession.

In my experience, most designers take an alternate approach, one where we see the client as partner in the process.  As a result, each project becomes an educational journey.  The truth is I often get more satisfaction from my smaller projects than the larger projects. These clients often present their projects with an apology for their lack of scale.  They bring an assumption that we won’t be challenged by their project or budget, when in fact the opposite is often true.  What begins as a mundane project in their eyes takes on a greater significance because they discover the value of design.

Hopefully a positive outgrowth of this upheaval will be the realignment of the public perception of the value of good design in general, and architects in particular.  The good new is that those of us that survive will indeed have figured out how to make wings!




Leave a Comment
  1. Jeff Ribnik / Jul 30 2010 9:26 pm

    You’re going to get tired of me saying this, but I continue to be impressed with the content, clarity, & style of your writing. You really deserve to have a column or regular articles in the appropriate publication(s).
    I wish you would send out samples to test the waters……….kinda like leaping off a cliff…….

  2. Robert Ross / Jul 31 2010 8:29 pm

    Thanks again Jeff-

    I’ve been thinking the same lately, probably soon. In the meantime this gives me a space to hone my skills and perhaps find a good focus.

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