Asking when I knew I wanted to be an architect is like asking when I first fell in love with my husband, or the exact instant I became a Christian. There was no moment of realization, only a soothing understanding that this should be my life's work.
But six years after graduating from college, I’m struggling to plant architectural roots as strong as marriage and faith. My peers from the Class of 2006 are also struggling; we’re tired and overworked, our energy drained and passion diluted.
The evidence sits in my refrigerator: chevroned tall boys of Saison ale and a meticulous shortbread fruit tart, both crafted by former co-workers and classmates who initially pursued architecture only to search for fulfillment elsewhere. Photographers, typographers, bakers, bikers, and brewers are all disguised on LinkedIn and Facebook as design interns. There’s a renaissance happening among young architects — and it’s not in architecture.
This June I resigned from my job at a downtown Seattle firm to focus on architectural licensure and nonfiction writing. The decision took nine months to reach, but when I finally announced my resignation to peers and co-workers, the unanimous support I received was astounding. Though I knew I wasn’t alone in my disappointment with the profession, I wanted to know more about my peers’ personal experiences than 140 Twitter characters and regular happy hours allowed.
I had suspicions about why some of my fellow interns had recently abandoned the profession, and why many others were growing weary trying to stay in it. A gulf stretched between the projects of the office world and the projects of our college days. The legal responsibilities of a licensed architect are to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of a building’s occupants, but during our five years as students we were taught that architecture was more than this — we were responsible for creating spaces that provided for people’s physical and emotional well being. We were builders, artists, and humanitarians, entrusted with listening to, observing, and assimilating the culture around us into engaging, thriving, magical places.
Our self-chosen senior thesis topics, the culmination of our architectural educations, were small windows into our souls. Those projects may not have been designed with real-world constraints, but they symbolized an emotional connection to something — music, travel, cultural heritage, sustainability, humanitarianism — that we felt should be inherent in any project but was missing from the ones we now found ourselves working on into the bleak hours of the morning.
This gap between what we yearned for architecture to be and what it really was, I believed, was the seed of our disenchantment with the profession, and our impetus for leaving it.
Inspired by professional surveys regarding the future of architecture, I created my own survey and asked approximately 100 design interns to reflect on their senior thesis projects and subsequent professional experiences.
Over the next few weeks I received 35 responses from 2006/2007 graduates from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Manhattan, Honolulu, and Abu Dhabi. My theory was partially correct, but not in the way I expected: a lack of respect, for both design integrity and individual effort, was the biggest origin of disappointment. Like me, many were dismayed by a lackluster passion and conviction for good design, and perhaps even more so, the fragility of workplace humanity in the industry — both in the treatment of others and in how we ourselves were treated.
"In a way, when I left college, the one thing I never experienced before, nor did I anticipate, was such massive segregation and pigeonholing," said one 2007 Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo graduate. “I never expected to be made to feel so useless and to question myself as much as I have, for what seems like no reason at all.”
“I feel underutilized, underpaid, underappreciated, undervalued, and invisible most of the time,” replied one co-worker. Three weeks later she left the profession.
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