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How the economy upended young architects’ hopes

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. 

A University of Idaho graduate lamented, “My experience over the last 2-3 years has really made me question this profession, and my role in it.” Later he admitted, “I need to ignite my passion for architecture again.”

Like architectural alumni before us, the Class of 2006 was introduced to a seemingly arbitrary world of unrealistic deadlines, exhausting work hours, and underwhelming pay after graduation. Our school years in studio prepared us for some late nights, and we expected to be at the bottom of the design ladder initially. But we found sunsets at the office implementing last-minute design changes were the rule rather than the exception, and the recession kept us at the bottom much longer than we hoped by preventing new graduates from taking our place. Even then, some experiences were extreme; for those who headed to the East Coast after graduation, working on high-profile, high-design projects meant working for free for months in the hopes they would eventually be hired as paid employees.

After reading my peers’ responses and examining my own feelings towards my recent departure, I found myself asking this question: in order to be considered successful — worthy even — in the eyes of the profession, must architecture’s roots be deeper than marriage and faith?

In a 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece about young architectural firms in Seattle, journalist and architect Sheri Olson observed, “Even in a profession that tends to eat its young  —   with soul-crushing internships and expensive licensing exams — we have far fewer than normal up-and-coming architects.”

This professional cannibalism is devastating, not only to our generation, but previous generations who experienced the same detrimental cycle — and who now either suffer from post-licensure amnesia, or simply have no desire or reason to look back at the mountain they climbed and question its steep ascent.

Olson’s second observation is just as acute today as it was 10 years ago; in addition to exam fees as burdensome as they were in 2003, study material is expensive and difficult to acquire if not provided by your employer. Though popular culture tends to erroneously portray typical architects as upper-middle-class, these expenses are difficult to accommodate for young interns on beginning salaries.

Many responders admitted that, compared to their mindset upon graduation, licensure isn’t a top priority anymore. While being a licensed architect is a prerequisite to owning your own practice, and can be an asset at small firms, there is little financial or professional incentive to become licensed while working at large firms, which often have well-developed processes in place that involve select licensed individuals signing drawings for the entire company.

It doesn’t help that the organization administering the licensure maze, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is, according to one of my peers, “about as responsive as a corpse.” The proprietary software created specifically for the exams and distributed on the NCARB website is only usable on outdated computers (both my Mac laptop and Dell desktop computer are not compatible), and given that the exam is entirely digital, the expected four to six weeks gestation period for each exam’s results is agonizingly slow (thankfully, however, I received my first exam’s results in two weeks).

It would be easy to blame superiors and a faceless bureaucracy for our frustrations and subsequent flight, but we should share some of the blame.

The problem is exacerbated by a generational gap in communication and expectation, and in order for change to happen, we need to practice the same level of collaboration that we expect from our leaders.  Our class entered the profession with high expectations for ourselves and our anticipated opportunities, and when they weren’t met, we felt slighted, swindled, snubbed.  After experiencing a workplace form of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, we stopped caring and became indignant.  This produced two scenarios: caring so little as to produce mediocre work, or caring so little as to abandon the profession entirely.

Those who vocalized their frustrations in an attempt to remain engaged either battled for success or let disappointment build until they reached a breaking point. At different times in my career, I have been an example of both the former and latter cases.   And like us, future generations of young interns will suffer the same rollercoaster if ours does not attempt to close the gap.

A few weeks after architect Andrew Maynard’s ArchDaily article highlighting the profession’s dreadful work/life balance reputation and employee exploitation in architectural office culture began spreading like a welcome fungus across the Facebook pages of my peers, I found myself discussing the merits, rather than the pitfalls, of a design education with a 2005 University of Oregon graduate at a recent Bellevue College lecture.  “I think what architecture school really did,” he reflected, “is teach me how to think.”

Those who have left the field have no regrets about initially pursuing an architectural education even after the recession forced many laid-off interns to consider a career change earlier than they may have initially considered. But in order to maintain the health of the profession, a fundamental change in how young interns are integrated into the design environment, and in how they apply their education, needs to occur.

This idea is nothing new. The early 2000’s saw a resurgence of interest in the issues and rights of architectural interns locally and nationally, but the conversation faded with the onset of the recession. Thankfully ,the analytical, observational and cultural skills imparted by our architectural education created a sharp, versatile, empathetic group of individuals that can change our communities  —  whether by buildings, beer, or baked goods. I hope my peers and I persevere through this renaissance with our architectural passion intact. Eventually it will be our turn to lead, mentor, and collaborate with young architects wading into the profession. And if we’ve missed our opportunity to create change from the bottom-up, we must challenge ourselves to glance back at those old and worn mountain trails, and to implement change from the top-down.

But there’s hope. Another trait my generation happens to share, for better or worse, is stubborn determination.

“For all my cynicism,” wrote that earlier 2007 Cal Poly grad, “I believe there is a good side to architecture.” 

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