Best of 2012: How the economy upended young architects' hopes

Frustrated architecture grads are dropping out of the profession. Still, they like the educations they received.


Caela McKeever

Caela McKeever

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut is presenting two of the top stories from the past year on subjects that our writers regularly cover. Today, we are looking at some of the urban affairs and architecture stories. Please check the "Related Stories" box on each story for more of the best work by our writers in 2012. This article was originally published Sept. 25.

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.”


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sat, Dec 22, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Great, you get to wear a suit and tie. Work in a nice heated office. I would not put up with the BS you guys put up with. Me, I wear 200 dollar work boots and Levis. My education was free. Sometimes I work outside all year long or inside. I have a defined pension and a 401. I'm a union electrician and would not trade places with you for all the tea in China!
And been doing this for 35 plus years.

akdano

Posted Sun, Dec 23, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

First, let's dispose of Ms. akdano--whose comments are comically blinkered, self-satisfied, and reflect an amazing lack of insight into the connection between designers. builders, and maintainers, which envelopes both architects and electricians. How to account for such vapid smugness?

Next, a word of thanks for Ms. McKeever's wonderfully written and candid piece--which surely reflects the dashed hopes of talented students from many academic backgrounds, both professional and noncertified. When an economic system so badly fails its bright young people, it is almost certainly in the throes of a devaluation of human resources. This is of a piece with our slowly abandoned commitment to education at all levels, K-20, and the failure to reimagine and restructure occupations that must be retooled.

Seneca

Posted Sun, Dec 23, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

just a general comment to crosscut--

I wish you had included the original comments with these 'Best of 2012' series which I suspect were chosen based on comment quantity.

Often it is the discussion beyond the essay which sheds true light on the situation.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Dec 26, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

A woman is disappointed in her pursuit of a (currently) exalted profession; quits and complains. OK, so far. Commenter akdano suggests that, for some people, a more modest profession is satisfying and remunerative. That seems like a normal and useful comment; we can't all be Ralph Lauren but the folks who make certain western knockoffs have fun and make money. Where is the "comically blinkered, self-satisfied....etc" element in this comment? seems to be a normal response to this reader.

kieth

Posted Thu, Dec 27, 12:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't understand how this can be on the 'best' list, other than as a warning that we have way too many architects and the dominance/absorption of applied design and urban planning into university schools of archtecture have skewed the frame from humanity, interior safety and ergonomics, and economics to focus on the shells of buildings.

Here is the link to the original. As stated above, those comments make a lot of sense. http://crosscut.com/2012/09/25/architecture/110494/architectural-jobs-interns-economy-recession-/

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

I have a hard time understanding how this article was chosen, by Crosscut, as one of their "Best Of" 2012 articles.

Why?

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »