How to Walk During an Earthquake
What happens to architects who graduate into uncertainty and recession?
This post is for my students and other designers and architects graduating in 2020. As part of my role as visiting professor of practice at the University of Michigan I’ve been listening to students ask questions about what COVID-19 means for their careers. The students I teach are working on their thesis projects right now, which means they’re facing an extremely high degree of uncertainty in the coming months. Seeking the wisdom of others who’ve been through similar experiences, I put a call out via Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and am collecting a summary version of those threads below.
What could this mean for Architecture, Engineering, and Construction as an industry?
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008 originated in the financial sector and hit banks immediately, then cascaded through the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) sector—not to mention the families who were victims of predatory lending. As capital dried up, construction halted and projects were put on hold. Impact to the AEC sector was immediate.
By contrast, COVID-19 is not directly effecting the AEC sector and some people in the Twitter thread linked above have cited that difference as an indicator that the recovery now will be quicker, or the disruption somehow less severe. Anecdotes from the thread describe firms faring better during the GFC when they had government, healthcare, or cultural-sector work—anything funded by bonds or philanthropic contributions that had been secured in advance and were already earmarked for usage on capital projects.
This time the financial system is shuddering but has yet to crumble like it did during the GFC. Instead, the immediate economic impact of this crisis is hitting bartenders and retail workers and gardeners and the full panoply of everyday folks more directly. Unemployment claims are piling up in staggering quantities (but be careful how you read the data) and the experiences of those individuals will soon enough cascade through the AEC industry. The negative economic impacts of the virus will eventually spread more widely as individuals across the country are furloughed, have a portion of their salary deferred, don’t get jobs because of hiring freezes, or delay starting new businesses because they just took a huge haircut on their savings and investments. Once the country emerges on the other side of this nasty geometry capital projects will be reassessed, if not sooner.
Congress will scramble to figure out a compromise with the executive branch that mobilizes an infrastructure plan. While this would be good for the AEC sector, what’s the likelihood that gets separated from the regressive ideas that the current president has about the built environment? Will the Recovery Bridges™ be mandated to have neoclassical stylings? Government may eventually set off smaller but important ripples as they write pandemic-prepping into local buildings codes: mandatory touchless doors, hand sanitizer stations in public places, larger lobbies, and increased ventilation standards? These all sound like good things, and hopefully some thoughtful architects will be involved in developing any standards that eventually emerge.
Companies will spend at least 3–6 months (guessing!) making sense of this mandatory experiment in widespread work from home and reevaluate their current use of office space, including any plans for new spaces or renovations. This could create opportunities for firms and independent consultants that are able to be thinking partners with their clients. This is an opportunity particularly relevant to architects who are able to dig into the operational questions related to their clients’ spatial needs.
Cultural organizations, which were a source of stable income for some during the GFC, may prove more tricky to work with this time around because they will also be stepping back from their ambitions for capital projects to take stock of the post-COVID world and make sure they are prepared for the inevitable next time, or at the very least for the lingering hesitation of their patrons.
Housing is a big unknown. Will AirBnb crash the rental market? Or more importantly, will people fear cities and their density altogether after the pandemic (they should not)? I expect that the COVID-response in cities to be the result of a swirl of the level of public trust in local leadership, use of technology, and ability to imagine new spatial responses. The key question will be about technology and specifically how cities develop and apply technology rather than any simple cost/benefit analysis or critique of surveillance capitalism—will it be top-down surveillance or bottom-up individual and collective empowerment? Yuval Harari has a good argument to this effect in the FT.
Architecturally, this should be an opportunity to think about the importance of interiors and exterior spaces alike, including basic qualities such as access to light and air, space for communing with your loved ones, and for connecting with your neighbors and kind strangers.
There will be much architectural theorizing of the nuances of our ‘germ circles’ in the coming months and it’s nearly impossible to avoid that thinking now. I’m reminded of the building designed by Hugh Stubbins where I lived during grad school. It featured a raised platform on the ground floor, surrounded by a ring of planted balconies opening onto a generous atrium. I imagined it then as a temple of condominium democracy (it was not) and now, looking forward, I’m excited to see the ways that architects imagine distanced collectivity. Hopefully some of them are paid to do so.
Make your own way
Regardless of what the next couple months bring, it’s clear that the environment students enter after school is going to be about as normal as taking a stroll during an earthquake. For better or worse, architecture is a field that is buffeted by unexpected circumstances with some regularity, and so when I asked folks what they did during the GFC or earlier crises, there was ample feedback.
Getting and working in architecture jobs during crisis
A decade ago, Mimi Zeiger wrote about the possibility of a lost generation of talent and this is still relevant today. Tanisha Raffiuddi also shared this podcast about her experiences: Falling out of Love with Architecture (& back again!).
Geographic arbitrage may help, if painfully
Pivoting to architecture-adjacent work
Pivoting beyond architecture
On the subject of pivoting beyond traditional ideas of architectural practice, Rory Hyde’s excellent book Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture is a useful resource (I am interviewed in the book and therefore biased). Rory is now working on a new book titled “Architects After Architecture,” with Roberta Marcaccio and Dr Harriet Harris to be published by Routledge this year. That’s some timing!
For those interested in digital work, the design studio Tellart have put together a remarkable series of film interviews called Design Nonfiction, unpacking the creative explorations in that industry that blossomed after the dotcom crash twenty years ago. Very good stuff.
This is not the first recession and it wont be the last
The Next Wave
Confusion and soul searching among architects and designers after the GFC had many positive outcomes. As Allison Arieff reminded folks in the Twitter thread, that the post-GFC era is when a whole crop of entrepreneurial approaches to architecture and improvement of cities was born. Coming months may see a renewal of interest in meanwhile usages as construction gets stalled and empty sites lay fallow, but what else? That’s up to you.
Eleven years ago I was completing grad school, proud to have a summer teaching gig and a small fellowship lined up, and looking forward to finding a job in architecture later that autumn. By the time I started preparing portfolios to send to firms, I was sealing envelopes while listening to the details of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. In short order I learned that architecture firms around the world were battening down the hatches, if not already disintegrating. There were no jobs to be found in architecture.
It was all too familiar. In 2001, shifting gears from my career in technology I thought I had lucked out because I was entering architecture school while my friends still at startups were surfing and succumbing to the aftershocks of the dotcom crash. I thought I had escaped! Little did I know I would officially begin my new adventure as an architecture student the morning of 9/11. I left my work in technology to focus on architecture during a collapse; eventually I left my studies in architecture to work as a strategic designer in government during a collapse. Now my work is a mix of all of that.
To those graduating soon, you’re justified in feeling that the leadership of the country have failed you by acting slowly and ineffectively, and it’s completely reasonable that you mourn a sense of predictability in the job market. But if you find yourself wishing for a “normal” career during this moment of seismic shifts, please do not. This is a great time for new ways of learning, like the explorations at the School for Poetic Computation; new collaboratives, like Tiny Factories and Soft Surplus; and new forms of agency, like platform cooperatives and the Architecture Lobby. This is not a moment for a return to normalcy, but a chance to create a better way. I hope you will not be the same after this; and I hope architecture wont be either.
Update April 15th: The panel discussion, Graduating During COVID19 is another resource relevant to this discussion:
Update April 21st: Ming Thompson, a friend from graduate school, has written insightfully about this moment from the perspective of an employer and offers some suggestions for adjusting your job search to the times. Good advice from a smart cookie (and her article links to this article — whoa).