A Letter to the New York Times

A Letter to the New York Times

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Dec 21, 2008
  • comments

We Regret We Missed the Party. We Were Too Busy Working.

Today New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff reinforced the perception that architects are somehow not solving the real world problems faced by ordinary people when they decide to build. We disagree. Join us in sharing your thoughts.

Dear Editors,

Nicolai Ouroussof began his weekly architecture column (Page AR27, December 21, 2008) exclaiming ‘Who knew a year ago that we were nearing the end of one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history?’ For the vast majority of design and construction professionals this era ended long ago. It's as though the New York Times is the last to offer a eulogy at a funeral that long since took place.

"If a lot of first-rate architectural talent promises to be at loose ends, why not enlist it in designing the projects that matter most?" Ouroussoff concluded. Most of us have been doing that for some time. Ever since the late 90s there has been a new awakening in the profession that has gone unnoticed by much of the media. The profession shifted its focus away from jewel-making and towards designing structures to better meet the needs of the client and the community as a whole.

Entry and mid-level professionals dejected by the celebrification of architecture, where a few select architects became commodities and the rest were seen as second fiddle, turned their attention to the needs of the everyday entrepreneurs and futurists building in their own communities. While towers rose in Vegas, Dubai and New York—a quiet revolution began at a more human scale in these cities and beyond.

Thousands of building professionals—a cross section of architects, engineers, planners, builders, suppliers and many others working together, most at small-to-mid-size firms—are already hard at work transforming the fabric of our communities. They are greening roofs, building with reclaimed materials, installing solar-heated water systems, and working alongside owners to cost-effectively put more sustainable building alternatives into practice. These professionals are quietly addressing the real issues faced by the built environment with pragmatism, innovation and creativity in equal measure. Moreover, many of these professionals remain busy despite an economy that has slid into reverse.

We suggest, that it is these building professionals—and not just the "first-rate" design talent Ouroussoff calls upon—that have the experience and qualifications to address the very-real issues posed by an out-dated infrastructure.

True, these professionals are not working on the kinds of attention-grabbing projects that Ouroussoff mentions in his article. Most are small-scale structures, additions to existing structures, upgrades and retrofits. Projects like the Western Addition in Oslo, Norway, the rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas or low-income housing in Cape Town by MMA architects come to mind, along with many other small-scale remodels that get overlooked by the media altogether. However—and here we agree—it is exactly this kind of often tedious, self-effacing work that is needed if we are to meet the needs of the next generation.

Ouroussoff fears that "Aspiring architects who are just emerging from graduate programs are likely to move on to more secure professions." In fact, academia has already been confronted with the perfect storm. Climate change is fueling funding for research in sustainability. At universities, the students of those who first explored green building practice in the 1960's and 1970's are now in positions of seniority. Responding to student demand, they have begun to incorporate sustainable building and community-based practice into the curriculum. The work of Hassan Fathy, Buckminster Fuller, Yasmin Lari, Samuel Mockbee and Sym Van Der Ryn is now required reading at many schools of architecture.

What is more, in recent years this re-emergence of sustainable building method and practice crashed head first with a socially-conscious design movement leading to a sea change in the way we practice architecture. Emerging professionals are not looking to design the next hip hotel. By contrast, they aspire to fuse sustainable design with new green collar jobs in construction. For example, after Hurricane Katrina hundreds of architecture graduates along with young volunteers and trades people of all persuasions relocated to the Gulf Coast. Many are still tirelessly rebuilding these hard-hit communities today.

For our part, we are seeing this change happen in real-time. Architecture for Humanity began in 1999 and has since grown to count more than 40,000 building professionals worldwide among our ranks. More than 300 design professionals volunteered through Architecture for Humanity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some 14,000 designers have registered onto the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org) to share their plans and drawings since we launched the site a year ago to enable knowledge-sharing.

Long before President-elect Barack Obama called on the country to re-build our crumbling schools, groups such as the Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the U.S. Green Building Council among others were working to raise standards in school construction. Starting in January, Architecture for Humanity is partnering with these groups to invite architects from around the world to investigate upgrading classrooms in their community as part of our bi-annual Open Architecture Challenge. Anyone can participate, not just professionals. In fact, we've developed a curriculum (new to this year's challenge) in the hopes that we can seduce ever more smart, talented, hard-working young people to enter the profession.

This is the new architectural revolution, filled with pragmatic optimism and an understanding that designing for the other 98% is much more rewarding than responding to the desires of the few. And, it is already underway.

Nicolai Ouroussoff "dreams" of re-hiring the biggest names in the profession to lead this revolution. To us, that's like hiring the designers of the Hummer to rethink our transportation and energy policies. It's not that they couldn't or wouldn't do the work (many already are), but why call on designers who spent the better part of their careers building ever-competing, energy-consuming, sky-piercing structures, when you could hire any of a myriad of qualified (if less well-known) firms already experienced and engaged in rethinking the built environment?

We encourage Ouroussoff and the New York Times to pursue a deeper examination of the changes taking place in the field of architecture. If President-elect Barack Obama and his administration truly want to reenergize this country with a New Green Deal they should engage those who are best equipped to deal with the challenges we face in the coming decades, not the past. We should hire the emerging professionals already practicing sustainable design and not just a few high-profile architects. Because for these professionals committing time to the projects that matter most is not a dream. They are already hard at work.

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr
Co-Founders, Architecture for Humanity
Editors, Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises