James Cornetet on the Relevance of the Architect

James Cornetet and I have recently been discussing  the relevance of the architect. James is founder of  StudioJ, process architecture and author of  Facadomy: A Critique on Capitalism and its Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture. His book outlines the rise and fall of architecture movements including how the anatomy of these movements affect the future of architecture in the United States. John Hill from a weekly dose of architecture explains the book nicely here.

Below James poses a series of questions to the architecture profession:

It seems to me that architects complain; Whether about low pay, long hours of work, paltry budgets or clients who do not value their effort. It seems that there is no shortage of self-loathing architects.  Further calling into question the relevancy of the profession is the fact that architecture school graduates lead all new graduates, even fine artists, with a whopping 14% unemployment rate. Even more concerning, in what could be one of the most shocking articles published by Architecture Record, author C.J. Hughes points out that the unemployment rate for architects is hovering around twenty five percent.  Such high unemployment rates could be dismissed as a response to the slowdown in construction; yet commercial real-estate brokers, engineers and other construction professionals should then be suffering similar casualties and this is not necessarily the case.  The facts presented by Hughes call into question the relevancy of the modern architect and the value that architects add to the design process.

The issue of the relevancy of the architect is so critical that Bob Ivey, CEO of the AIA, spent his entire lecture at the AIA Florida convention discussing this topic. He unveiled the AIA’s aggressive marketing plan to educate the public on the value that architects can add to the lives of the communities they seek to serve.  It seems today that architecture is often produced for the sake of creating architecture. Would you agree? I am not discounting the power of place or the cultural importance of a monument, but I do believe that architects of late have become too infatuated with image and vanity.  This could be open to debate but the image of the black-caped architect is certainly perpetuated by architects like Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry, who build just the way they want to build.


Frank Gehry left, Santiago Calatrava Right

At the same convention I also attended a lecture where Monica Ponce de Leon was talking about the incredibly low budget that she faced when designing an installation at the Fleet RISD Library.  Immediately my ears perked up, as I thought: “at last someone is talking about value-driven design!” To my dismay the lowly budget was a meager $187 a square foot.  To put this number in perspective, it is nearly twice the square-foot construction cost of the average home in the United States!  I nearly laughed out loud, because I had just completed a design for the Phap Vu Buddhist Temple (currently in construction) for $85 a square foot!  Admittedly, I do admire the work of Monica Ponce de Leon and she was quite pleasant to talk to, but as architects we need to wake up and think before we speak.  If we did, do you think we would realize how foolish we often sound?

The reality is that the pro forma for a project is the most important force that an architect faces. More than any other force, it is responsible for shaping a building and determining its spirit or lack thereof.  Architecture does have an obligation to support capitalism.  (Linda also recognises this in her article architecture and anarchy, e-flux has also written a great article entitled Architecture Without Architects-Another Anarchist Approach the author again supports this argument) The reality, however is unfavorable to my idealist peers because most buildings are constructed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to make money.  The exceptions to this rule are rare.  Architects can embrace this fact and accept the reality that buildings exist as financial tools or investments for our clients, or we can continue to ignore this and approach design in the same unproductive manner, facing higher unemployment rates and continuing a downward spiral to irrelevancy

Whenever I meet with a new commercial client I begin my pitch by promising them that: the building we will design for you is going to be beautiful, that is a given but what I want to talk to you about is how good design can make your business more profitable.  For my residential clients I use a similar line: the home we will design for you will be beautiful, I can guarantee that. but what I want to talk to you about is how we can give you more for less.  Whether they go ahead to commission the project is irrelevant because by now I have their undivided attention.

I believe architecture is an important and noble industry, architects advocate a worthy cause and possess very valuable skills. Architects envisage and create while good design contributes value to any project irrespective of budget. Value, however, like everything associated with capitalism, is a dependant on both supply and demand.  If our profession can communicate to clients with greater success and focus on creating value and measuring the value added, then we will increase the demand for quality architecture and our clients will come to understand the value that an architect and good design can bring to a project.  Architecture has value, great architecture has great value. Every architect knows this, but it needs to be the focus of every conversation we have with our clients if architects wish to maintain their relevancy in a hyper-competitive global market.

You can read more about Cornetet’s critique of architecture and capitalism in his newly released book: Façadomy: A Critique on Capitalism and It’s Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture.

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