Young Architects and Responsibility

“How are you going to get involved if you spend a couple of years getting your license?” This is how a well-known architect expressed his frustration on the lack of young architects getting involved in professional activities, using the ARE exam as their excuse. Given that candidates now choose their own pace of the exam, it can take years for some to obtain licensure. (In 2004, NCARB passed a “rolling clock” resolution that candidates must now complete all divisions within five years from their first exam.)

As an architect licensed within this decade, I knew what he was getting at. The perception is that if the architecture community encourages—or mandates—that the process go more quickly, there will be a higher number of licensed architects and, therefore, a higher interest in getting involved in professional communities. However, this assumes that the professional track is a linear process: School, then IDP, then registration, then professional involvement. It does not recognize how today’s emerging architects join or, more importantly, do not join groups.

Top priority

“What is the responsibility of a young architect?” This question was discussed as one of 10 top priorities at the Young Architect Forum Summit in February 2007. A discussion group of four young architects, myself included, grappled with the profession’s perceived responsibility to young practitioners. Were young architects expected to do it all: Hold a job, stay on top of the latest trends in practice, study for nine exams, attend lectures, manage growing family obligations, and save the world one design at a time? How does this expectation change as our careers develop? To explore the topic deeply, we limited our focus to our responsibility within our profession, especially within professional communities, acknowledging that our influence extends further to our clients, communities, families, and the planet.

The stereotypes of an architect range from the super-heroic, intellectual, form-builder to the hands-on, sensitive master of spaces

The stereotypes of an architect range from the super-heroic, intellectual, form-builder to the hands-on, sensitive master of spaces. At one extreme, there is the celebrity starchitect, a brilliant architect with a bow-tie and scarf or floor-length black dress ready to swoop in to solve a problem with a sketch. Also, there is the architect/activist, a tireless crusader with enthusiasm, drive, and power enough to influence through constant and amazing works. How can we begin to rate practitioners and their practice in terms of responsibility when the range of architect types is so large? Knowing that developing a career is more than just emulating others, in our discussion group we were troubled by how easily we begin to categorize architects and how arbitrary that categorization is.

We were at a loss for two reasons: We did not see a reflection of ourselves in the common stereotypes, we only saw pieces. And there is no one definition of what an architect’s responsibility should be. To give a higher priority to one over another is limiting.

Personal responsibility

It is a young architect’s own obligation to define his or her practice and sense of responsibility. One’s own defined core values become the benchmark by which one can judge one’s own effectiveness. The beauty of this profession is that there are so many opportunities to get involved and truly shape our world through design. But one cannot start change without participating.

As a guide for the emerging professional to discover his or her own purpose and responsibility to the profession, he or she must clearly answer three basic questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I do?
  • How do I do it?

These questions do more than just attempt to quantify the degree to which we practice sustainability, universal design, equity, justice, function, and beauty. As a generation operating in a Web 2.0 world with decentralized practice, a young architect’s greatest strengths are the ability to recognize problems, have the vision to find solutions, and, most importantly, communicate those solutions to others through new media that open dialogue faster and more collaboratively.

The beauty of this profession is that there are so many opportunities to get involved and truly shape our world through design. But one cannot start change without participating.

Consider how powerful it is that architects have the ability to re-vision our environment quickly using Information Age technologies. We see the possible. We understand systems. We understand the dependency on networks. We understand technology and its appropriate use. When young architects are blogging, connecting over social networks, or uploading a model to Google 3D Warehouse, we are participating in a community. It’s just a larger professional community than had been previously defined. We joked in our discussion group: “Being an architect is more than being just a good person. Architects shape the world.” Sometimes it’s simply one upload, comment, or click at a time.

Leadership and communication skills needed

What young architects need most from our professional communities are the leadership and communication skills to develop strength in our own voices. Identifying leaders early and providing leadership training within the professional community can go a long way to encouraging involvement, but it cannot be as simple as thinking: “Let’s put on a program and they will come.” Young architects gather and choose activities differently than other generations. We value discovery and word-of-mouth, so the communication and delivery strategies must adapt. The key to supporting young designers is creating a place, physical or virtual, to facilitate these voices and nurture them. Perhaps it is as simple as hosting a Pecha Kucha night, creating a program of collaboration with an allied organization, starting a local community design center, or a creating a quick Facebook group.

The key to supporting young designers is creating a place, physical or virtual, to facilitate these voices and nurture them.

Engaging young architects should not be an “us versus them” proposition. After all, young architects are architects. The problem with the initial question “What is the responsibility of a young architect?” is not necessarily that the concept of responsibility has changed. It is that the way in which we communicate and manifest our purposes has changed. As an architect, whether one is young or not, true responsibility is being true to oneself and using one’s talents and skills for good. The question should not be: “How long will we wait for young architects to develop so they can get involved?” Rather it should be: “How can we create opportunities to engage them? And engage them now!”

This post originally appeared in the Face of the AIA column of AIArchitect: Young Architects and Responsibility, December 19, 2008.
Copyright 2008 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved.
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Emily is an Architect, Mother of 2, and Somerville, MA resident.

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