Welcome to the Real Urbanverse. To start: the future of architects

Welcome to the real Urbanverse

This week, I’m presenting at AIA national convention along with two of my esteemed architectural colleagues, Jody Brown @infillnc of North Carolina and Bob Borson from Texas. We’ll be sharing our best blogging and social media tips. There’s a huge flaw in this scenario: I have hardly been posting during recent months.

In honor of the event (which frankly got me in gear), welcome to the new location for Urbanverse. Thanks for stopping in.

Similar to the posterous urbanverse, my trouble-free starter blog, I’ll cover the intersection of architecture and architects, cities and sustainable design, especially with an eye to the future. Sometimes I’m in the story. Most of the time, I’m an interpretor, part-guide, part-scout exploring the urbanverse, an unlimited zone of ideas, images, and people.

Let’s get going. Here’s a topic near to my heart that deserves a closer study, the future of architects (and professions, experts, creative fields, built environment, design schools, they are all related).

An intelligent conversation about architects

Over the past couple of years, an avalanche of criticism slammed architects. We are whiny, navel watchers, the worst profession for getting hired, fetish-driven egomanics, and cheap (even cheating) employers. We’ve created unhealthy, unwelcoming car-obsessed cities full of oversized, energy guzzling ugly buildings. The architecture profession is a place of haves and have nots, frequently practiced for passion more than profit.

Actually that last line is true.

Too much of what is written about architecture combines sensationalism with short-term thinking and amounts to whining or piling on or both. When does the fact that the architecture profession is changing become old news? When do we get bored with one more essay on

  • terrible experiences (low or no-pay interns, disconnected architecture education, stuck in the backroom, lack of respect), or
  • terrible design (starchitecture superficiality, bland buildings which are not architecture, unwalkable districts as unlivable, unhealthy, and un-green)

before we make serious changes? Before we agree to resolve and act or agree to shut up, quit reading or producing these truly unnewsworthy pieces, and move on? When can we say enough of this limbo-land of public thrashings?

Are we stuck?

No profession can advance if it clings to entrenched topics. Either we act to improve by exposing our conversations as ideological, chronic debates with no attempt at movement or solutions, and then agree to collective misery. Or we make changes at the heart of the problem. We pull things apart, look at the environment and technology which we can expect in the next 10, 20, 50 years, and figure out what we bring to it.

Because what I see beyond short term negativism is equally poisonous denial. Let’s call it self-preservation of the status quo. Case in point: recently I heard three deans whom I respect deeply describe the future of architecture schools with a completely optimistic outlook: high demand for their programs, attracting the best of the best students, and offering inspirational projects and travel. While they acknowledged resource limitations and a lack of jobs for graduates, their programs, they could say with certainty, are safe. They saw no imminent danger (or at least none that they were willing to confess in this public forum).

Frankly academics are not any more to blame than any single person or group among us, nor do they alone have the cure. It’s a collective situation that we have accepted and even promoted. When does the way that we have fashioned our roles become the ticket to our demise? Where is the acknowledgement of the sea change the profession faces? Moreover, the built environment and the planet? How can we hope to lead if we are so myopic, so focused on baseline scenarios? Or do we imagine that the threats are just so mindboggling that the only option is to forge ahead as planned?

How do we contribute to the creative universe? Do we consider the range of alternative conditions and influences? Are we ready to see emergent possibilities, and invent the most relevant, poignant, beautiful, resilient solutions? Have we taken assessment and made a conscious choice to shape the function of the architect in the 21st century?

Or are we accepting these cheap punches as though they didn’t happen, as though they didn’t matter? Are some of them more poignant and urgent than others?

Isn’t it about time for some intelligent conversations? Not doom and gloom, and certainly not a bed of roses. But the ability to look at the territory ahead and see how we can most fleetfootedly adapt and contribute.

“When one faces the fold [of transformational change], one is relieved of the intellectual dishonsty involved in holding either branch of the fold as a single-point forecast. One is relieved of the naivete of callow optimism, even as one is spared the amoral defeatism of the all-knowing cynic.

“You have looked at the dark side; you have seen the very real risk; and stil lyou are able to move ahead constructively.” Jay Ogilvy (2011)

What’s my proposal?
Architects are a gentle, genteel group, as a rule. And we’ve come a long way based on society’s need for our services. I’d say that comfortable platform is in trouble. Automation and a massive recession gave all corporations the right to not hire while still staying afloat. Architecture is even more paralyzed, at the extreme, I think it’s fair to say. (and statistically verified.)

Here’s a few ideas about practicing architecture, primarily from a western-centric perspective. I’ll supply more detailed back up eventually.

  1. There may be half as many traditional architects in the next fifteen years.
  2. Contrary to much conversation, you can become reasonably wealthy as an architect.
  3. Licensing and the accreditation process are becoming irrelevant for most practitioners.
  4. When people complain about cities, they blame architects, among others.
  5. There are people who are practicing as future architects today.

I’ll use futures methods to reconsider the profession of architecture, and include some of my experiences and those of many colleagues. By the time we move through the analysis, you might agree with the statements above. Or we will know where we disagree. Eventually, none will surprise you.

At that point, you and I will be looking ahead. We might even be ready to act. Most critically perhaps, we will be more comfortable with the unknowable and uncertainty of the future. The future architect is comfortable with a universe of constant change and able to act responsibly and creatively.

Urbanverse at AIA
First, I’m heading for Washington DC to chum around with some 20,000 of my colleagues at the American Institute of Architects annual convention. If you are there, please come look us up:

  • Thursday 17 May 2012, 2:00-3:30 pm. Architects Who Blog, Room 204A

Be there!

Speak Your Mind

In the meantime, chime in. I’ll welcome long and short posts.

What are the biggest problems in architecture and for architects? Do you have the career of your dreams? What opportunities will emerge? What do you care about? Does architecture matter?

I’ll be responding to ideas, and incorporating in the next postings.

  • Use #futureofarchitects on twitter.

Thanks much for reading the entry blog on Urbanverse.net. Welcome!

 

Images of Future Cities: Courtesy of Makers by Cory Doctorow

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While reading Makers, you get caught up in the lives of Lester, Perry, Suzanne and the rest. There are villains and heroes, celebrations and catastrophes. Doctorow gives an addictive read; my thumb rapid-clicked the Kindle page button to move the words faster and faster.

While I was captivated by the story, that’s not my focus here. I’ll save the story for you to read – no spoiler alert required.

The wealth of new images in Makers lets us peer into one scenario for 21st c cities. In this future, we live on a whimsical, resource-limited planet that I might love but also fear, particularly as an architect.

What Can Makers Teach Us About Possible Futures?
Here’s nine intriguing images, all plausible enough, and a few that scare the bejeezies out of me.

  1. New Work. “Capitalism is eating itself.” In the “New Work” program, big corps fund small teams of inventors, build production and distribution systems, and reap profits for a few months till the copycats undercut prices. An entire product line evolves from bright idea to obsolete in 6-9 months.
  2. DIY Inventors. While the idea is not new, garage inventors play a far more significant role when innovation and production move at light speed. These 21st c mechanics twist left-behind appliances, toys, computers, ie, today’s consumer goods, into adaptive reuse products and environments.
  3. Dead Malls or Ghost Malls. Abandoned big box retail and indoor malls called dead malls and ghost malls become hotbeds for creative start-ups and shanty towns. In Makers, even shelter evolves from found objects.
  4. Shanty Towns. Homeless folks flock to former suburbs and build elaborate slums, rather than living crammed into urban doorways or under bridges. The construction style seems born from the squatters villages in Mumbai or Delhi, except apparently with better infrastructure and code compliance. Structures reach 3-4 floors and sport skywalks and whimsical shapes. Shops occupy first floors with residences and restaurants above. Children play in streets and community order is maintained through ad hoc leadership. Idyllic? Yup.
  5. Transportation. Crowded planes sound more like today’s bus travel experience, but otherwise seem unchanged. Corp jets sit idle and are cast off for parts. Fewer people have cars, taxis still exist, and walking 30 minutes to get lunch is normal. The main characters’ vehicle consists of two Smart Cars mashed together for more interior space.
  6. Cities and Architecture. Reused malls, poorly maintained public streets, crowded airports all sound feasible, although a bit frightening. It’s today’s cities only dirtier. New forms of architecture include the shanty towns described in quaint, organic terms. Coffin hotels sound a lot like Tokyo’s capsules. http://bit.ly/QYQKb
  7. Robots. As an early example in the book, Boogie Woogie Elmos are reprogrammed to drive a stripped down Smart Car. A synchronized Elmo-robot team operates pedals, wheel and gear shaft, and responds to voice commands. Other robots rearrange and construct theme parks in response to visitors’ feedback. If you like something, just rate it with your joystick, and it moves forward in the exhibit; hate it and its banished.
  8. 3D Printers and Scanners. This equipment produces anything from a doll to a car part to a door. Once programmed, 3D machines and robots do all the heavy lifting; really they are the Makers in this book. Seemingly, theme park exhibits transform completely for our satisfaction – and so I imagine, why not the real world? Sure to send quivers into any AEC pro.
  9. Goop. The raw material inserted in the 3D printer, referred to as a type of Silly Putty, becomes a high-tech commodity. 3D printers can be programmed to only accept certain types of goop, much like printer cartridges today. Free printers are loss-leaders while profit comes from selling goop. Goop can be made of recycled materials melted down and mixed with epoxy. The key ingredient for all products, whether assembled by robots or extruded from 3D printers, is junk.

What Do I Love and Fear About Makers’ World?
Innovation celebrated, freedom from big business, robots constantly building cool things, rides that reinvent instantaneously, handmade cities with lively communities – what a fantastic world!

OTOH grand gestures seem completely missing in action. No mention of beauty other than humans and some of the Disney experience. The rest sounds like Frankenstein cities, assembled from cast-offs and gerry-rigged to new uses.

Architects and engineers would be part of the design/build crew – making, remaking, and programming robots. The rapid-fire change means we would learn from failures faster, do it better tomorrow. That’s fantastic, actually.

Does Makers Include Architects, Engineers or Contractors?

As it is now, we fear our mistakes since a botched design can live for decades. Or as Frank Lloyd Wright said: we plant ivy.

Frankly, some lessons are not at all clear until a place is built and used. On every project, the designer says “drat!” about something, “aha!” about something else. We live and learn with regrets; find joy in happy accidents. But we rarely get to fix problems. A missed opportunity is just that; gone.

With assembled structures and swarms of construction robots, we could improve a space constantly. Need a bigger assembly space? send the bots. More doors or windows? Better shading devices? Fire up the 3D printer. Thinking on your feet and working with existing resources become a new form of modeling at full scale. Thrilling! Design/build as performance art.

I would truly welcome this world, even though the pressure to perform would be enormous. Imagine, nearly instant turn-around!! Lag-time would disappear.

Yet, I bet architects, engineers, and construction folks would be far less useful or common. The concept of citizen inventors extends to citizen architects and builders too.

Those Professions Formerly Known As…
In this low-scale, robot-constructed world, expertise may be nearly worthless in design and construction. Computer models would set design parameters for spans and fire codes, even for functional uses and types of experiences. Want quiet and peaceful, pick Option 21058; workspace for call centers, pick Option 84205.

Instead, in the Makers world, we survive by the worthiness of our ideas. Buildings are built and perhaps rebuilt or modified in a day. We design, hit the send button, and then boom, it’s built by robot swarms and 3D extractions.

Services are shortened to schematics and oversight. Explaining what is needed, and what is possible will be accompanied by robot-built models. Presentations might be daily events, so gear up communication skills.

While knowledge of the field is essential, with automated design and construction processes, the number of people working at each role could be substantially reduced. Innovators, synthesizers, folks who can think across platforms, communicate ideas, and know how things fit together would be at a premium. Production jobs in today’s world and folks that make it happen may be less essential.

Picture cities as anthills, emerging from a million small actions instead of grand schemes orchestrated by experts.

How Much of a Stretch?
I’ve taken Doctorow’s ideas and asked: what would this mean for entire cities? If we had this technology, these sensibilities and resources, how would we make buildings? Furthermore, what would it mean for those of us that love to make cities? I hope the author is tolerant of my stretch.

Imagining the future is the best way to shape it and the only way to prepare ourselves.

Makers presents a scenario that is far from an architect’s dream. It’s a tough environment for engineers, planners, and contractors as well. Even city leaders and developers would have to step aside for this tsunami of citizen action.

Just as content and media platforms have become free for publishing, if materials and real estate lose their economic clout, and design/build processes are automated, active users will create cities.

Would you choose to live in Makers world?

You can buy it here: http://bit.ly/5rw5gH
You can read more at http://craphound.com/makers/

Timeline Tuesday: Waves of Change 1750-2100

K-Wave 8-2.pdf
Download this file

One of the best tools in the futurists bag is the visual timeline. Here is one of my favorite by Peter von Stackelberg at Social Technologies http://www.socialtechnologies.com/, a futurist consultancy based in Washington DC. Peter started this project as a student at the University of Houston in 1989 and continues to build on it. http://bit.ly/2QKt8H

 

A Timeline of Major Trends and Events

In this amazing diagram, Peter tracked major events, trends and cycles from an American perspective, starting in 1750 and then projected to 2100. Whats more, his analysis spanned all five STEEP domains. STEEP is an acronym for Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political areas which is used for environmental scanning research. While futurists tend to prefer using a range of probable futures, Peter essentially gives a single future view. The complexity of the data justifies this approach, and viewers just need to take that parameter into account.

Peter began with two sets of cycles shown under Economic trends:

1.      The Kondratieff Cycle http://bit.ly/ar0U6 idealized as a K-Wave that considers four distinct periods: early advance (E.D.) growth, late advance (L.A.) conservation, early decline (E.D) recession or collapse, late decline (L.D.) reorganization. Then the cycle begins again. 

2.      Schumpeters theory of creative destruction http://bit.ly/ZeYXn, illustrates an S-curve for major technological breakthroughs, or lead technologies. Most recently, Peter indicates eras of steel, then petroleum and now information and projects the next era as biotech.

 

Uniquely, the complexity of this data over time and topics gives a rich picture of possible futures. Any one of these areas might be somewhat different and change the future substantially. 

 

Whats It Mean for Cities and Architecture?

For future cities and architecture, a number of ideas catch my attention:

1.      While worldwide oil production is said to decline from 2010 to 2025, a positive economic cycle is projected. The only reason I can imagine that is if new technologies and areas of production and not just biotech emerge. One possible area is green tech, another is social tech, and a third is productivity among developing nations. All three would have positive results for cities.

2.      Superfast Trains such as mag-lev are shown on an S-curve that is just beginning a growth cycle. I cannot tell you how excited I would be to see a train culture emerge globally. If it is a mere third of the transportation pie, I think our quality of life and environmental consequences would be immeasurably improved, especially if another third of transit used personal transportation such as walking, bikes, and other intimate devices.

3.      Smaller households from aging and delayed parenting would create a need for more housing but not necessarily a demand for more space. One trend in the past fifteen years that can stand a reversal is the average size of houses, luckily already showing a decrease during the current recession.http://bit.ly/13E1Wz

4.      We continue to project growth in the US, which in turn makes the economy grow. However, that growth is based on immigration which is based on being a desirable place to live with jobs, education, and opportunity in short, the American Dream. Keeping that dream alive should be a national priority, not just for the US, but for every country. I think it has been a defining element of the past fifty years, a culture of optimism. However, on this chart, several risks emerge: end of oil, increased social and civil unrest, global population explosion, and American involvement in a war. Each of these cycles could cause major difficulties that require preparation.

 

Whats Missing?

This timeline uses cycles, which are external forces from specific systems and represent a structural or contextual change.

The actual experience combines external large forces with the actions of individuals, groups, organizations, and nations, our intentions and innovations. By understanding grand patterns, we can look at the best and worst for various scenarios.

Preferred scenarios become visions, images of the future, that shape the decisions and choices we make today.

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Alan Kay