Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Revitalization + Reinvention

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin (photo from Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden via Wikimedia Commons)

With her latest post (Please. Stop the Reinvention Talk), fellow blogger and specifications writer Liz O’Sullivan issues a rejoinder to another writer, management consultant James P. Cramer, and his article for DesignIntelligence entitled Competing for the Future. Having considered both perspectives, it’s now my turn to comment.

Jim Cramer takes issue with architects who suffer from a lack of nerve and have given in to a cynical and dark pessimism about the future of professional practice. He questions why some architects dwell as much as they do upon inwardly focused priorities rather than exploring new models and entrepreneurial visions for the design professions and tomorrow’s A/E/C industry. It’s his belief that “the game has changed” and that innovation and change management need to be an integral part of the curricula in schools of architecture. He is an advocate for reinventing the profession.

Liz bristles at the notion that reinvention is necessary. Instead, she believes we must do a better job of meeting the needs that owners have now, that we used to meet, and no longer do. She points out that owners haven’t changed but architects have. We’ve unwittingly surrendered much of the design and construction landscape to others and in the process diminished our influence and relevance. Liz asserts owners will stop looking elsewhere for the services we used to provide if we simply reclaim our territory and prove our value once more. She believes in revitalization rather than reinvention.

This needn’t be an “either/or” dilemma. We should embrace all possibilities. We must address the complexities and yes, the contradictions, of current professional practice. We can revitalize and reinvent ourselves at the same time.

As I stated in my response to Liz’s earlier Take Back the Reins post and as Liz herself acknowledges, a crucial challenge confronting architecture is the exponential growth in its complexity and scope. This development prompts specialization and the balkanization of our profession because it is increasingly difficult for architects to acquire detailed expertise in all areas of focus. The problem is essentially a budgeting exercise: how do we allocate limited resources (time and money) in the development of future architects?

I argued we would be losers if we played a zero-sum game in which sacrificing design acumen is necessary to acquire essential technical know-how. Exercising my privilege as the author of that statement, I’ll now amend it by substituting “critical thinking” for “design acumen.”

We cannot afford to shortchange the teaching of critical thinking, analysis, and integrative problem solving in our schools of architecture. These are the core competencies that form the indispensible foundation of a skill set unique to architects. A classic schooling in architecture ingrains the ability to think broadly and critically. We need to view the world from the widest perspective possible, and apply critical thinking to every aspect of professional practice. To do otherwise is to abandon our duty as stewards of the built environment.

This duty is profound: Architecture is not an autonomous pursuit. Regardless of how much responsibility we have ceded to other entities, we have impactful roles to play when it comes to a wide spectrum of challenges faced by our society. We still exert influence today upon the creation of effective and grounded design solutions. We can expand this influence and revitalize our profession by once again assuming a broad leadership role on every design and construction project.

Critical thinking—a willingness to consider and integrate alternative perspectives, imagine new possibilities, and foster criticality in others—is not the product of an overly focused, parochial education. And yet, that’s where some schools of architecture appear to be headed. Short-term exigency and bottom-line economics have contributed to an obsessive pursuit of lucrative research funding and a focus upon market-driven differentiation at colleges and universities across the country.

A case in point is my alma mater, the University of Oregon. The UO School of Architecture & Allied Arts is widely recognized as a preeminent institution when it comes to sustainable design. However, the school has so wholly embraced this reputation that it may become the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Sustainability is a crucial issue that should be at the forefront of our thinking; however, it should not crowd out other considerations fundamental to the education of future architects. An unintended consequence of Oregon’s emphasis upon sustainability and move away from design theory may ultimately be a generation of graduates who lack the ability to question assumptions and think critically. This would be unfortunate.

The same holds true if we believe enhancing the stature of our profession is simply a matter of restoring a respected measure of technical competence and responsibility. Don’t get me wrong: I definitely agree with Liz when it comes to the need to supplement the practical education of emerging professionals. I am a strong advocate for what the Construction Specifications Institute can do in this regard. Our profession should do more to popularize CSI’s certification programs. Doing so would raise the general fluency of young architects with construction terminology, practices, and documentation standards. My point is that architects are not merely technicians. We need to be as well-rounded as possible to be truly effective, the most so of all the players in the entire design and construction arena.

Restoration of our traditional role in the building design and construction processes is one side of the coin. It is revitalization. The other side is reinvention, but I regard reinvention in conceptually broader terms than Jim Cramer does. Imagination and entrepreneurial spirit are fantastic but they do not define who we are.

Fundamentally, architects are synthesizers, problem-solvers, orchestra conductors, and thinkers of the highest order. We can both reinvent ourselves and revitalize our profession by demonstrating to everyone the value of architects. We can do this by rising up to see the big picture. We can assume the mantle as critical thinkers about the built environment.

Reinvention? Revitalization? Or both? Read what Liz and Jim each say and come to your own conclusion.


Liz O'Sullivan said...


This is a really excellent post.

The problem-solving aspect of our profession is the reason I wanted to become an architect. (I was weak in the artistic facet and weak in the technical facet... and have gravitated to the technical side in mid-career, as a spec writer.)

Architects are the best qualified people to be the "critical thinkers about the built environment" (as you put it so well). We are supposed to be able to see the "small pictures" and the "big pictures" - most of us know the details of how buildings get put together, and also consider urban and regional planning issues when we design individual buildings. Both aspects (the "forest" and the "trees") are important to the built environment.

AND - we can't effectively communicate our solutions unless we have some background in critical thinking. Some people are lucky to have been raised in thoughtful households, in which they grew up naturally discussing, arguing, listening to, and considering new ideas. Others are lucky to have been required to take college classes in sociology or philosophy or theology or really good literature classes. (I was lucky in the second way - I'm hoping my kids will be lucky in both ways.)

Critical thinking abilities seem to be disappearing as people voluntarily get their news from more and more concentrated and polarized sources, and fewer universities emphasize a liberal arts education (in favor of more concentrated, career-focused courses).

I'm getting off track here... but thanks for jumping into the discussion!

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...


Not off track at all! Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for stirring a pot that certainly needed it.