Duo Dickinson, a well-known and talented residential architect, wrote a revealing editorial about the housing crisis and his profession. It appeared in Sunday’s New Haven (CT) Register. Dickinson writes that the housing bubble was foreseen by only a few architects like himself.
“But who was in the best position to tell people that the houses being sold to them had a fraction of the value they were paying for? Well, truth be told, residential architects, like me, could have declared that the emperor had no clothes. There were a bunch of us who unrelentingly spoke of the mis-fit between what was being built and what people were paying for it, and of the absurdity of basing the value of a home on its monthly mortgage payment.”
His point is that lots of people may have suspected the problem, but architects were among those who should have known about the bubble, and whose opinions should have carried weight. However, few knew and fewer still cared, and it didn’t matter anyway because architects aren’t really very much involved in mainstream homebuilding.
“Unlike legal aid attorneys who can tell the least powerful among us what their rights are, or the emergency room doctor who can make clear the practical and ethical realities of health care to those who are most endangered, architects have largely abandoned social relevance for the glamour of a star system where the hip and fashionable get the professional credibility that carries media attention.
Abstraction has been celebrated in my profession to the point where sculpture and architecture merged in the buildings that received acclaim. This stylistic fetish further reinforced our status as elite artistes in the minds of many.”
Parenthetically, I will point out that this use of the word “elite” is the reference to the educated but out-of-touch kind of person derided recently in McCain ads, as opposed to the primary dictionary definition which is: “the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.”
Elite or not, architects have largely marginalized themselves by completely separating themselves from what people want or care about in regards to homes. The patrons are essentially asking for well-prepared vegetables and meat, but these haughty chefs deliver the equivalent of escargot. More from Dickinson:
“Many of us aspired to be fashion designers rather than grounding what we do in the belief that a client has legitimate demands, that a context has elements to be respected, and a budget must be derived from the true costs of what it takes to build any building.
Instead, we have used the prophylactics of “green” and “sustainability” to project an image of relevance that is grounded in some overarching social responsibility rather than the nitty-gritty world of dealing with people, neighborhoods and money. This disconnect made us largely irrelevant to those who might have listened to us.”
Since architects are involved with less than 5% of new American homes, it could be said that in no other profession are so many people so diligently (and expensively) educated to do so little. Architects should have been in this game, but they’ve not even been close to the sidelines because they tend to prefer the air up in the clouds. They might think this absolves them of blame, but Dickinson isn’t buying it:
“Architects could have warned against this rip-off, but a lot of us valued fame over relevance.”