Our Number Two Dilemma

I’d like to offer you a fantastic design opportunity, one that will really test your chops as an architect: We need to design a public space that will see a lot of foot traffic – every single person that enters the building will pass through this space, and as such, it needs to be beautiful and inviting, with ample room for circulation.  We’ll be using some high-quality finishes with strict dimensional criteria – a lot of ceramic tile, with at least two accents – that will need some careful consideration.  There will be a great deal of specialty equipment that will need to be integrated with those finishes, some of which will be owner-provided.  There will be mechanical and lighting design concerns, as well as acoustic separation from the surrounding spaces.  Let’s not forget about accessibility – we need to be sure that we’ve complied with all necessary clearances, reach ranges, etcetera.  There’s also some document management concerns, since all of those items need to be annotated and dimensioned, in a legible enough fashion so that the contractor understands what he’s supposed to build.

So, in other words, our solution requires not only design expression plus technical skill – the very definition of architecture.  Great opportunity, right?  Now, what if I told you that it’s a pair of ganged toilet rooms.  Still interested?

I know what you’re thinking — I embellished the description, right?  That toilet rooms couldn’t possibly be described in those terms.  Go back and re-read it.

No, really – go ahead.  I’ll wait.

toiletrm_blueToilet rooms have earned the worst possible reputation in the practice of architecture (narrowly edging out the runner-up, stair plans and sections, to earn the title).  No one, it seems, wants to be associated with spaces that are dedicated to the evacuation of one’s bowels.  It’s funny, really – every project will have at least one toilet room in it, and it’s a virtual guarantee that the majority of plan review(s) and building inspection(s) will be concerned with how these rooms are laid out.  (As someone who has done his fair share of them, I can tell you that they don’t design themselves.)  It’s an essential skill for an architect to have in their bag of tricks.  And yet, every young architect cringes when asked to work on them, as if this task were beneath them.

The profession is based on licensure — RA status is our most valued credential, and the AIA has vigilantly defended the title, to raise public awareness of the architects role in society, only to see its numbers dwindle.  Enrollment in architecture schools has steadily decreased over the past five years, with even fewer graduates actually completing the degree program and entering the profession, and fewer still pursuing architectural registration.  The AIA has referred to this as “The Associate Crisis,” and it’s one of the largest issues facing the profession.  Not the largest, though — in the grand scheme of things, I’d say it ranks as a great big Number Two.

There’s a great deal of speculation as to what has contributed to this trend.  I’ll venture a guess that some of it stems from the “Gen-Y Effect,” the well-documented tendency of the current generation to stray from commitment.  At the risk of overgeneralization, studies have shown that Generation-Y (or “The Milennials”) rents instead of buys, chooses to remain single instead of getting married, pursues short-term employment instead of long-term positions.  Buckling down for a five-to-seven year internship, coupled with a seven-part examination, is an awfully big commitment, especially when it brings little increase in responsibility or compensation.

That’s only part of it; another is the vast disparity between academia and practice.  In architecture school, we’re taught to dream big, to throw caution to the wind, to not get bogged down in realities.  As one professor of mine put it, “you’ll have the rest of our career to worry about that kind of stuff– have fun now, while you still can.”  Or, in the words of another, addressing my entire class on the whole: “Each of you is way too talented to be drawing toilet room details.”  And since so few members of the faculty actually were registered architects, it’s hard to argue with that mentality.

Another factor — mentorship, or the lack of it.  Developing a set of skills requires a little bit of oversight from a more experienced practitioner, one that can help to identify problems to find potential solutions.  That type of guidance is all-too-frequently lost in our hectic schedules, where we are constantly expected to do more with less, and in shorter timeframes, than ever before.  A harried PM would rather see someone come to the table with the knowledge required to perform a certain task, not take the time to teach that skill.  But when it comes to things like toilet room layouts, we’re simply not taught that sort of thing in school.  The fact that the onus for so much of our training is carried by practice, not academia, is a liability for employer and employee alike.

Graduates from architecture school, especially those that have not had any sort of internship experience, are in for a little bit of a rude awakening.  The real world of the profession bears little resemblance to the fantasy realm of the studio. In school, we’re made to believe that each and every one of us is a Designer (with a capital D), practically given a cape when we graduate.  Then we land our first architectural job, where we’re placed in a 4-by-6 cube, handed a stack of redlined drawings from an overworked project manager, given minimal direction, and left to our own devices, sometimes for days on end.  It’s no wonder that so many young architects find themselves, in no particular order, confused, disenfranchised, bored, marginalized, out of work, and finally, in search of another career.

toiletrm_whiteBlame it on the toilet room details.  The perennial scapegoat of our profession, that menial task that each of us secretly (or not-so-secretly) dreads.  After all, after years of intense studio culture, countless all-nighters, learning from the masters in order to develop one’s own post-modernist masterpiece (even if it is only on paper), while in the meantime racking up thousands of dollars’ worth of college loans, surely we have more to offer the office — to say nothing of society at large — than a well-placed feminine napkin disposal.  The implication is one of snobbery – we’re Designers.  We shouldn’t have to burden ourselves with toilet rooms – after all, the grand architectural expression isn’t going to be made there.  Did Mies ever have to concern himself with where to place a hand dryer?  Would Corbu’s sixth point of architecture have been “one soap dispenser for every two lavatories?” Sullivan’s credo “form follows full-length mirror?”  We’re interested in making buildings worthy of the cover of a magazine, not rooms in which to read one.  (Think about it.)

An architectural internship is meant to impart the fundamentals of practice onto emergent professionals. The underlying goal of the Intern Development Program is to ensure that anyone wishing to call themselves an architect has the ability to competently and responsibly practice on their own, protecting the health safety and welfare of the general public.  Internship is the time when it’s expected to develop one’s skill set, which includes such things as competent toilet-room layout, in the process of honing one’s craft.  This, to me, is the basic difference between DESIGN (which has no real-world concerns other than looking !!really cool!!) and ARCHITECTURE, which has an inherent responsibility of being functional as well as beautiful.  Design requires creativity, intuition, and conviction — architecture requires all that, as well as a generous helping of knowledge, research, and technical ability.

It’s the responsibility of the intern to view IDP as more than a numbers game; it’s essential training, and needs to be treated as such.  But it’s also an inherent responsibility of the academy and practice to provide adequate opportunity to hone those skills, with the proper coaching and guidance, in the best interests of the individual and the profession at large.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not arguing against the importance of design.  Every space  — yes, even the toilet rooms — deserves to be beautiful as well as functional.  Design does play a critical role, even in what we consider ancillary or support spaces.  It’s a curse of our profession that we’re always looking for the gaps, the poorly thought-out details, the missed opportunities.  When I see cleanly-detailed tile walls, accessories that are carefully located, none of which come across as an afterthought or compromise, all of which are found in a generous space with no compromised sightlines, no intrusions into my personal space… as an architect, I’m impressed.  Someone made that happen, someone with skill and ability.

As soon as the profession is able to engage its emergent professionals in such a way that even toilet room details are seen as heroics, we’ll have found a solution to our Number Two Dilemma — convincing our own ilk that what we do is valid, worthy of their time, effort, and education.  Maybe then we can move on to Dilemma Number One — figuring out how to convince the general public of the same thing.

Editor’s note:  This post was originally published — trimmed for length, and minus some of the more blatant scatological humor — in the January 2013 issue of YAF Connection.

Why Do We Draw?

Quite simply, we draw to communicate our ideas.

More to the point, we draw to define things at would be difficult — if not near impossible — to describe in any other manner.  If you’ve ever tried giving someone directions, and, three turns into your narrative, you stop and say ” you know what, let me draw you a map…” then you implicitly understand the concept.  Consider how difficult it would be to describe a floor plan in words, in a way that would be clearly understood by anyone reading it.  Maybe I’m a little biased — hand-drawing, in any medium, is something that has always come easily to me, and is a large part of why I wanted to become an architect — but there’s an inherent beauty and simplicity that comes with a drawing.

Maybe you caught Michael Graves’ article, “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing,” in the New York Times over Labor Day weekend (it was hard to miss — it was shared and re-tweeted by virtually everyone in the architecture community).  Graves laments the loss in the craft that has come with the increased reliance of our profession on technology.  He does so by celebrating the art of drawing, the simple act of adding lines to a blank slate to define a concept, and the joy that comes in creation.  “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets,” Graves writes. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands.”  A drawing is organic, an extension of ourselves.

The piece has had some detractors — most notably, this guy — who feel that Graves is being something of a technophobe.  I didn’t take it that way at all.  Why can’t there be room in today’s practice for both tools?  Why does an advance in technology always need to be at the expense of the simple, the more quaint?  Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is that architects should always draw for a client — on a napkin, a paper placemat, whatever is available — because it’s that skill that sets us apart.  It indicates an ability to think on one’s feet, to put one’s thoughts into a format that can be understood by the other party.  It allows us to engage.

I rely very heavily on my computer — I was pretty strong in my use of AutoCAD, and I’m getting better at REVIT every day — but I still spend a little bit of time each day sketching by hand.  It helps me think through a problem before I commit to a drafted solution.  I’ve redlined details for interns, and scratched them into scrap pieces of plywood for superintendents.  But I feel like the last of a dying breed.  Like Graves, I fear that drawing is a skill that is slowly fading away, so much so that an entire generation of architects risks losing it.  And that will be an enormous loss to our profession.