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Why Architecture's Identity Problem Should Matter to the Rest of Us

Architecture remains an elite and homogenous profession, clinging to institutional barriers that have thwarted diversity.

Perhaps it was the Legos, or watching Mike Brady belly up to his drafting board on TV. In recent months and years, the likes of President Obama, Brad Pitt, Lenny Kravitz, and numerous other public figures have divulged a love of architecture, going so far as to say they once—or still—wanted to be architects. They, like so many of us, have a romantic view of the architecture world.

It makes sense when you stop to think about it: there are few more creative, more transformative, more direct ways to literally make the world a better place. Almost nothing influences the quality of our lives more than the design of our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces.

Architecture can enliven and inspire. Three decades ago this year, at the tender age of 21, Maya Lin, then a Yale student, captivated the nation with her minimalist design for the Vietnam Memorial. Her subsequent work has won acclaim the world over.

We need more architects like Maya Lin to lift us up. But there’s a problem: Lin is not considered an architect by the architecture profession itself. You’d think those within her chosen field would at least embrace Lin as an architect—if not as a luminary, an innovator, or even a genius. Instead, the architecture establishment does something astounding, demeaning, and perplexing: they relegate her to the title of “intern” because she focused on making architecture, rather rites of passage.

Earning a diploma from architecture school isn't enough to be awarded the title of "architect." Graduates must also complete a multi-year internship and pass a costly seven-part exam, steps Lin skipped because she was spending her time designing. It’s a long, arduous road that many in the field are either unable or simply unwilling to travel. Shaun Donovan, the U.S. Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, who earned his architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, isn’t an architect, nor TED Prize winner and showman Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity. Architecture school deans, firm owners, and countless others aren’t “real” architects either. These people are doing amazing, world-changing work, exactly what we want and need more architects to be doing.

In fact, more than half of architecture school graduates don’t enter the profession. Fewer still get licensed, which means that the majority of the best and brightest are held in professional limbo or exit the profession entirely. This has been the status quo for decades, and it’s time for a change. We, the public, need architecture and dignifying spaces now more than ever.

Lest you think this title stuff is just semantics, think again. The profession and the public are measurably worse off because of this issue. While diversity in architecture schools is comparable to law and other fields, architecture remains one of the most elite and homogenous professions, clinging to institutional barriers that have thwarted gender parity and diversity efforts. Massive resources are spent on bureaucracy instead of nurturing a more representative profession to serve our diverse society, and supporting architects to create better, more vibrant public spaces.

Rather than spending their energy protecting their territory and titles, what if architects and their associations focused on resolving our nation’s housing crisis, improving our schools, or generally creating more inspiring environments for people to live their best lives? With buildings now accounting for almost half of greenhouse gas emissions, we need an army of architects to go back to drawing board and create more environmentally-friendly buildings, rather than an aging few tending to the drawbridge.

I’m not arguing against professional standards, especially not for a profession charged with making sure buildings don’t fall down. Clearly, there must be ways to demonstrate one’s qualifications in architecture or any other field, and an exam is widely regarded as the most reliable way to do so.

The difference is that medical school graduates are universally recognized among their peers and by the public as doctors even before their residencies and subsequent board exams. Graduates of law schools are considered lawyers even before passing the bar. But graduates of architecture school, who have at least five to seven years of schooling, are recognized with the lowly title of “intern.” They are forced into under-compensated internships as well as warned, policed, and even fined by architect-led state licensing boards for infringing on the word “architect” in any way. Is there any wonder why architecture graduates are defecting in droves?

These inequities, when combined with the economic downturn, are pushing greater numbers of graduates out of architecture, and the profession is weaker for it. More importantly, the public is also losing out, as the creative skills of architecture graduates are channeled into an overly bureaucratic process, rather than into solving very real societal challenges.

For years, even the leaders of the high and mighty American Institute of Architects have recommended reforming and broadening the rules of becoming an architect—starting with what we call graduates. Yet year in and year out, nothing changes due to institutional resistance, protectionism, and self-preservation.

It is high time that architecture focus less on enforcement of titles and fortifying its barriers to entry, and more on creating an inclusive profession truly dedicated to the health, the safety, and the welfare of the public.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Todd Ehlers

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