In February of this year, The Architectural Review published an essay by Phineas Harper and Phil Pawlett Jackson on the phenomenon of Young Architecture. Lamenting the commodification of DIY, pop-up modes of practice that often limit the ability of rising practitioners to move on to larger commissions or financial support, the authors reminisce about a time when medium-sized firms comprised a healthy ecology of practice, and warn of the detriment that Young Architecture poses to the profession. As students at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, we found the fatalistic attitude of the article to be unwarranted and out of touch. We felt the urge to respond from our own perspective. There are many conditions that we believe are helpful to understand the phenomenon which Harper and Jackson describe as Young Architecture. Most importantly, we want to share how we are working to adapt our methods of practice to changing economic conditions.
We are not the “trust fund recreational class.” When we practice what has been coined Young Architecture – “socially high-risk, financially low-return, intensive design and building” – it is out of necessity. It is not a choice to “revel in the freedoms that the privilege of youth affords” as Harper and Jackson suggest, but a strategic response to the lack of opportunities available to young practitioners. There is an urgency within our class at Columbia University to distinguish our ambitions from those of practitioners who have come before us, and to contextualize Young Architecture by calling out Old Architecture for what it is.
Old Architecture (which has statistically also been male, white, and wealthy) has failed to instigate the social, economic, and technological changes that are demanded by the growing inequalities our society faces. It has upheld exclusive hierarchical traditions, reproduced the values of the dominant social class, and maintained repressive economic structures. It is these very structures that have led to our current state of environmental and financial precarity. For young practitioners, competition for underpaid junior positions combined with massive student debt make it imperative to seek out alternative practices.
The values of Old Architecture — from the myth of the creative artistic genius at the head of the firm, to the trivialization of social and ecological concerns — have long been absorbed into our magazines, our schools, our firms, and into our profession. If, by pointing to these shortfalls, we seem to be exacerbating the “divisive demographic antagonism” Harper and Jackson warn against, we would like to point out that this antagonism already exists in the profession in other forms: antagonism towards young practitioners, women, minorities, and low-income communities. Seeking to erase demographic difference, as Harper and Jackson suggest in their plea for “qualitative” judgement criteria that would disregard the age and identity of the practitioner, will only perpetuate systemic inequalities. In order to move beyond these barriers, we must embrace subjectivity and work for the benefit of those who have been historically marginalized.
Forced to think creatively in the face of our own financial instability, we cannot help but question the fundamental role that money plays in the production of architecture and urban space. This critical discourse is curiously absent from our academic programs, which are defined not by young practitioners but by established accreditation boards, university administration, and school deans. Students are instructed to pretend that money does not exist, even in a time when the financialization of the economy, privatization of resources, and growing wage inequalities put increasing strain on the profession. We have yet to view the constraints of our economic system as a realm of productive creativity, worthy of the critical discourse. While there are virtues of allowing students space to explore and develop, the danger is that this results in architectures that are limited to their conceptual frameworks, and evaluated based on arbitrary formal qualities.
There is perhaps a place for formal experimentation within our cities, but it would need to give up the pretense of social relevancy. The commodification that Harper and Jackson describe is a real threat, but we believe it is being propagated on an even more problematic scale by established, well-funded practitioners. Big, shiny, and expensive Starchitecture sells itself as a commodity, which limits the potential value architecture could contribute to specific social contexts beyond the luxury marketplace.
If we hope to regain value in the eyes of the public, we need to be sincere about what we are offering. Do architects provide a service that addresses local needs and directly improves the lives of inhabitants, or a luxury object that will attract tourists and investors? Can we do both, or do these agendas often directly contradict each other?
There is room for both in the profession, but distinctions must be made. More and more young architects are moving away from these latter forms of practice, acknowledging the complex, interwoven mechanisms in our global economy and the need to invent our own distinct means of interacting with systems of production. Seeking to move beyond pop-up shops, pavilions, and temporary art projects, we partner with developers, take business classes, or intern in the nonprofit sector to learn about alternative fundraising. Some of us are interested in the social research that takes place before a building is designed, others in energy performance afterwards. These alternative forms of practice are based on the acknowledgement that our specialized spatial knowledge is strengthened by diverse partnerships, and that to accomplish the permanent impact that Harper and Jackson suggest, we have to address the outdated education and accreditation systems that young practitioners work within. There needs to be a recognition that our rigid curriculum and licensure processes represent only one insular slice of a larger world of information, technologies, methodologies, ethics, and analysis.
We are young, and we lack experience in the field and the perspective that this affords. However, we see it as our responsibility to take a stand based on our best judgement as to what goals are worth working towards and what our ideals should be. We cannot continue to operate on the fallacy that we will succeed in a rapidly changing economic climate by following in the path of those who have come before us. We will continue to develop a community of allies and alternative practices for ourselves as individuals, for our program, and for professional practice. If we do not begin working towards change in the field of architecture, who will?
This response was cowritten by students at the Columbia GSAPP.
Julie Pedtke, firstname.lastname@example.org
Violet Whitney, email@example.com
Matthew Lohry, firstname.lastname@example.org
The original article can be found here: