Are recessions good for architecture?
As the UK economy braces itself for a slide into the dreaded second dip of a global capitalist crisis, I found myself trawling through an article I was asked to write the last time recession struck these shores, all of 3 years ago. We didn’t really learn the lesson the last time – what is it Marx said? History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce…
07 July 2009
Recessions are part of the capitalist system’s natural life cycles, boom to bust and back again – from cataclysmic crisis to mad spending orgies. Like any crisis worth its salt, a devastating recession provides plenty of opportunity for the less scrupulous (and very well funded) elements of society to take advantage, especially if they’ve wised up to the rules of the game and are prepared to risk their funds in pursuit of even greater riches. But generally these moments spell bad news for the rest of us, especially if you happen to be one of the thousands of architects, professional or student, who’s lost his job on the back of this current economic slowdown. The bitter truth that many graduates have to face this year is that there are simply no jobs out there for them. Universities have been asked to reconsider applications from candidates with no professional experience as students struggle to gain the necessary time in a practice during their year out before they return to study.
The construction industry has long been a barometer of “economic health”, largely because building work is often not more than a luxury to be afforded in times of surplus. Removing massive infrastructure and government backed projects from the pot, this has been a dismal year in the number of competitions held and tenders handed out to architects, whilst works on site have notoriously come to standstills in some situations. In a society where so much money is locked away in virtual realities, banks, stocks, and shares… it’s still a shock to note that the first place to receive cut backs in investment is that of the built environment, relegated in its importance to the volatility of ‘market forces’, and easiest to pause on.
Its been a year where architects have been desperately underselling themselves and their services to an increasingly savvy client base, trying, often in vain, to hold on to contracts and bid for potential work all at cost.It must come as no surprise then, the rumours of directors of practices working for free whilst cutting back paid work days for their staff and still entering more and more unfunded competitions in an increasingly saturated market.
A lot of architects have looked abroad for some respite. Reports of Britain being particularly badly affected by this recession whilst countries like China, Korea and the United Arab Emirates ride the crest of the crisis on their stockpiled wealth, be it from petro dollars or plastic toys, have enticed a lot of practices to bid for work abroad. Projects in the United Kingdom have all but dried up whilst there is seemingly no slow down in the insatiable demand for “western design” in the Middle and Far East.
And then the mood turns nasty…
In times of trouble and need often flow the tales of abuse of power and exploitation. As if to add further to the concerns of the thousands of architects worrying about their jobs, the potential for employers to exploit the recession has increased dramatically. Far from trying to protect their employees, bosses have made the most out of the recession by scaring people into working harder, for longer and lower pay. Apart from the announcements of salary freezes, and the abandon of discretionary bonuses, running the rumour mill are horror stories of practices who put their staff on four day week pay levels only to expect them to work the full week as a matter of course. Never mind the pay cuts, the constant threat of redundancy and the certainty, as the piles of CV’s in the corner will attest to, that there are hundreds of people potentially after your job, just as well qualified, and in a lot of cases, willing to work for free.
There is nothing worse than the dominant atmosphere in the workplace being one of uncertainty, fear and intimidation. This is the bitter truth of a recession, where directors scramble to cover their backs, willing to trample over, and sacrifice, their employees for their own survival. Look at the recent handful of headlines, Foster sacks 40%, Roger’s redundancies at 30%, Wilkinson Eyre down 25% and so on and so on… There is nothing glamorous about this. Architects are signing onto the dole and seeking housing benefit at an alarming rate. People are becoming so desperate to get a foot in the door of any practice that they offer their professional service without charge, fuelling concerns at the RIBA over the continuing devaluation of the profession.
As the saying goes, first into the recession and last out of it – architects can take little comfort that they are unlikely to notice much of “an upturn” or see any “green shoots” anytime soon, and the gloomy news of massive public sector spending cuts which parliament ministers are so slow in admitting to, may destroy what are currently considered the holy grails of securely funded projects, especially for small practices who would rely on government backed construction schemes to scrape through.
It’s hard to see the good side…
Amidst all the doom and gloom it’s hard to see the good side. But as it’s true that times of hardship force restraints upon all of us, they can often also force people to think more creatively, to do more with less. It has certainly been the opinion of some people that this recession is precisely what architecture needed. After the dizzying heights reached with New Labour’s boom time, some say it’s time for a halt in the pace of development, time to let frugality and asceticism back in on the agenda. As projects stall around the country, few people will be lamenting the loss of architecture in this mess. It’s the jobs and the livelihoods of the builders and the homeowners that people care about, not the merit of the architecture. That’s because architecture hasn’t engaged with people in this country for the past 20 years. It has ceased to become a source of real provocation and debate, it’s lost its innovation (at least in built work, arguably in theory as well) and it no longer engages the citizens of this country. As the ruthless pace of development in Britain’s inner cities grinds slowly to a halt, architects must take responsibility for the part they’ve played in the construction of the slew of low grade, badly planned, rush job speculative developments which all tried to tap into the lucrative housing market as it spiralled out of control. Architects were happy to take the money from developers to oversee these projects yet it’s our inner cities which suffer as a consequence. How many “luxury penthouse apartments” do we really need? How many “young and exciting professionals” are there? If it wasn’t for architects, the very people who are supposed to be pushing innovation and social responsibility, these alienating luxury carcasses would never have been built,
For some this recession signals an end to that complicity which this profession has shown to slipshod developers (albeit only a fiscal one) and offers the chance for architects to re-engage with issues that they are supposedly passionate about. Some people are even thinking about the potential towards restructuring the profession with more of an emphasis on a participatory model of design, suggesting that the role of the architect should not be destined to play second fiddle to all powerful project manager, but instead should engage with other professions looking to add specialist value by diversifying the remit of architectural production.
But there are voices which suggest that this recession will only provide a creative catharsis for those who can afford it. They suggest that only the rich will benefit from the pause that this “crisis” offers the profession, whilst there are thousands of architects who simply can’t afford to stop working or taking on ethically dubious work.
To my mind that argument is too apologetic for bad design when the struggle for a better social system is worth fighting. Architects should believe in themselves, take risks, diversify and share their knowledge. As a profession we should be gathering to collectively minimise that risk, catching those who fall through the net and applying real pressure on the government to promote the smaller side of architectural industry. Without the struggle for a more relevant and socially active profession nothing will change, and in 20 years we’ll find ourselves back here again, still that curious blend between glorified draughtsman and planning consultant, falling far short of our potential.
This is how we do it…
Some redundant architects have already begun to collectivise, form new partnerships and share skills, resources and opportunities in a way that would never have been commercially viable before the recession. RaRa (The redundant architects recreation association) is such a co-op. Operating from an industrial unit in East London it offers cheap rent for desk space, some limited resources, but most importantly, the chance to share your time in the company of people in similar situations, facilitating collaboration, the germination of ideas and the all important critique from peers. It’s often quoted that times of duress and hardship are often the most fruitful for the artistic temperament. Emotions become more extreme, plans and ideas more radical, everyday decisions take on an urgency and importance that they never had in the good times. Everything becomes much more critical. Perhaps this recession could spawn a new architectural movement, a new creative theory to replace the complacency and nonchalance of today. I hope that architects smell the coffee and take part once they understand that this recession is the wake up call they need to step out from the shadows of false priorities and non critical design. Hopefully these tough times will help us take a different, more discerning look as to the service our profession is expected to provide to society and produce a much more considerate, honest and exciting design process for the future.