Architect and author, Randy Deutsch, looks at the role and relevance of the architect in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.
An architect is a terrible thing to waste
In the months leading to the pandemic, there was ample evidence that architects were working at their highest level, exercising their fullest potential, bringing to their work their best game.
In Maslow’s terms, individuals and firms saw themselves self-actualised.
Architecture feels less urgent these days in part because we are forced to subsist at the lower regions of the hierarchy of needs.
Due to working and pretty much doing everything else at home, most find themselves at the base of the pyramid, living lower on the food chain, in search of base necessities: all but scrounging for food one meal at a time, seeking if not shelter, warmth and comfort; safety, security, stability; and freedom from fear.
Living, in other words, like those we serve – or those we ought to serve.
One positive thing that has come out of this time hunkered down at home below the baseline is that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for architects to appreciate how those less privileged live.
While we’re anxious to re-open the economy, it would be a real missed opportunity to not linger here in the nether regions a bit longer, flexing our collective empathy muscles, relating – for some for the first time – with those we serve.
For architects to remain relevant, we need to serve a wider swath of society.
There is no better time to do so than now.
At no other time in the past decade have architects felt so viscerally what others feel, seen what others see, nor lived how others live.
As only 3% of new buildings are designed with architects, we have for too long been focused on a very narrow slice of humanity.
The tiny fraction of society we serve needs to widen and expand.
This crisis affords us the opportunity to take another look at this larger swath.
Lingering in necessityland
It would be a shame to waste this crisis by rushing back immediately to the way we were.
By lingering in necessityland a bit longer, architects have an opportunity to fulfill not only their ethical obligations but their full professional potential.
Architects have been marginalised for having served too few.
Coming out of the pandemic to remain relevant we need to serve more and better.
The pandemic reminds us that we serve those who cannot work from home because they have no work nor have a home.
Architects shouldn’t miss this chance to become the professionals they are capable of becoming and frankly have needed to become for some time.
This crisis affords us the opportunity to replenish our toolbox with the act of empathy.
To hunker down in the hierarchy of needs means to settle into a safe position.
Just as we’re advised to stay at home, shelter in place and to wait – until the virus becomes manageable.
A return to first principles
So, in addition to making face masks, PPE, plastic partitions and wayfinding devices, architects should use this time in another way.
To return to first principles, revisiting our foundational capabilities that truly differentiate us.
To stay with what is actual and necessary. Only then we will rediscover what is desirable and possible.
We ought to focus now on what distinguishes us, on the ultimate value we provide to others.
Here are seven capabilities to consider before attempting to redesign the workplace or city:
- Clarity of thinking: Architect’s ability to seek clarity and coherence no matter the situation, helping to make sense in a chaotic time. Knitters with hopelessly tangled yarn are called detanglers. Architects detangle intractable wicked problems to make them manageable, understandable and in time, solvable.
- Beginner’s mind: Architects know the importance of seeing a problem with fresh eyes. The great news is that being able to do so is not a one-time thing – the ability to see anew is a renewable resource – a mindset we can take-on again and again. Some architects will deliberately put themselves into a state of creative ignorance in order to address complex problem solving.
- Skeptical optimism: Architects are nothing if not positive and optimistic. Design – to go from there being essentially nothing to envisioning and ultimately building something – is an optimistic act. It assumes things will move forward into an unknown future. Don’t give up what you have always done. Don’t throw away what you have worked for and toward. Leverage it. Turn what you need to do next into a challenging design assignment.
- Question asking: Architects don’t jump on the first idea that pops into their heads. Architects seek to ask better questions. Not when will the pandemic end, but a more wicked question: How will we adapt in the midst of a continuing situation, one without a clear conclusion? You don’t need to have all the answers. In fact, most answers right now are distrusted – since the virus is still new and very much ongoing. Asking questions is more important. So, ask better questions. What is worth your time and energy right now? Not having expedient answers, but instead asking better questions.
- Comfort with ambiguity: Architects are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. This enables them to stick with wicked problems longer until an amicable solution is arrived at. Not everybody is as comfortable with the unknown and for as long. We hunger for certainty but are trained to live in a state of limbo – this benefits us. And now, others.
- Thinking like others: Living through a pandemic serves as an opportunity to redouble our ability to think like others, ie non-architects. As important as it is to think like an architect, it is equally important for the architect to think like others: to speak in terms they can understand; to understand how our ideas apply to them; to empathise with their situation and circumstances. To think like others means to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions. With the architect are those not present at the table where decisions are made – including current and future building users, neighbors, the public at large, and even future generations not yet born who will have to live with decisions made. Architects need to think of and like them as well.
- Zooming in/out: We find ourselves reliant on Zoom conferencing, but often forget that we are able to zoom in and out; see the big picture and minutest detail; anticipate the consequences for our actions; and are able to do this by enlisting our imagination, projecting out far beyond into the outer world in terms of both space and time; asking how will this idea impact others? When we find ourselves at the (virtual) table we have a privilege and also a responsibility to represent those not present. Architects know there are consequences for their actions. We know that our architectural acts have downstream consequences and take responsibility for them.
When we provide evidence of our resourcefulness and usefulness to others, we in turn will be assured of our purpose as a profession.
These days provide us with a reason for us individually but also our profession to not only exist but persist and persevere.
There is no greater reminder for this than the pandemic we are living through.
We can use this opportunity to leverage not just our design talent but our most basic of shared attributes – ones that we too often take for granted – ones that not everybody experiences.
Not everybody is able to think like we do.
Let’s start here and now.
The economy cannot stand still forever. Nor can we remain on lockdown indefinitely.
Something will have to give and when it does, we – as individuals, professionals, civilians and leaders that we are – will be ready to assist, facilitate, orchestrate and lead.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. But so are architects at a time when there is so much more we can contribute.
This isn’t the time to aspire for greatness, for prizes, for recognition, for likes, or for the ineffable.
But a time to hunker down, dig deep into our most fundamental of shared values.
Not only as architects, but together as fellow humans.
Randy Deutsch is an architect, author, educator and speaker. Author of six books, his forthcoming books are Think Like An Architect and Adapt As An Architect (RIBA, 2020). His most recent book is Superusers (Routledge, 2019).