In his book Down Detour Road, Eric J. Cesal shares his experiences as a young practitioner—or at least his attempts to practice. Like many young and not so young architects, Cesal discovered that in this economy there’s far more downtime than work. In fact, the subtitle of his thoughtful book is An Architect in Search of Practice (The MIT Press, 2010).
He’s acutely aware of the irony of the present situation that the profession finds itself in. Never have the training and creativity of architects been more needed, yet in the very face of this need, many of us are unemployed and those who do have work struggle against being marginalized.
Whether or not you agree with Cesal that architects have played a role in creating the tight place we find ourselves in, you won’t argue with the caring and passion that he shows for his profession. Out of work, scrounging for jobs, and angered by what he sees as the commodification of design—none of this has diminished his love of architecture.
Having traveled around the country as AIA president, I’ve seen a lot of pain. I’ve also seen courage, creativity, and determination, like that of Cesal, in the face of unprecedented challenges—at least unprecedented for those under 60. The fact is that our profession has been there before. The last time we were whipsawed by the economy, we lost a generation. When things finally turned around, firms found themselves not short of work, but short of the talent to get the job done. That same fear—that we’ll lose this generation—grips many of us now. Which brings me to another book that recently came across my desk—Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About It (Crown Publishing, 2011).
A features writer for The Atlantic, Peck takes the long view of the present crisis. Peck’s canvas stretches from the Panic of 1893 through the OPEC oil embargo. With the benefit of hindsight, Peck discovers a fairly predictable pattern of boom and bust that is transformational. Those who had been gainfully employed, as well as those just entering or trying to enter the job market, underwent a major shift in values. For example, the generation that grew up during the Depression and World War II practiced recycling long before “sustainability” became a buzzword. Boomers, on the other hand, embraced the disposable razor.
Whenever the economy finally rebounds, Peck argues, we will not simply pick up where we left off; we will be changed as a profession and a nation. Peck doesn’t soft-pedal the challenges facing us. What he does say—and this is the real value of his book—is that we don’t have to settle for a lesser future. What we choose to do can have an impact on how quickly we recover and what we will look like once the economy turns around. Peck places his bets on the ability of Americans to adapt and reinvent ourselves.
Cesal agrees: The very powers of innovation and creativity that distinguish our profession are our best hope. You may not agree with all or any of the recommendations that both authors advocate for the radical transformation that they see as key to our recovery. However, what’s welcome is their faith in their audiences. Not surprisingly, I was especially struck by a letter Cesal wrote to a reviewer of his book: “If we really believe in what we’re doing, we should believe in its value and treat it as such.”
Currently Cesal lives in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he manages and coordinates Architecture for Humanity’s design and reconstruction initiatives. Is he simply marking time until he lands “real” work? This is what he says: “[In Haiti] I had found something; a way to practice. A way to understand what architecture was and how to do it.”
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President
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