After spending nearly a decade pursuing a master's degree in architecture, many new graduates entered the job market during an economic meltdown that would come to be known as the Great Recession only to find the job market for architects nonexistent. There's no telling how most of these unfortunates overcame the barriers on their individual paths to architectural practice, but one, at least, made the most of his unexpected and unwanted downtime. Once he graduated, architect-to-be Eric J. Cesal (now Architecture for Humanity's regional program manager in Haiti) had very little to do but to reflect on the state of the profession he had joined, dissecting and analyzing its collective path as well as his own. His musings became the recently published manifesto Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice (MIT Press, $21.95).
Cesal sees architects and architecture standing at the brink of irrelevancy at a time when practitioners and the profession should be at their most valued. In the midst of economic crisis and a flatlined construction industry, architects should be the ones to whom we turn for innovative and practical solutions. Instead, the profession has allowed itself to be pushed even further to the fringes, dissociated from both the problems and the problem solving. Society views architecture as a luxury rather than a useful necessity, and architects have been complicit in this development.
The key to architecture being valued, Cesal posits, is that it provides recognizable and appreciable value—both to clients and to society as a whole, now and in the future. Contrary to the education of most architects, this requires that architecture not be created as an end unto itself, its worth to be judged only by other practitioners, nor as an idealistic quest to achieve Utopia through design alone. Cesal advises architects to acknowledge architecture as a service and a business, as well as an art, and to overcome the myth of the noble, self-sacrificing artistic genius, which only serves to undervalue the architect's abilities.
Cesal's book considers an architect's place within the profession and the profession's place within society. The profession, he believes, needs to re-evaluate its purpose and find ways both to provide greater value and to coherently explain that value.
While Down Detour Road may hold up a mirror that reflects the harsh realities currently impeding architecture's progress, it also shows the potential for a future in which every building is designed, every person cares about architecture, and architects recognize that the everyday concerns of the masses fall within their purview.