It has been 30 years since I graduated from architecture school. I know because this last weekend I attended my first reunion. I have never felt a particular nostalgia towards my college or architecture school, and have been wary to confront the fact that we are all older now, but the chance to speak to my fellow Yale School of Architecture graduates of the early '80s (and perhaps an old age-induced sentimentality) seduced me to make the trek up to New Haven to review with them what we have accomplished in the last few decades.
Big surprise: it turns out architecture has not changed that much. That is true both in terms of the profession and in what kind of work architects make. According to a recent study by Yale's architecture and management schools, close to 80 percent of the architecture school's graduates are gainfully employed as architects (a number that obviously does not include myself). Despite recent gains, only about a third of them are women, and there are almost no people of color among them. Most of them work in or run small offices.
Part of the reunion was a Pecha Kucha presentation in which I had the chance to see my cohort's architecture. The work they are doing was born in the Postmodernism in which we were educated and on the whole still resides there, sheltering under sloped roofs, sporting a plethora of detail, reveling in materials (even when they are only a veneer), and generally evidencing a nostalgia for a simpler age. I have not seen any official figures, and am not sure how you would measure this, but I have a feeling this reflects the desires, if not always the practice, of most architects. Yale graduates might just get to live out their dreams a bit more often.
That was certainly true of one of the most successful and, in my mind, best of the graduates, Tom Kligerman of Ike Kligerman Barkley. He has taken to heart the lessons of complexity so central to Yale's teaching and history, from the work of James Gamble Rogers and Robert Venturi, FAIA, to the teaching of Vincent Scully, and has the ability to play out his Lutyens-esque fantasies of what he calls "shinglish" homes or perverted classical palaces at an often vast scale. Michael Burch, AIA, and Diane Wilk, AIA, of Michael Burch Architects, do much the same in the Spanish Colonial of their native Southern California. This kind of work is breathtaking in its sophistication and beauty.
Very few of the presenters showed work that you might think of as modernist in the sense of stripping buildings down to the point of abstraction and openness; Ben Neiman does it on the level of theoretical structures, and Cameron Armstrong's "metal houses" integrate the lofty aesthetic of high modernism into Houston's humid climate. Phil Parker crosses over in his meticulous explorations of all the basic elements out of which we make architecture.
So after three decades we are still mining history, reusing techniques we were taught, and redrawing traditions. Is there nothing new under the sun? Certainly there are endless and sometimes very sexy variations, but for architecture that proposes new solutions for a world in which so much has changed in that period—let alone a project that is made by people of color or for social programs—we will have turn elsewhere. Architecture from Yale and by Yalies remains the built affirmation of the social, economic, and aesthetic status quo.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.