what’s in a name – architect’s monikers

There is a recent, and growing trend that I find somewhat odd and certainly annoying.  It is the deliberate choice of odd and unusual names, and especially spelling, of architectural firm names.  Up until about 10 years or so ago, most firms of more than one principal simply used their names or intials as the identity of the organization. Actually, even longer ago, prior to WWII, architects used their full names as the office descriptor:

Shepley, Bullfinch       Holabird and Root       McKim, Mead and White

With the increasing size and ubiquity of multi-national firms it seems the old list-of-names gave sway to initials, and so in the post-WWII years up to about the 1980’s we get:

KPF     HOK     SOM     NBBJ    (at least three initials needed here)

Some creative folks liked to use the visually insistent ampersand, W&J, and that was even replaced in later years with the considerably hipper + sign, P+B+J.  (I actually worked one brief summer for P+B+J, which was Pearson, Bender and Jolly before the sandwich moniker and plus signs)

Some time in the 1970’s, possibly as a rejection of the notion of the hero architect of recognizable name, firms began to make up names.  The first I can think of was Superstudio, but a number of others quickly followed.  This first wave of nuevo names were usually actual words or close variants and often explicitly called out their collaborative studio culture.  In many ways this was not dissimilar to the wave of high-tech and pharmaceutical firms that adopted new words for identities to highlight their forward-looking natures and embracing of new technologies.

archimuse     archizoom      superstudio     archigram      morphosis       arquitectonica      coop himmelb(l)au

Of late, maybe because the availability of words without some negative connotations have all been used up, architects have been opting for unique and odd spellings to set themselves off from the crowd.  This is a particular affliction of Dutch architects from whom Mecanoo, OMA (“Office of Metropolitan Architecture”, not the principal’s names) and UNStudio are examples.

+31Architects     i29    NEXT    DP6   COEN!    B(h)uis    eneead    ArC    2Ton     3DIkon    SHoP    00:/     WHAT_

When I see so many of these names I do not conjure up the image of a new, hip design firm but rather of so many kid’s toys.

I probably have no right to kind of make fun of other architect’s corporate names when “M. Gerwing Architects” is so wrought with self-consciousness.  I have worked for architects for whom the company name made no mention of the team that actually made the projects and I have worked for a firm whose made up name could have been used for a new software product or anti-depressant.  But in all these places what has held true has been that the quality of work that came out of the office, collective or otherwise, was almost always the passionate and tireless effort of a real person.  There may have been many hands that helped guide the project, but it was always the experience, judgement and vigilance of a single person that has brought a good project into a building.  So M. Gerwing Architects is me.  I am the M.  No one calls me that, “M” is my own sort of joke – a laughing reflection that there is not a long string of famous architects named Mark.  M is me, more typically called “Mark”, the “markitect” or “Daddy”. But by any name when a project is in the office it is worked primarily by me, not staff, and anything good or bad that happens on the project rests with me.  I think people should hire architects, not architecture offices.  And certainly not typographic experimentalists.

(I am thinking of changing our firm’s name to:  <!> what do think?)

“Architects” and professional registration

Most people, and certainly all architects, know that in order to call yourself an “architect”, you must be licensed to practice in your state.  For all the states that test consists largely of the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE).  So, even though Gorbachev was the “architect” of perestroika and there are a plethora of information “architects” and systems “architects”, in fact only test-passing, actual building-making experienced folks can legally call themselves “architects”.  In a profession with significantly lower financial compensation than so many of its professional counterparts, exclusive use of the moniker “architect” is the only bone we get.

Taking the ARE requires that to be even eligible to sit for the exam you must have logged at least 3 years worth of experience working for a licensed architect.  During this time you are an “intern”.  Back in my day during this 3 year limbo status you simply worked on whatever your boss-architect gave you to work on, whether that was drawings, specifications, construction issues, etc.  Since then and for many, many years now the 3-year rule has been institutionalized into the Intern Development Program (IDP) and the 3-year period has been translated into a series of required hourly categories to be completed.  So, you have to spend 2800 hours in Design and Construction Documents, 560 hours in Construction Contract Administration, on so forth for a total of 5600 hours of logged time.  If your boss doesn’t give you this experience, in this variety of fields, you either have to find another job or continually wait until 3 years turns into 5 or 7 or 9.  The content of the test is certainly worthy of discussion, but what I am really more concerned about is the amount of time that it is taking interns to become architects.

(By way of comparison, to become an attorney and hold some sway over life and death issues, you can take the Bar exam three months out of law school, test cost: $500.  To become an architect, you need at least three years of working experience and between the IDP costs and ARE costs: approx. $2,000.)

To add fuel to the duration fire, back in ye olden days, when I took the registration exam, it was offered only once per year, a grueling 4-day affair with drafting boards, trace paper, etc.  You took it in mid-June (often your summer “vacation” for the year) or waited until next year.   Jumping fully onto the tech bandwagon, the test has long ago moved to a computer administered affair, with the execution of the test being farmed out to a testing vendor, Prometric.  Naturally, the exam now costs significantly more than it used to.  In addition, you can now take different parts of the exam whenever you want simply by scheduling online.  This seeming convenience may only allow you to continually put off taking the test as opposed to the absolute test-taking deadline of years past.

The result of all of this:  the time it takes interns to become fully licensed architects has increased dramatically. The chart below is put together by Matthew Arnold based on his research and that of Prof. Roderick Knox, both of the Cooper Union.

NCARB, who runs the whole IDP process, gives stats on pass rates of each of the sections of the ARE as well as by the school of the test taker.  However, these stats only go back 5 years or so, all still within the period of for-profit vendor usage and computer administered testing.  Even though their web pages are chock full of info, there appears to be no discussion of why the test taking has dropped off so dramatically.

What does this all mean?  Well, after the last two years, jobs for interns are hard to come by.  Varied experience in required IDP divisions is even more difficult to obtain.  The downward sweep of these curves is bound to continue if not increase.  You might like to use the IDP requirements and crappy economy to limit the number of architects, but it is ridiculous that the average span of internship is approaching 10 years.  The actual number of architects is not decreasing, just the number of interns sitting in limbo along the way.  These interns still work offices, still design buildings, still do most of the heavy lifting of our increasingly complex building modeling and systems documentation requirements for permits, building performance, etc.  I know “interns” for whom the 10 year average duration has long since past and they are some of the best “architects” I know.

Are we educating too many architect wanna-bees?  Maybe so, but to have architecture offices all over the country filling up with increasingly bitter, disaffected interns is surely not a good environment for making buildings.  Most interns I know love making architecture and are willing to put up with the low pay and hassle of the IDPs, AREs, NCARBs and by association AIA.  But what a sad state of affairs this has all become.

I get lots of resumes from interns looking for a foot in door, to at least start or continue this long duration.  I don’t want an office chock-full of employees – I would rather spend my time designing than managing folks.  Been there, done that. I feel a bit guilty about this – not being willing to spend lots of time developing young architects.  But not too much. When architectural fees increase I will pick up employees and do my part.  I am at least sympathetic to their plight, a road to licensure much more fraught with difficulties, consuming greater time and cash than I ever had to put out.

What will the profession look like in another 10 years when the only “architects” around will be the ones that persevered not necessarily the rigors of architecture school or the drafting room, but the IDP time documentation, record keeping, test scheduling and exam preparation.  Maybe this all makes sense for the new profile of the task of an architet – submitting for building permits still requires some drawings but increasingly is dominated by submitted reports, forms, and supporting documentation.  I am not sure Palladio would recognize us at all.

(Update:  the IDP just passed a new rule such that all hours logged by an intern must be submitted in periods no longer than 6 months and within2 months of completion.  Yet another speedbump along the already circuitous and pot-holed path to registration. In that your boss has to certify this stuff is a great way to keep a thumb pressed down hard on the capital-labor relationship)

(there is also a discussion of this on Burning Down the House – Radio Architecture, June 23, 2010 show, hosted by Curtis Wayne)

"Architects" and professional registration

Most people, and certainly all architects, know that in order to call yourself an “architect”, you must be licensed to practice in your state.  For all the states that test consists largely of the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE).  So, even though Gorbachev was the “architect” of perestroika and there are a plethora of information “architects” and systems “architects”, in fact only test-passing, actual building-making experienced folks can legally call themselves “architects”.  In a profession with significantly lower financial compensation than so many of its professional counterparts, exclusive use of the moniker “architect” is the only bone we get.

Taking the ARE requires that to be even eligible to sit for the exam you must have logged at least 3 years worth of experience working for a licensed architect.  During this time you are an “intern”.  Back in my day during this 3 year limbo status you simply worked on whatever your boss-architect gave you to work on, whether that was drawings, specifications, construction issues, etc.  Since then and for many, many years now the 3-year rule has been institutionalized into the Intern Development Program (IDP) and the 3-year period has been translated into a series of required hourly categories to be completed.  So, you have to spend 2800 hours in Design and Construction Documents, 560 hours in Construction Contract Administration, on so forth for a total of 5600 hours of logged time.  If your boss doesn’t give you this experience, in this variety of fields, you either have to find another job or continually wait until 3 years turns into 5 or 7 or 9.  The content of the test is certainly worthy of discussion, but what I am really more concerned about is the amount of time that it is taking interns to become architects.

(By way of comparison, to become an attorney and hold some sway over life and death issues, you can take the Bar exam three months out of law school, test cost: $500.  To become an architect, you need at least three years of working experience and between the IDP costs and ARE costs: approx. $2,000.)

To add fuel to the duration fire, back in ye olden days, when I took the registration exam, it was offered only once per year, a grueling 4-day affair with drafting boards, trace paper, etc.  You took it in mid-June (often your summer “vacation” for the year) or waited until next year.   Jumping fully onto the tech bandwagon, the test has long ago moved to a computer administered affair, with the execution of the test being farmed out to a testing vendor, Prometric.  Naturally, the exam now costs significantly more than it used to.  In addition, you can now take different parts of the exam whenever you want simply by scheduling online.  This seeming convenience may only allow you to continually put off taking the test as opposed to the absolute test-taking deadline of years past.

The result of all of this:  the time it takes interns to become fully licensed architects has increased dramatically. The chart below is put together by Matthew Arnold based on his research and that of Prof. Roderick Knox, both of the Cooper Union.

NCARB, who runs the whole IDP process, gives stats on pass rates of each of the sections of the ARE as well as by the school of the test taker.  However, these stats only go back 5 years or so, all still within the period of for-profit vendor usage and computer administered testing.  Even though their web pages are chock full of info, there appears to be no discussion of why the test taking has dropped off so dramatically.

What does this all mean?  Well, after the last two years, jobs for interns are hard to come by.  Varied experience in required IDP divisions is even more difficult to obtain.  The downward sweep of these curves is bound to continue if not increase.  You might like to use the IDP requirements and crappy economy to limit the number of architects, but it is ridiculous that the average span of internship is approaching 10 years.  The actual number of architects is not decreasing, just the number of interns sitting in limbo along the way.  These interns still work offices, still design buildings, still do most of the heavy lifting of our increasingly complex building modeling and systems documentation requirements for permits, building performance, etc.  I know “interns” for whom the 10 year average duration has long since past and they are some of the best “architects” I know.

Are we educating too many architect wanna-bees?  Maybe so, but to have architecture offices all over the country filling up with increasingly bitter, disaffected interns is surely not a good environment for making buildings.  Most interns I know love making architecture and are willing to put up with the low pay and hassle of the IDPs, AREs, NCARBs and by association AIA.  But what a sad state of affairs this has all become.

I get lots of resumes from interns looking for a foot in door, to at least start or continue this long duration.  I don’t want an office chock-full of employees – I would rather spend my time designing than managing folks.  Been there, done that. I feel a bit guilty about this – not being willing to spend lots of time developing young architects.  But not too much. When architectural fees increase I will pick up employees and do my part.  I am at least sympathetic to their plight, a road to licensure much more fraught with difficulties, consuming greater time and cash than I ever had to put out.

What will the profession look like in another 10 years when the only “architects” around will be the ones that persevered not necessarily the rigors of architecture school or the drafting room, but the IDP time documentation, record keeping, test scheduling and exam preparation.  Maybe this all makes sense for the new profile of the task of an architet – submitting for building permits still requires some drawings but increasingly is dominated by submitted reports, forms, and supporting documentation.  I am not sure Palladio would recognize us at all.

(Update:  the IDP just passed a new rule such that all hours logged by an intern must be submitted in periods no longer than 6 months and within2 months of completion.  Yet another speedbump along the already circuitous and pot-holed path to registration. In that your boss has to certify this stuff is a great way to keep a thumb pressed down hard on the capital-labor relationship)

(there is also a discussion of this on Burning Down the House – Radio Architecture, June 23, 2010 show, hosted by Curtis Wayne)

architectural photography and experience

Great photography makes great buildings. We have all had the experience of visiting a project often viewed via photographs only to find the actual building a bit of a disappointment.  Architectural photography is stunningly reductive in its depictions, rendering complex spatial relationships as simplistic single-point perspectives.  It can also isolate a beautiful view or picturesque vista and ignore the crappy architecture that surrounds it.  On rare occasions and in the hands of a real artist and professional, it can reveal truths about the building that not even the architect knew.  Julius Shulman’s photos of California modernist houses didn’t just nicely depict the emergent architecture, but helped to define the culture of a place and time.

Kaufman House, by Richard Neutra, as photographed by Julius Shulman

I have worked on two houses that seem to defy photography.  One was so nicely buried in a forest that you couldn’t see the house without so many intervening branches, leaves and boughs that the building was almost invisible.  Clearly a success in trying to integrate the building with the trees, but not so good for the portfolio. The Sunshine Canyon house that I have often posted about is equally frustrating.  So much of the design was intended to diminish the scale of the house and weave its various levels amidst the steeply sloping boulder field that an overall view of the house is only possible from a great distance.  I have recently been out there taking some snapshots and I keep finding that the images are meager in their ability to explain the house on a purely visual level.   This project, more than others, was intended to be a sequence of spaces and views that slowly revealed themselves, one at a time, with only hints and allusions to the overall construction. So, what I am left with are some nice photos of pieces of the building.  A few from the northeast showing how the living/dining room wing is a multi-layered space of enclosure, roof and walls.  Another from the southeast showing a similar variant of concentric spaces.  Or a courtyard view clearly showing how much of the building can not be seen upon arrival. The final result is not surprising, as I have often written here about architecture’s nature as a 3- or 4-dimensional medium.  The phenomenological experience of the house is one of slow exposition, not the picturesque.  It is of a material and spatial richness that defies the solely visual aspects of photography.  Not to mention that I am no Julius Shulman.

architectural typologies

the properous
Frank Lloyd Wright, H H Richardson, Bernard Maybeck

“I am clearly affable, touched with genius, and we will let you know when we have completed our design for your house”

the earnest
Alvar Aalto, Stanford White, Walter Netsch

“With 20 centuries of architectural history weighing us down, we will be very responsible in spending your millions”

the artist
C R Mackintosh, Rudolf Schindler, Charles and Ray Eames

“You love me,… yes, yes, I thought so.  Don’t talk to me of money or schedule, let us celebrate life (with your project)”

see also:

http://www.pritzkerprize.com/laureates/index.html