(First published in The Globe & Mail)
I almost bought Arthur Erickson’s drafting table once. And had I foreseen the pre-eminent Canadian architect’s fall from financial grace, I likely would have tried a little harder to get it. It could have become a collector’s item.
But that was in 1989, when his firm first found itself in a publicized money squeeze and initiated the auction of the machinery of its Toronto office. Now, in the wintry months of the Great Recession, as I read about the collapse of Erickson’s Los Angeles operation, used drafting tables (both blessed and commonplace), are a dime a dozen, and this time it has little to do with big money bungling or computer-aided drafting.
These are hard times for architects and their allied professionals. In our present economy, architects are rather like canaries in coal mines: we are the first casualties of the deadly things coming down the dark tunnel of financial atrophy.
Ours is a small profession; few people have ever hired an architect, and even fewer understand exactly what we do, yet a savvy analyst would do well to look at our fortunes – truly we are a bellwether indicator of the first magnitude.
Architectural projects are often the first items slashed from a hurting corporation’s plans; this is no time for expansion, goes the boardroom logic, let alone for an expansion of the steel-and-glass, bricks-and-mortar kind. Governments, ever wary of public opinion and looming deficits, slash new building projects left and right. Unemployed two-by-fours don’t yet have a union or the vote.
It’s little wonder that the Queen scratched London’s plans to build a $4-million monument marking her 40th year as monarch. While a generation of British workers face the dismal prospect of lifelong unemployment, another showy building project would have been a public excess the royal conscience could not have abided.
Canada’s own financial royalty find themselves in an even more frightful predicament: the monuments to their reign have already been built. Beacon-like, they stand four-square in the centres of our large cities, beached whales with skins of mirrored glass, half empty and losing tenants every day.
Our suburbs are overmalled, our small towns bloated with new shopping plazas devoid of tenants. Our commercial landscape is overbuilt and underused and the effects of the situation are starting to settle in.
Recently, a talented but newly unemployed colleague joined the job hunt. “Every third or fourth firm I called on had either folded or was down-sizing,” he told me with resignation. “The building commissions aren’t out there in the numbers they were just three years ago.”
His lament is echoed by a large segment of the design profession, people who catered only too willingly to wealthy clients during the good times. They left in the shadows many of the less glamourous but important areas of design, such as residential upgrading, affordable housing and environmental design. Firms upgraded, computerized and expanded, hoping that the boom would go on forever.
But this is what much modern architectural work has become: an essentially capitalistic endeavour, driven by clients who often have the bottom line as the keystone of their design criteria. Much of what is built in our cities today is viewed as little more than product; resale value, snob appeal and trendy pastiche often matter more than true architectural quality. The play of light, the scale of detail and the grace of plan are nice ideas but hard to value. Where, asks the client, is the glitter?
Big-time architecture has become a profession understandably tied to the roller-coaster fluctuations of the financial world, where bigger is better and success is daily measured in sheer volume.
Small firms have traditionally taken the bite-sized leftovers, and in the heady boom days of the mid-eighties, the left-overs were choice pickings indeed. Now, however, I hear designers talking about surviving not on leftovers, but on crumbs.
Interesting residential commissions are becoming few and far between, and design magazines are sprinkled with doom-sayers who lament the passing of the glory days of unlimited budgets and grand expansion. “We’ve come to the point where we’ll even design additions, garages, back porches and little houses,” they say, and the implication is that these crumbs of structure are not really the stuff of design at all.
And yet they are. When I was a student, the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger once told my class that designing a good chair is more difficult than designing a good office building: that the distilled and particular pieces of structure that touch us in an everyday way are where the real skills of the designer shine.
If more architects, designers and planners were to take this notion up as a challenge, then the lean times of this present recession could yet become a time to hone skills and focus on the rudiments of good design, not of monuments to the Queen’s reign perhaps, but of finely built two-car garages. Perhaps we could start to look around us with eyes no longer blinkered by the shiny and new and see that much of our housing stock needs sensitive rejuvenation. The careful recycling of the existing built environment will have to take precedence; a walk through the core of almost any urban centre will make this abundantly clear. There is a role for the trained eye and sure hand of the designer in all this.
Gaudy pastiche could give way to crafted practicality, and we could all re-learn once again just what a thing of beauty a truly elegant little house really can be.
The Globe & Mail, February 24, 1992