Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An open letter to present and soon-to-be architectural interns

It sucks out here right now.  I wish I had better news for you all, but I don’t.  Not yet anyway.  Unemployment is at a 20-year or 25-year high (depending on who you talk to), and even companies in all fields that usually do well or have a long history of weathering financial storms and crises are either super-downsizing or flat-out going out of business.  Even the firm at which I’ve been working for nearly nine years, a firm that I have seen weather some bad times, cut 40% of its workforce in 2008 and even some more folks have been laid off in 2009.  Some smaller design firms in my area have completely closed.

            Some of you reading this are just out of architecture school, some are a few years out, and some are a few months away from getting out.  Some of you still have jobs.  Some of you still barely have jobs, and some of you—I wager many of you—have been laid off, or have no idea how to get a job once you’re done with school in a few months.  Those of you who cannot presently find employment in the field for which you’ve worked so hard and studied so long, over which you’ve sweated bullets over and for which you bled on models, perhaps you’ve found some way of making a living.  Perhaps you’re waiting tables, tuning skis and snowboards, or doing a little freelance work here and there with 3D modeling and computer drafting while you’ve moved back in with your parents. 

            Perhaps you’re feeling demoralized and unsure and anxious.  And perhaps you’re even pissed.  You’re pissed that you’ve spent so much time and money on a profession that you can’t even practice.  Those of you with jobs in your field may be pissed in a different way.  Not only are you worried about your job security and your financial future, but perhaps you’re also worried about your professional future—what is this economy going to do to your chances of learning more about architecture, getting your IDP credits, and getting licensed?  You can’t earn credits if you’re not working on projects, so how much longer is this downturn adding to what is already an arduous, Sisyphan task at best and professional hazing at worst?  What’s the point, really?  You could just go get your real estate license and flip a few foreclosed houses, maybe, or just go back and get your MBA instead of your M.Arch and make a crapload more when things get better in a year…or longer.  You could just go.  To hell with architecture; this is stupid, and you’ve had enough.

            But I’m asking you, begging you: please don’t go.

            Please don’t abandon this profession, not just yet.  Not until you’ve seen the good times, too.  Not until you’ve worked all the way through a project from conceptual design into construction administration and have seen what you draw become reality and learn from it, both the good and bad details.  Please don’t leave until you’ve walked through your building at the ribbon cutting ceremony and watched people’s faces light up when they see what you’ve done with color and shape and light and form and void and precision and psychology and sound and care.  Please don’t leave until you’ve seen all this profession has to offer you.  And most importantly, please don’t leave until you’ve been in the profession long enough to make a difference in it.  Long enough to change someone’s mind about how all these kids are no damn good, how they just want their iPods and nice cars and want everything handed to them on a silver platter.

            Architecture needs you.  For every cranky seasoned architect flipping through shop drawings and steaming about the contractor nickel-and-diming his client on change orders, we need one, if not two of you newer professionals sketching fantastic and interesting flights of fancy, brainstorming not on what’s been done before but on what can be done.  We need you to come in with the fresh ideas in your head, both from research you’ve done as well as read. We need you to come in each morning feeling and acting like whatever you draw that day on the latest drafting and modeling software is going to make a difference to someone. 

            Speaking of software, architecture needs to you to bring your comfort with technology to the workplace; we need people to draw and model in Revit and the rest of its ilk with an ease, not fear.  We need that comfort so we can all get on with designing and documenting buildings in a way that makes them beautiful to see, elegant to use, and easier on the contractor to build.  We need you to help us understand what you’re doing and how it works so we can stop feeling old and cranky, because we remember ever-so-faintly that we didn’t always feel this way, this jaded.

            Most of all, interns, architecture needs to you to change it.  We know you watched your parents miss school plays and soccer games because they were working 50-hour and 60-hour weeks, and while you knew they were trying to protect you from financial injustice and disadvantages, you just wanted their time and their eyes on you; you wanted them to really see you and to see the things that matter.  We know a whole lot of you aren’t into those same over-long workweeks with the overwork.  You can see ways of making things work faster and easier, things that will save us time and money.  You see new technology and new ways of working that will allow us all to go home and have lives.  And frankly speaking, the old white guys that own this profession right now are eventually going to retire or die, and we need good sharp people with a reasonable outlook on the workplace and at least one foot pointed toward the future to step up and help lead, push, drag this profession kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Your vision can change this profession and make it less stuffy and more accessible and interesting to the rest of the world. 

            But you can’t change architecture unless you’re in it.  So stay.  I know with the economy right now that some of you have to work in other fields, but when the work comes back we need you back here with us.  We need your enthusiasm, your energy, your problem-solving, your know-how, your skills, and your vision.  We need you to stay.  I need you to stay.  Please believe me—as someone who nearly quit the field six years ago, staying is worth it.


  1. Lulu -

    I love the insight you provide on the mysteries of this profession - as someone that has worked as an intern (part time and full time) for 3 years. I never knew most of the stuff you've unraveled in just the first 3 entries. Keep it up - we need more of this "lifting the veil".

  2. I really appreciate your insight as I am a new intern. It seems to be a difficult transition from school to practice. I have only been here 4 months, and I have often wanted to quit. You say staying is worth it. What made it worth staying?