The Noun Crisis: Defining an Architect
Most architects can relate to the feeling of being plunged into a deep devotion towards architecture. What starts out as a dream career becomes a nightmare for many. After a rigorous education, the experience of a tumultuous career journey can dishearten professionals. Twitter threads and LinkedIn posts have widely debated topics of long work hours and disparate pay, with not many solutions. Architects are constantly at war between profession and passion, a juxtaposition of love and despair. Perhaps, at the root of these problems is the colloquial definition of the noun ‘architect’.
“Architecture is a form of labor that masquerades as a labor of love”, write architecture studio Adjustments Agency. The statement crudely reflects the reality of an architect’s professional life. Unprofessional behavior, dishonestly-written job postings, and the realization that a career in architecture requires an alarming degree of sacrifice—these are the experiences that characterize many entry- and mid-level careers in architecture. These are the experiences that have talented professionals disappointed and seeking change.
Harvard graduates Jake Rudin and Erin Pellegrino found themselves in a similar position many years ago. Having navigated through successful career paths, they soon grew interested in exploring the value of their skills outside of the architectural profession. The duo soon discovered that their knowledge made them invaluable in various roles, and started the career consulting firm Out of Architecture. Sharing the same title, their book illustrates the idea of the ‘noun crisis’ and elaborates on ways architects can leverage their design education.
The Noun Crisis
Architecture school and the profession attract a vast array of multi-disciplinary, autodidactic, and curious individuals. Through their education and experience in the industry, these multi-talented professionals are funneled into traditional means and methods of architectural practice. They are branded by the noun ‘architect’, a word that can have only one meaning – a designer of buildings.
As with any artistic endeavor, architectural education witnesses the most passionate students, pushing through long nights, and physical and mental fatigue to work on a project they love. After many years of schooling and practice, devoted architects are glued to their identity and profession. They may be unable to see alternative uses for their skills, or feel like they are indebted to the hours they poured into their ‘calling’.
Many architects prefer to have a specialized focus in their careers like sustainability analysis, design technology, or 3D visualization. Architecture firms and licensure requirements continue to force these specialists into a single ‘noun’, necessitating them to meet a strict set of qualities. Instead of letting their ascertained skills and expertise define their work, specialized professionals are homogenized in the workplace with the noun ‘architect’.
Architects seem subject to a singular lineage when their design education equips them for multiple career options ranging from tech development to fashion design to corporate consulting. The noun crisis results from the identification with an unspoken rule of what an architect should be. It arises from the fact that architects are never taught about the other ‘nouns’ they could define themselves by.
The title ‘architect’ comes with certain limitations, equally defined by the industry and the profession. There is a conventional expectation of what architects can and should do. Legal requirements around licensing and professional certification that are meant to protect the trade, only solidify the rigid definition of what an architect appears to be capable of. “It’s hard to divorce that association with what an architect does which goes beyond those responsibilities”, mentions David Zhai, Global Director of Architecture at WeWork.
“The noun crisis is an existential question for the profession as much as it is for the individual”, Pellegrino shares. Over the years, architects have lost agency in the built environment through modified structures of project contracts. One way to regain that agency is to recognize that the skillset of an architect in the past and today are different.
Defining an Architect
The flexibility of an architect’s way of thinking is less often recognized but no less valuable. With an incredibly versatile skill set that translates well into any domain, these critical thinkers are capable of solving multiple human problems. Architects are incredibly good at looking at a situation and problematizing it. Their design process is rooted in learning and relearning – whether about a site, a client, a place, materials, or even gravity. This knack for problem solving can be applied to plenty of contexts outside the built environment. Buildings do not need to be in the definition of an architect.
In a world where the buzzwords ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ are what society rewards the most, architects are trained to identify problems and strategize solutions that best suit the given context. Architects as a whole have very strong technical and creative abilities. Empathy, presentation and communication skills, systematic thinking, and visual analysis are some of their transferable professional qualities. The thought process that architects are ingrained with makes them suitable candidates for many positions outside of capital-A architecture.
Rather than reinventing the noun ‘architect’, a change in the perception around its associations can open new avenues for practicing this expertise, whether with regard to the built environment or not. Viewing an architect’s talents through the lens of interdisciplinarity opens doors of opportunities. A professional may use a varied design approach in their traditional role to differentiate themselves and produce innovative work. Alternatively, they could cross over disciplines with similar tasks to rediscover meaning and value in their careers.
Erin and Jake urge their clients to treat their career as a design problem, giving them their first opportunity to re-contextualize their acquired capabilities. “Architects are problem solvers and learners of the highest degree”, Rudin exclaims. “They are not only problem solvers but are problem seekers”, Erin follows, “I think that comes from a position of being molded as an idealist, wanting to change the world to make it better”.