You Can Do Better
Recently, I made an impromptu visit to Harvard to visit my old friend and long-term collaborator, Sanford Kwinter. He invited me to present to his class at the GSD, and opened it up to the broader Harvard community. We talked about the work that I am focused on these days, launching a new educational project committed to providing the tools of innovation and design thinking to the broadest, most inclusive audience possible. Our discussion was animated and exciting — because it was troublesome and even alarming to some of the students. One brave student was willing to complain out loud: “I’m not comfortable with your ‘corporatist’ language and your obsession with getting to scale. Is it really necessary?” My response was brutal: “I don’t care about your problems, because they are not real problems. They are luxury problems. You have the luxury of cynicism. The people in Malawi suffering and dying from infections that could be prevented have never heard the word ‘corporatist.’ They have real problems, and they know one thing: They need solutions now. At scale.”
The cynicism and navel-gazing that infect the field of architecture at this moment — the whining malaise and never-ending complaints of powerlessness and economic hardship and marginalization and irrelevance and on, and on, and on — set me on fire. Not because some of this is not true. Not because I don’t share the difficulties we are all grappling with of building and maintaining a business during the most challenging economic conditions in living memory. Not because I don’t appreciate and support the dreams and ambitions and authentically good citizenship that form the cultural foundation of the architectural life. I am infuriated for two reasons: First, there is simply no basis in historical fact that could possibly support a complaint about being an architect — of any kind, in any form — at this moment in history. Second, to the degree that there are problems in architectural practice in America, they are self-inflicted. Architecture is largely irrelevant to the great mass of the world’s population because architects have chosen to be.
Is it really difficult being an architect in America? It’s difficult to be a female intellectual in Kandahar. It’s difficult to raise a family living on waste products in the garbage dumps of China. It’s difficult to find your way as a child in Malawi, where the infection rate of HIV/AIDS is 17 percent, having already wiped out a generation of mothers and fathers. It’s difficult to overcome drug addiction from the quicksand of poverty and incarceration in America’s overpopulated prisons. These conditions are difficult. Being an architect is not difficult.
So, really, are we going to listen to another gripe about how difficult it is to be an architect today? No, we are not. If you are a student at Harvard, or a practicing architect, you are the privileged one percent. That’s right — one percent. I’m not talking about one percent of college graduates, but one percent of humanity. Less than one percent of the world has experienced the power of higher education. Look at what we have accomplished with less than one percent, the revolution of possibility that we have collectively created: access to food and water and healthcare and energy and knowledge and connection and mobility for billions of people. With less than one percent we have created Massive Change. Imagine if we could reach just one more percent. Imagine if two percent had access to the educational tools that we take for granted. And that is my point: Architects take for granted the extraordinary powers they have to shape the world, to create beauty, to produce wealth, to reach people with new ideas.
If you are an architect and are thinking any thought other than, “Hey, this is awesome! This is the craziest, coolest, most beautiful time in human history to be alive and working;” if you aren’t saying, “Wow! I get to constantly learn new things, and everything is uncertain. I want everyone on the planet to get in on the action and be part of this new world of invention and beauty!” — I don’t want to hear it. If you are thinking a complaint, just stop. If your thought sounds whiny or rhymes with “woe is me” or has a mildly racist undertone about people “over there” taking “our” jobs — I don’t want to hear it. If you can’t tell the difference between critical and negative, and have conflated the two and built a practice around “challenging” this or that, and are wondering why people aren’t interested — don’t come crying to me.
However, if you have woken up and realized that the internal monologue and obsession with policing the boundary of “big A” licensed Architecture means that architects could lose the thread of the most important movement in history, the movement to redesign the world and everything we do to sustainably meet the needs of the 4.5 billion children who will be born before midcentury, then do something about it. If you realize your colleagues have been so busy policing the fence of exclusivity that they forgot to open the door of possibility, then get in the game. If you understand that the practice of architecture — the practice of synthesis that generates coherent unity from massively complex and diverse inputs — just might be the operating system that we need to solve the challenges that we face in meeting the needs of the next generation, then join the movement. If you get the fact that architecture, and the design methodologies at its core, could be central to the future of cities, governments, ecologies, and businesses, then please raise your voice in the chorus of potential. Get into the discussion and leave your worries about the fence that separates you from the rest of the world behind you. Stop the complaining — and join the revolution of possibility.