Architectural Blatherations

Is Architecture in Decline?

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The Good Oil

We think that the occupation of architecture is facing a very difficult time in the English-speaking world. Why do we say 'English-speaking'? Because the architecture profession is so different in non-English-speaking countries, that there is simply no comparison; just as the village Nigerian traditional healer has no relation to a Hong Kong brain surgeon, though they may both call themselves 'doctor'. But to continue....

Changes in the occupation

The ANZAC/British/North American architecture profession is not in the best of shape. This is no mere economic hiccough: it is a fundamental structural change. There are two effects operating (oh us, this is the sociologist talking!). First, there is a replacement effect. Things that architects did thirty years ago, they no longer do. Like manage big contracts for construction. A whole bunch of new occupations have been created to do that, such as 'project managers'. True, some of these people have architecture degrees, but a lot do not.

Second, there is a substitution effect. Whenever something new has happened in the construction industry, the architects have decided 'it wasn't for them'. Here is one example: security. Thirty years ago, 'security' meant the locks that the architect said had to go on the doors. The architect was in complete charge of this, choosing appropriate items from catalogues. As you probably know, today 'security' means cameras, photo IDs, swipe cards, lift (elevator) control, and goodness knows what else. That is in the hands of specialist consultants. The specialist tells the architect what can be done, not the other way around.

The shrinkage in the architecture magazines

Here are a few indicators of the decline of the occupation. Let's take a look at the world's best weekly architectural journal, the Architects' Journal, known fondly as the AJ. This is a British journal that even the American architecture schools collect. Bristling with not only great technical stuff, but also industry gossip, plus some of the high-art fluff some like. A wonderful collection. When Dr Garry was a student, he worshipped the AJ.

We did a bit of investigating. In 1989 AJ published about 6,000 (six thousand) pages each year. In 1999 it published 3,200. That's a 45% drop. Holy dog-doo, Batman! Sure, a lot was advertising, but in a sense that is the point: when sellers decide you are too poor to sell to, you might as well pack your bags and migrate to Albania (no offence to all my Albanian readers, we am sure).

Second, let's take a look closer to Dr Garry's home, by seeing what Architecture Australia has been doing the past decade or so. This is the organ of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA). Like the AJ, Architecture Australia has published less and less as time has gone on. In 1988 this journal published nine issues with a total of 1,220 pages. Ten years later, it only published six issues with a total of 558 pages. Again, a huge 54% fall.

All this happened a full decade before the decline of print journalism in the face of online sites.

Progressive Architecture
Progressive Architecture in its last days.

We'll finish by noting some North American indicators. The Canadian Architect fell from printing 752 pages in 1989 to printing 597 in 1999, a more modest 20% decline, but a decline nonetheless.

The situation in the United States is a little more complicated. In the late 1980's the Big Three of architectural journalism were Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, and Architecture. Of these, only PA had any guts. The rest were surrogates of the American Institute of Architects, and publishers who wanted to sell, sell, sell. After a series of genuinely thoughtful, critical pieces, PA folded. If we include the extinction of PA, then US architectural journalism has declined by about 30% in the past decade. You can read more about this phenomenon in this November 2006 article in Slate.com, by their excellent architectural commentator Witold Rybczynski.

The decline in architectural employment

The case of California

We are in the process of examining architectural employment and incomes in the United States as a whole, but for the moment we have some interesting data from California, obtained from the Fall 2000 Newsletter of the California Architects Board.

In 1989, the figures show, 15,248 people sat for one or more portions of the Architects Registration Examination in California. In 1999, only 3,720 did. In 1989, some 1,339 initial licenses to practice were issued. Ten years later only 362 were.

The case of Australia

Now for some figures from Dr Garry's own Australia. In every country, employment in architecture depends very much on the business cycle. This has always been a leading indicator of economic health. Since architects are engaged months or years before construction takes place, measuring employment in architectural offices gives you a good way of predicting what is happening in the construction sector of the economy. Since construction is so large a part of any industrial economy, this also gives you an excellent leading indicator about what else is happening.

What has us spooked is that, since 1989, employment in Aussie architecture firms has fallen by 20%. Whoa! Full details can be found courtesy of research published on the Royal Australian Institute of Architect's website (nice to see the RAIA does at least one useful thing). If the number of architects had grown as the rest of Australia's workforce, we should have about 15% more architects, not 20% fewer.

Has anyone else noticed this?

Surely these are significant developments in the status of the architecture profession. If the data is as we interpret it, then the architects' associations should be showing some concern. We've sent a few emails asking various august bodies about their opinions on this matter, but almost no responses. Either no one else has noticed; or no one else cares.