Just How Essential Are Architects These Days?
Are architecture and construction essential industries? That very question is up for debate right now by cities and states across the US due to shelter-in-place orders that are temporarily shutting down all but essential businesses. And depending on where you conduct your business from, the answers can vary widely, with some cities shutting down almost all construction sites and others not limiting any work at all.
Isn’t shelter a basic human need? Isn’t safe housing at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Why isn’t the determination for architecture and construction as straightforward as the essentiality of healthcare and access to groceries, liquor, and even guns?
While the answer to this is litigiously complex, there are basic truths about architecture and construction that are quite clear. Architects have greatly shifted from designing for the essential physical needs of our communities to primarily catering to the desires of the rich and privileged.
Simply put, architecture is for the rich. Furthermore, the construction industry is inextricably connected to the capitalist goals of private developers, which prioritizes creating buildings for profit over people and contributes to the exploitation of lower-class and immigrant workers.
As the global economy transitions into what is likely the next recession, it is imperative that we confront why we design and build this way, who’s benefiting and who’s hurting from things operating as is, and how we can shift architecture and construction to fully contribute to meeting the essential needs of our communities. We must acknowledge that as a whole the majority of buildings do not meet these needs and the role that architects play is mostly complicit and at times actively contributing to the injustices manifested in the built environment.
Imagine what it would look like if we designed and built for the essential needs of our communities: we would have more dignified housing for the homeless, an abundance of diverse gathering places including those for minority and LGBTQIA+ communities, and ubiquitous affordable housing instead of second and third homes for the selfishly wealthy.
While these problems are more complex than the architecture and construction industries alone can fix, we can choose to be part of collectively addressing these issues and lead us toward building a more equitable future. Let’s see this as an opportunity to refocus our professions on serving the essential needs of our communities and take responsibility for truly protecting the health, safety and welfare of the entire public, not just those who can afford our services.