Rick Hauser is a co-founder and principal of In.Site:Architecture, in Perry NY.
To debate exclusively the role of specialization versus generalization in architecture and education marginalizes other practice paradigms that do not fit so snugly into either category. The “specialist” is still a generalist navigating the project through rough seas with a crew of even more specialized consultants. Likewise the generalist at his best has a specialized knowledge of a process and approach to design.
In academic discourse and education, what gets lost is an altogether different divide – the socio-geographic divide. That is, there are those centers of fashion that tend to generate the high profile, high-budget, high design models of practice. And there are those of us who are “out there”. The challenges and limitations of architectural practice in these forgotten outlying spheres are unique. As a result, so are the opportunities. This sub-category of “generalist” deserves a title and some column width. We will call him the frontier architect.
In these borderland territories for architectural inventiveness, the pioneer realizes that the paradigms for practice proffered in school are irrelevant. While an intense design education provides this frontier architect with a methodology for approaching a wide array of projects, he finds he must look elsewhere for guidance on how to apply these principles. He can’t use the stars to guide him, for the star architects who make up the constellation of popular architectural discourse typically operate as specialists or elite generalists.
Unlike Metropolis-based relatives who must compete with numerous neighboring architectural ateliers for recognition and reputation, the frontier architect ranges in wide open spaces that encompass 20,000 square miles or more. He roams his territories rounding up the elusive like-minded patron, while recruiting a larger number of good-hearted clients who can be encouraged to suit up for some architectural adventure.
CHALLENGE AND OPPORTUNITY
The frontier architect has unique challenges within this context. As a pioneer he encounters a rough terrain that has not been tamed by others; its cultivated landscape is not immediately receptive to the seeds of architectural ingenuity. Furthermore, his language is not spoken. Academia typically has not exposed students to this model of practice. As a result many intern pioneers gradually assimilate completely into the predominantly conservative architectural culture. But while the frontier architect must acquire a new language and master a new terrain, he is learning it in order to understand its essential nature. A progressive practice can now grow – in local soil – from the ground up.
Highly constrained budgets are another universal challenge for which the frontier architect may not be prepared. With good reason, studio professors often take budget out of the design equation in order to help focus students on more “basic” issues. In practice of course, budget is always an issue. In the wilderness, it is always THE issue. The frontier architect must therefore deconstruct and rebuild his design sensibilities integrating the new variable. The constraints imposed by budget become the inspiration for creative use of mundane materials for inventiveness utilizing accepted construction practices, for prioritizing and culling programmatic requirements.
THE MASTER BUILDER
One challenge faced by the frontier architect to a greater degree than his urbane cousin will be a lack of interested or capable builders. The traditional model of design – bid – build puts frontier architects and skeptical contractors in opposition. Builders cast a suspicious eye on “unusual, hyper-detailed” working drawings. They decline to bid or they pad their bid. Or they bypass the bid and instead advise the owner on how to save money.
The frontier architect therefore recognizes at the outset, or soon after, that self reliance is the best way to assure that intentions are carried out. Design-build in which the architect also coordinates and participates in the construction – expands the very definition of “generalist”. In this the trend is moving in exact counterpoint to specialization. Architects in diverse territories “out there” like Brian Mackay-Lyons in Nova Scotia, Marlon Blackwell in Arkansas, Dan Rockhill in Kansas, and Rick Joy in Arizona have all recognized the necessity of taking the reins in the construction process.
While the “master builder” model may be either obsolete or unattainable, the spirit of self-reliance is strongest on the frontier. The architect has both the opportunity and the incentive to get involved in all stages from inception through construction. In fact, the frontier architect may find that true control of his own destiny can only result from being his own client, as well as his own builder.
In fact, design-build is a growing sector. Not only is the market becoming increasingly receptive and state legislation becoming increasingly accommodating, but the frontier client, basing her professional relationships on trust more than any other single factor, often prefers the simplicity of the arrangement. As a frontier architect, I neither dismiss nor embrace specialization in architecture. Architecture as a profession is sufficiently broad to absorb the “specialized project manager” as a response to certain increasingly sophisticated kinds of building projects and market trends; while the “generalist” flourishes in direct opposition yet in response to those same trends.
Architectural education must continue to turn out designers. It must continue to provide a grounded education that will be adaptable to different professional specialties and geographies. I believe architectural education is doing a lot right, but it must also convey to students the breadth of professional settings and opportunities, while offering to prepare students for different paradigms of practice.