Note: This is the first in a series of posts by Portland Architecture guest blogger Corbin Keech. Over three posts, Corbin will be looking at how the recession has affected recent architecture school graduates. We hope to continue guests posts by Corbin from time to time after that. Corbin received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Kansas State University in 2006, and worked for the past two and a half years at ZGF Architects. He now provides contract design work for several architecture, urban design and planning companies in Portland.
The pursuit of professional satisfaction is indeed a grueling journey. We as architects are in continual pursuit of fulfilling our respective visions of a better built environment. Drunk on idealism, we conceive of a moment where we have created something both heroic and meaningful.
But in this Great Recession, where the work is unstable, the budget lower, and the client more risk-averse, is it justifiable to choose a professional path that conflicts with or is divergent from one’s educational background? This is a question that architects, both young and old, have been struggling with.
Personally speaking, it now seems inconceivable to pursue anything besides architecture. Architecture school isn’t exactly liberal arts, so what other jobs am I (or we) prepared to handle? If three years of intense professional apprenticeship, stacked atop five years of rigorous undergraduate study and overworking one’s self at the expense of health and personal relationships isn’t proof of commitment to this profession, then what is? Needless to say, the impetus for me to change direction must be, at a minimum, gargantuan.
Oddly enough, several of my friends don’t feel quite the same sense of reckless devotion. Maybe they know something we don’t.
Kari Merkl, Naomi Cole, Eden Brukman and Ken Tomita courageously chose to explore other options, and have succeeded thus far in fulfilling their respective visions. Diverse in scale, professional background as well as style, they are nonetheless united by their bravery, and have wholly embraced the unease inherent to the unfamiliar.
“I can’t imagine studying anything else in school,” says Kari Merkl, an industrial designer in Portland who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Despite the fact she had always imagined herself as an architect, she eventually moved into industrial design because of a desire to more clearly understand materials and construction methods she had been exposed to while in school and architectural internships. (Her work is pictured in these two images.)
“I loved the scale of the work, but I wanted to know how to build something on my own,” says Kari, describing her experience at a design-build office in Denver shortly following graduation. Here, she was simultaneously thrilled by the notion of the architect working directly with the contractor and disillusioned by the frequent disconnect between the two. “I wanted to be able to approach the contractors with real knowledge of construction.”
This led to her current position as a self-employed designer who is sustained by the tangibility of her work. Six years ago she started her company, Merkled, and like many practicing architects, her desire to craft beautiful objects grew out of a genuine curiosity to understand materials. While architects are encouraged to possess a similar understanding and willingness to experiment with what they are designing, she says “It is significantly more fulfilling for me to understand the fabrication process when designing.”
Above all, Kari’s relationship with architecture is one of respect and gratitude. She is a better designer, fabricator, and individual because of the challenges and intellectual rigor inherent to architectural school. “Architecture has informed how I look at everything. Without my architectural experience and education, I would not approach my work the way I do.”
Kari’s story is compelling in large part because it suggests that the skills architects commonly possess - discipline, thoughtfulness, expressiveness, etc. - are indeed applicable elsewhere. Taken further, if we do not attempt to understand this for ourselves, we are only limiting our own potential as designers.
Which begs a serious question; given the limited time and space of architecture school, is it more critical we are prepared to be curious, assertive and creative individuals, but not necessarily well-conditioned architects? More broadly, is the source of the “architect’s disillusionment” a lack of preparation?
It goes without saying that professional dissatisfaction is universal. Corporate law can be just as frustrating as corporate architecture. However, within the context of constructing buildings, writing policy, envisioning future urban growth, etc. we often wait years to see our ideas materialize, thus leading to a proportional amount of disappointment and frustration. While this isn’t the primary explanation for architects leaving architecture, it certainly plays a significant role.
Naturally, as I explored this issue further, contributing factors revealed themselves elsewhere; regional characteristics, personal lives, and even the idiosyncrasies of the city itself. In talking to Naomi Cole (the subject of Part 2's post), I began to more fully understand the role of Portland in this discussion as well as her own professional decisions.