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Contributed by:
Keith Owens

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Architecture: Profession, Playground, or Launchpad?

What do Ben Clark (mountaineer and filmmaker), Jaime Lerner (mayor of Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, Brazil), and Richard Saul Wurman (graphic designer and co-founder of the TED conferences) all have in common? All share backgrounds in architecture, either through its study or practice, or both. They also represent the thousands who have found success in novel practice or new endeavors because of their malleable architectural sensibilities.

These career transformations are not entirely surprising in today’s job market. Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the average worker changes jobs 10.5 times in his or her lifetime. Nonetheless, the fact that architects, young and old, seek opportunities outside or alongside a discipline so difficult to enter is worth exploring.

Much like law and medicine, architecture draws a bright line separating the profession from others. This demarcation is compelled by the rigor necessary to complete an architectural education, the effort required to instill professional studio practice in new initiates, and the economic franchise awarded to practitioners who manage risk through licensure. These pragmatic realities also play out within a community of practice that has a rich history of theoretical and reflexive disciplinary understandings of self. The seemingly closed and homogenous nature of architecture sometimes clouds the fact that many practitioners―as well as those educated in architectural practice―often engage in other diverse callings.

Extending Practice: From Within and Alongside

Any visit to a Target store can quickly provide examples of how an architect has brought thoughtful, whimsical design to the general public. Since 1996, Michael Graves, FAIA, has filled Target’s shelves with everything from toasters to toilet brushes. The relationship grew out of Grave’s innovative solution to the scaffolding for the Washington Monument restoration that Target had agreed to underwrite. The project’s success transformed a traditional architectural relationship into an innovative design partnership that yielded over 800 products for the company. This collaboration represents how an architect expanded his studio practice to encompass not just architectural design but design proper.

In a similar internal extension of field practice, but with much different results, Jonathan Segal, FAIA, approaches architecture as a holistic endeavor. He successfully functions as a licensed architect, a developer, a builder, an interior designer, a landscape designer, and a property manager. Segal has designed, built, and managed some 15 projects that have contributed in significant ways to San Diego’s urban renaissance. Interestingly, Segal has taken a ”both/and” rather than an ‘“either/or” approach to studio practice. He is willing to accept not only the practice risk commonly associated with authorizing construction documents, but also the market risk that comes with land acquisition, real estate funding, and ongoing rental property ownership. Segal eliminates the client and contributes to urban San Diego by “self-authoring” one building at a time.

If architects Graves and Segal explore alternatives to traditional studio practice from within, interior architect and industrial designer Karim Rashid captures architectural tenets while working alongside the discipline. His eclectic design portfolio includes the waste cans, chairs, manhole covers, and even a perfume bottle for Kenzo. In 2012, Rashid collaborated with Danish furniture manufacturer BoConcept to design the Ottowa Collection, a dining room set with coordinating accessories. In small scale, Rashid extends the humanistic sensibilities embedded in architecture through objects that he says “elevate human experience” and establish meaning through “minimalist sensualism.” Rashid also represents those with architectural education or backgrounds who seek practice and career opportunities in allied fields.  

Alternative Paths: A Leap From Within to Without

While many practitioners work to expand the ambit of architectural practice from within the confines of the discipline or its allied practices, others embark on entirely new careers while remaining tethered to architecture through the disciplinary knowledge and skills they possess. These meta skills are able to travel across disciplinary boundaries and enhance professional practice regardless of the career path. Any list of these would certainly include the ability to engage with complexity across multiple dimensions; problem identification and framing; communication and collaboration; theoretical rigor; process-based working methods; and the ability to translate complex information into understandable and actionable knowledge.

Saad Chehab, the president and CEO of Chrysler Corporation, is one example of this type of leap from architecture to another profession. Born in Beirut and educated at the University of Detroit Mercy, Chehab worked at architectural firms in Detroit before joining Ford to design dealerships. In 2009, Chrysler–Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne extended a job offer to Chehab and he transitioned from designing buildings to managing car lines. It was a move that Chehab believed was a natural extension of his passion for integrating style and technology.

Another example is Joseph Kosinski, an alumnus of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and now a commercial and feature film director. Kosinski’s skills with computer graphics and imagery and his ability to engage with and visualize complexity powered his directorial debut with the Disney Digital 3-D for the science fiction film Tron: Legacy, the sequel to the original groundbreaking 1982 film, Tron.

Economic Necessity: Reluctant Entrepreneurs

There are other less lofty reasons why some architects have had to employ their knowledge and skills in novel ways. An unsettled economy has been unkind to the profession, forcing thousands of architects—aspiring and settled—out of work. According to recent Department of Labor data, employment in American architectural firms has dropped from its peak of 224,500 last July to 184,600 today. In this time of retrenchment for the sector, many who have been laid off or disillusioned about future employment are discovering new ways to either remain innovatively connected to the field or work in enterprises unrelated to it. These individuals might be characterized as reluctant entrepreneurs. A January 21 The New York Times article―“Architect, or Whatever”―introduced us to a sampling of these individuals.

One is John Morefield, a young Seattle architectural designer who lost his job in 2008. Without many contacts or a developed portfolio, Morefield took his skills to the streets—literally. He opened a booth at a local farmers’ market and began answering architectural questions for 5¢ apiece. Incredibly, Morefield netted $50,000 last year between manning his booth and managing his website ( Morefield now views this enterprise as his future career rather than a temporary way station.

Another is Natasha Case. After losing her job at Disney last year, Case began a business selling homemade ice cream novelties named for architects Frank Gehry and Mies van der Rohe. The business idea was sparked in part by a project Case undertook while studying for her master’s in architecture at the University of California. An immediate hit in the Los Angeles area, the company now has seven full- and part-time employees and fully supports Case and her business partner, Freya Estreller.

From within and without, alongside and outside, by choice or circumstance, architects and others with backgrounds in the field are continuing to redefine the profession’s practice boundaries. They transform professions and entrepreneurial enterprise by bringing to bear architectural talents and habits of mind. Out of curiosity, drive, or necessity come a rich and varied mix of creativity and innovation. 


Keith Owens is an associate professor of communication design and the design research center director in the College of Visual Arts + Design at the University of North Texas.