No Future (god save the queen): Is architecture a viable future career path?

 I walked past the above placard the other day at my architecture school and thought; yes, that is pretty spot on. But regardless of the climate emergency, it also made me think about architectural career paths. 


There are several theories advanced about architectural career paths. The traditional career path is arguably no longer sustainable. Given the lack of industry research into career trajectories of people who have graduated as architects, the alternatives and different pathways are murky, and I suspect no-one really knows what is going in.


 After my second post-graduate degree (my first was in urban design), I was never going back to architecture. After five years or so years of practice in the Keating years, I was over it. Sure. We could have kept going but it wasn’t just that the remuneration was too low it was the fact that the other incentives and potential rewards were also few and far between.

At that point, I even struggled to get a sessional teaching job at my old architecture school. You might ask why not? (and I am sure some of you older colleagues reading this have extremely selective memories or have chosen to forget). My truth to power antics never really went down that well. It’s probably career-limiting to call out soft corruption and the inequities of provincial star-lord favouritism. Even worse to get a few petitions going. 

In any case, it was awesome to get out of the small architecture bubble I had existed in for almost twenty years. Some of my esteemed peers are still in it and have never really left it. A few have even had more predictable career paths. But, I weep for them. In contrast, my career path has been more exciting, chaotic and haphazard (I love my job). But, there was no way I was ever going to ‘selected’ to be an associate or tracked to be a principal in a big practice. 

 So what are the options for those who graduate from architecture schools in Australia? 

 Graduate, get registered and then go into practice. 

 One question: Why would you do it? Your design education probably hasn’t equipped you for business. Apart from a grab-bag of graphic skills it perhaps hasn’t provided you for branding, marketing, networking and sales—yes let’s be blunt, and use the word sales, because that’s what it is. It will probably take you maybe ten years to have sustainable cash flow business. This time might be quicker if you are smart and good at strategy, leadership, negotiations and operational tactics. The time might be faster still if you start with more than three people.

 Of course, if you want any life balance, want to have children or afford a mortgage, then it’s a tough gig. Architectural practice is about the hardest thing you will ever do, and no-one will reward you for it. 

Graduate, get registered and work in a sizeable self-sustaining office. 

 This may be a good option. Providing you don’t get typecast or stereotyped as the BIM guy or the interiors girl, model-maker or the office hipster barista. Ask if your office has a graduate program or leadership mentoring or focused in-house CPD. What about a design mentoring program for those hotshots who think they can Pinterest design as soon as they graduate.

Contract to Contract. 

If you love hanging out with recruiters and like being a kind of lone wolf expert, this might be ok. But contract work, including the expatriate kind, relies on a strong national or global economy. To do it, you will need enough experience to convince a recruiter that you have some kind of special knowledge of expertise.

 Something else. 

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Yes, not everyone who graduates from an architecture school wants to be an architect. But architects are trained in a unique way of thinking that no other discipline has. Architects can make great CEO’s general managers and policy leaders. Architects generally make better than average politicians.

The chilled options: beats, beans, beards craft beer, or furniture making.

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 A variation of the above point. 

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  Adding on some ancillary qualifications

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I know lots of great people who have gone into Project Management. But maybe we should encourage more of this. But hey, don’t we architects hate project managers? Add on another related degree like property or construction management or landscape architecture is probably a good idea. An architect with a follow on Quantity Surveying degree? Now, that would really do my head in.

 The Academia option

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The less said about this option, the better. Let’s say it’s a pathway akin to getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

The start-up option. 

 One of my favourite options. Start your own non-architectural biz, or perhaps slightly related, business from scratch. But you will need lots of help and mentoring from others to do this because what you learnt in architecture school has probably not fully prepared you for the wonderful world of start-ups.

Climate emergency activist 

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Yes !!!! We should all be this and call out the green-washers and business as usual types. 

Architecture is at a tipping point. Is it still a viable career? 

 As with recruiting procedures, the career development processes and infrastructure in architectural firms are, for the most part, pretty crap. If the Australian Institute of Architects were serious about industry reform and advancing the cause of architecture, it would get rid of the awards system. 

This move would force individual firms to get serious about their branding and marketing, break the stranglehold of the star architects and save a whole lot of money on those futile award entries.

Yes, to reiterate, one of the best things the Australian Institute of Architects could do if it were serious about inclusivity would be to scrap the awards system entirely. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? 

The award system only perpetuates the existing ecologies of privilege, mythologies and stereotypes that have been so damaging to the architectural industry. Developing the careers of young architects once they graduate should be a priority for the whole profession. Instead of spending all that money on futile award’s submissions, architects could spend it on the most critical thing in their offices: The talent.


So you think you can Design: 5 Nextgen rules for emerging designers.

If you think you can design, or think you are a designer, in this modern and contemporary Trumpian age read this. The traps you should avoid and what you should know is very different from older waves of architects. In practice and in your own career here is what I think is vital if you are to call yourself a designer. Certainly, if you are different in any way, and consider yourself to be a designer, I think it’s better to avoid putting all your energy into the traditional career pathways of architecture.

Each year you have been an architect you can multiply your age by 3-4. It’s a gruelling and demanding profession and that formula makes my architectural age a lot more than 100. Yes, in architectural age terms I am as old as Methuselah and this may be why I am both envious and in awe of newly emerging architects. Better educated, more technologically savvy and also young. Some of my much younger architectural colleagues have done things I only dreamed of doing when I graduated. I think this is because the more recent waves of architectural graduates are not paralysed by the old ways of the lone genius and the some of the moribund norms and traditions of the profession. So here is a few thoughts form my vantage point.

1. Designers don’t need  “the one” path career.

I once landed in Phoenix Arizona whilst travelling with a friend. I was meeting my Aunt and Cousin. Three minutes after we met my crazy American relatives whispered to me about my friend “Is she the ONE.” I just thought, OMG I cant believe I am actually related to these people. These days there is no “ONE” absolute career path for design architects. Maybe, there used to be a very simple career path for architects. Or it seemed that way anyway: Go to architecture school, work part-time for a few people, graduate and then get more experience, sit the accreditation exams, and then either end up in a firm or go the crash and burn option of starting your own practice and then crash and burn.

This particular career path was, I think, largely illusory. Yes, I do know people who have crawled their way up the practice ladder to become project architects, associates, associate directors and then maybe partners. It has taken some of them 25 to 30 years to do it and not everyone has the temperament to stay in the one place without going insane with boredom. Architecture takes a long time to learn but once it is learnt things can become routine and dare I say it boring. Others I know have done the hard yards in their own practices. But your own practice can take around 10 years to establish to a point where the cash flows are not volatile.

Compounding all of this is the nature of the construction industry which is based on an adversarial, project to project, and contract to contract culture. Gender discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg and there is a work life culture which is not as balanced as it should be. Career pathways are more ad hoc than planned.

So as a designer I think its best to avoid the pitfalls of putting all your energy into the traditional pathways. You need a few more career options. The might include non-standard ways to design and practice in and between academia, pro bono work, unique collaborations, competitions, as well as developing design expertise and research in a particular area.

2. Designers create new teams 

The role of the single designer who is the repository of all knowledge is a deadweight that hangs over the profession. A figurehead that everyone reports to or extracts design knowledge from. A taste-maker and arbiter.

Under the new rules new designers create teams rather than being the centre of a team. These new designers know that team diversity, collaboration and team processes are vital if they are to create design knowledge. The next generation of designers will be able to actually design and craft the teams they need for each project.

3. Designers communicate in new ways

The old school designers were not that great at communicating. Mostly they grunted a lot and said unfathomable things that sounded deep to the ears of young architects. Mostly this style of communication was to maintain and foster a kind of designer mystique or aura. There is still a bit of this about.

But in contrast contemporary designers need to communicate. They need to do this firstly with the teams that they manage. But they also need to communicate across boundaries with other disciplines and even more widely. In fact one of the key roles of the designer these days is to communicate across a range of social media channels (just like Trump and his Twitter account). Understanding these channels and doing this effectively is critical to positioning, debating and contesting design ideas in the global system that constitutes architecture.

4. Designers actively blur the boundaries 

Sitting in a Silo and pretending you are a designer doesn’t really work. Pretending you can design by, hanging out in your computer with the BIM models, the CNC machine, 3D printer or jiving with the robots, doesn’t really cut it for me. Architectural Design never was just about technical mastery. That was only part of the equation.

New designers nowadays are indeed skilled in and adept at the technological crafts. But they don’t sit in the silo of technology. They actively blur boundaries between domains of knowledge, systems and technologies; as well as theories and histories sub-cultures, groups, and teams. In fact designers are the ones shaping the boundaries between different fields of knowledge and groups.

5. Designers understand that Knowledge is the new currency

It  used to be all about the object, or materiality or presence. I would be rich if I had deposited a dollar in my Acorn’s account every time I heard the word materiality. In the 20th Century olden-times  of architecture  it was all about chasing the next big physical and large-scale commission. For many designers the physical object is where it is at. For many this remains the case.

These days I worry that this is emphasis on the object is just a little too phallocentric and limits the range of what we can do as architectural designers.

These days data, information and knowledge are the real currency of design. Designers now need to understand data analytics, advanced, diagramming mapping and coding. They need to understand these things in order to produce design knowledge and this knowledge may not necessarily be that archetypal prestigious institutional building or commission that every designer wants to design. It may also be a competition entry, a system, a strategy, a policy, a research project, a consultative process, an activist campaign and dare I say it a life.