The New Dilettantes
“Back in the day” when primogeniture meant that first-born male children would inherit the vast majority (if not all) of any given family’s net worth, and daughters were consigned to luring spouses through dowries, the “second born” sons (and third, fourth, fifth) often went into the ministry or tried to make a name for themselves in academia or the arts. For a couple of centuries, these second sons were often “dabblers” – having a “profession” but also having family money to fall back on. They worked to have an identity but really did not have to worry about survival.
As the saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach” but architecture, music and other fine arts were the exceptions to those rules where oftentimes the greatest producers of their craft were the great teachers of their craft: in architecture, Walter Gropius at Harvard, Paul Rudolph, Charles Moore, Caesar Pelli, and now Robert A.M. Stern at Yale and many others are examples of this.
But in the last generation, there appears to be a new paradigm that seems more akin to the “dabblers” of yore. It has become a new type of architectural “practice.” There has come to be a permanent strata of architects who dabble in building but predominantly earn their living by teaching architecture. These new practitioners seldom build but want to have the street cred of a master builder. These academicians love the title “architect” but are ambivalent about building.
Like other dilettantes, these new non-building architects are steeped in the trappings of their “careers.” To my very out-of-touch eye, name dropping, social-climbing, and cool eyeglass wearing takes up so much time and effort that creating buildable designs for clients gets lost in the sauce.
These new dilettantes do not have to earn a living by designing buildings that get built because they have a subsistence wage provided by their teaching positions (and usually not much more than that) allowing them to pay for rent, food and the occasional all-black outfit. But they can self-describe themselves to be architects because they occasionally draw up a project for a friend or relative and teach other people who also will be calling themselves architects when they graduate.
There is an added layer to this paradigm shift. As computerization pushes more and more young architects away from the craft of drawing and more and more teachers of architecture have built precious little, a surreal quality of an educational “doo loop” has come to be self-sustaining.
Not unlike other fields that spiral out from basic realities of mathematics, philosophy or economics (based on numbers, values, and commerce), the academic side of architecture has evolved to the point where the highest level of educators are executing this craft for the review (and hopefully plaudits, grants and career positions) awarded to them by others in their own field of academic architecture.
In this bizarro world of simulated reality, drawings carry the weight of building: words become exquisitely important in their dense obscurity and competitions are as important as commissions (since there are an infinite number of the former and precious few of the latter).
This paradigm may work very well for those disciplines that are predominantly conceptual – (like philosophy), but there are real dangers when the academic dilettantes dominate fields like economics where conceptual art has a very hard edge when it all gets applied to the rest of the world.
There are no life and death consequences to being a dilettante in architecture. If you simply can’t relate to other people’s needs very well, have no concept of what things cost or know how things actually get built the result is that you simply don’t get hired to design much that actually sees the light of day. Like gravity, the realities of buildability, affordability, usefulness and the ability to communicate ideas that have meaning to people who are not architects can’t be faked.
This dilettante doo-loop is unsustainable and has over the last generation or two produced hundreds of thousands of graduates that have never had a chance to work in architecture. Perhaps 60,000-80,000 of us are now actually working in the field and the rest have spent huge sums for an education that does not have a future. This is only a waste if you think that academic training should have practical applicability in the world. If you believe that, then you are not a dilettante.
That imbalance is falling of its own weight as the absurdities of self-serving language, narcissistic posturing and culturally irrelevant design criteria wilt in the bright light of the worst building recession since World War II.
Because we are in a new world where like minds increasingly only communicate with each other and reinforce each other’s ignorance, the dilettante doo-loop has been able to change something as profoundly real as a building into an abstracted contrivance, convoluted to the point of inscrutability.