January 2018

Response to a Manifesto

by Don Friedman on January 31, 2018


Old Structures is an engineering firm, not an architecture firm; our technical employees are all engineers. That said, we work with architects every day and the two professions are closely related and to some degree mirror images of each other. The Architecture Lobby Manifesto therefore resonates a great deal with me.

The text at the link above speaks for itself. It also, obviously, says the same thing regardless fo what I think…but that doesn’t mean I have no opinion. For the record, here are my personal responses, as a principal in a design firm, to the manifesto’s points:

  • Three of the ten points (numbers 1, 4, and 8) directly concern the working conditions in architectural offices and the treatment of architects as workers. I agree with them entirely. All workers deserve fair pay and decent conditions; it is outrageous that architects (and sometimes engineers) are sometimes treated worse because they are dedicated professionals.
  • Two of the points (numbers 5 and 9) center architectural labor within the general culture of labor, through union membership and sociological research. Again, I agree with both. It is hard to not see a link between the erosion of job security and pay equality in our country and the erosion of union membership.
  • Point number 7 argues for licensure upon graduation, doing away with the current requirement (for both architects and engineers) to have work experience before licensure. It’s not stated, but I suspect that the reasoning behind this has to do with the power that the work requirement gives bosses over employees. If you know that you will need your boss’s signature on a form in a few years, you’re less likely to talk back. The flip side of that argument is that very few architects or engineers, based solely on their undergraduate education, are people I would trust with my life and that is what a license to practice means: you are taking personal responsibility for other people’s lives. I’d argue for a compromise position: work experience should still be required, but self-reporting should be allowed to reduce the power imbalance.
  • Point number 2 argues for fees based on value added. Great idea, but difficult to implement and, more importantly, subject to its own forms of abuse. I think that the point here is that architects as a whole are underpaid for their contribution to the building process, and it’s one I agree with. (Surprise! I also think engineers are underpaid as a whole.) The reason that percentage of construction cost and hourly fees may be better than lump sums based on added value is that they are more readily documented. In short, I agree with the goal of this point, but I’m uncertain that its specific suggestion will make things better rather than worse.
  • Point number 3 argues for improving the architectural profession’s position by downplaying buildings as a product and discussing “spatial services.” I agree, although I’d argue for “the built environment” rather than spatial services. Saying that the design professions can improve people’s surroundings should be an uncontroversial statement.
  • Point number 6 has two related parts: “Demystify the architect as solo creative genius” and “no honors for architects who don’t acknowledge their staff.” Again, substituting “architects and engineers” for “architects,” I agree completely. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented architects and engineers, some of whom deserve the word “genius” connected to their names. None of them worked alone.
  • Finally, point number 10 suggests upending the entire basis of design and construction in the United States by promoting public design and construction over private development. This is arguably the least likely to become reality, as it has implications far beyond the A/E/C world. It also would have the largest beneficial impact, so I see no reason why it shouldn’t be in the manifesto.

In short, I disagree with one point although I agree with what I believe to be its purpose. Either the manifesto is less extreme than its authors think or I’m a terrible capitalist. Maybe both.

Physical Reality Governs

January 30, 2018

Structural engineering is pretty much the reverse of the high-tech virtual world that is hyped in the press as “technology.” Whatever computerized tools we use in design, our work is grounded, literally, in the physical world and its constraints. This article and its linked source are fascinating in the way they reveal the lack of […]

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Rowhouses and The Problem of Categorization

January 29, 2018

A fascinating article by Neil Freeman at the Urban Omnibus on rowhouses: How Many Rowhouses Are There in New York City? The short answer is 217,000 if you agree with the author’s selection criteria. As Mr. Freeman points out, that’s more than a quarter of the residential buildings in the city but only about 12 percent […]

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A Review of a Review

January 28, 2018

The Happy Pontist certainly makes History of the Modern Suspension Bridge by Tadaki Kawada sound like a great read. Another book on my todo list…

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Relative Time

January 27, 2018

I was fooling around with the OldNYC index to the NYPL Digital Collections when I stumbled over the attached photos and caption. The intersection of Kissena Boulevard and Sanford Avenue is right in the heart of downtown Flushing, and a place I must have walked by 8 or 9000 times in the seventeen years I […]

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A Detailing Mystery

January 26, 2018

That picture is looking up at the underside of a floor in an old warehouse. The walls are solid brick, and the floors are concrete vaults supported by steel beams. The last beam supporting a vault is a channel that runs into the face of the pier just past the window, where it is supported […]

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Building Within The Context

January 25, 2018

Curbed was nice enough to map the tallest buildings in New York: existing, in construction, and planned. Given that the tallest spire is 1776 feet and the highest roof is 1550 feet, and the Burj Khalifa is 2722 feet high, we’re talking about the tallest in NYC and competitive within the USA, not internationally. It […]

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Wiping The Slate Clean

January 24, 2018

There’s a great article up on Curbed about a plan from the mid-1960s to replace most of the buildings and streets in Harlem with a series of 100-story circular-plan tower linked by diagonal boulevards: A ‘futuristic vision for Harlem’. This was a blue-sky plan that never got very far. It lacked backing from the government agencies […]

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Axial Planning

January 23, 2018

That’s a view up West Street (a few weeks ago, when we had snow) from an angle that has One World Trade Center more or less centered on the street. West Street takes a slight bend near Albany Street that makes this view possible. New York has very few such vistas. The Empire State Building, […]

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More Vestiges

January 22, 2018

This is an interesting article by Sarah Bean Apmann for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation: The Lasting Imprint of Stuyvesant Street. Ms. Apmann is focussed on one of Greenwich Village’s many peculiarities in street layout, but there’s more to discuss in a larger context. First, oddly, Stuyvesant Street does not quite run true east-west. That’s […]

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