Why Architecture?

By James Auler

Recently, I heard someone in my office expressing regret about how he often hears practicing architects dissuade young adults who are searching for a career from architecture.  

J: Oh, so you’re an architect?  Wow, that’s so cool!  What have you built?

A: Well, I usually do retail, but I have been working on this mixed-use project at Clark and Fullerton that you may have seen getting built.

J: Yeah, I have!  That’s you!  That’s awesome—

A: Easy tiger, don’t get ahead of yourself—this is not the profession for you.  Firstly, clients have unrealistic goals, there is never enough time to get everything done, the deadlines are enough to drive you crazy…

J: Ohhh…I guess I will just go to law school instead…

Having been in this conversation myself, I understand the thought process (or lack thereof) that goes into the architect’s rhetoric.  It is true that just about any time you ask an architect about his or her job, chances are s/he is going to be stressed out about something—there is a lot to think about (and quite frankly, that constant thought is what is necessary to get a building made) but to the point of my colleague, dissuading a young adult who is thinking about getting into the business is just the opposite—thoughtless.

Here is probably not a place to espouse my political beliefs, but I think that most would agree the world is getting scarier by the day.  The reasons are confounding and often disparate to the point that any solution could very well create more problems.  It would seem as if we, as a society, have found ourselves enraptured in a Gordian knot.  To me, there is only one way to move forward: take a deep breath and get to work.  The field of architecture is an excellent arena to do that.  There is a monumental amount of work to be done. The work is honest, and the work is rewarding.

Very few professions have the intrinsic system of checks and balances that the profession of architecture does.  One cannot talk their way around building a building.  If it's not on the page, it doesn't get built.  Only the truly creative can imagine a better world, but only architects can make it.  

At present, as a new father, I can remember the very moment the world changed--4:55 am, October 25, 2015.  The nightly news got scarier, the traffic got worse, the bad drivers became more dangerous, Chicago politics got more base, taxes got more expensive, winter got colder, summer got hotter, but everything always evens out.  The winter cold feels new, the sun, the sky, the trees are more beautiful.  Drivers are trying to get home to their own families.  Chicago politics are still the same.  Along with this flush of emotions has come a flush of old memories, remembering the way my dad showed me the world.  

I remember rounding the corner of a nondescript check-in counter at Disney World back in the 80's (Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters playing in the background), going through an arched doorway, passing an astro-turfed room, passing through a stony cavern and finding a waterfall enmeshed in soft, orange, glowing light.  Man, that was awesome as a six-year-old.  What type of mad person could create such a diabolically textured procession from boring to the ridiculous, the sublime?  An architect!  Who is responsible for the magic that comes from being a cubs fan?  It surely isn't the players.  It is the work of the architect, Zachary Taylor Davis, which delineated the way the sun comes through the stands, late in an afternoon game, that raises the spirits of families in an otherwise meaningless late-September game.  Even small moments of place and time can be special and world-building for a youngster.  One that comes to mind for me is the way the rain ran down the balustrade of the back of the Illini Union in Urbana.  This is the type of beauty I, and I think we all, walk right by as adults in our push towards the next thing on our itinerary.  Though this is not the way children see the world, and sometimes, even as adults, we are struck by the ordinary if we pay attention to the details.  These details are the realm of the architect...the making of moments for our friends, families, neighbors, people we never have or will get to meet.  Who wouldn't want to do that?  It just takes work--deliberate, painstaking and detailed work: the life of the architect.