Practice in a Time of Economic Uncertainty: Advice for Emerging Architects

For many architects—particularly those at the start of their careers—the current moment feels fraught with uncertainty. How will design engage the climate crisis and calls for a more equitable and inclusive society? What is the future for collective practice and for firms based on more traditional models? Will the skills architects have relied on in the past equip them to meet future demands? In a series of interviews with architects from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—James Cheng (MArch ’77), Elyse Agnello (MArch ’14), Alex Shelly (MArch ’13), and faculty members Emanuel Admassu (Design Critic 2020) and Jennifer Bonner (MArch ’09)—a consensus seems to emerge that, while we may not be in the throes of an economic crisis like the devastating recession of 2008, this could very well be the proverbial “calm before the storm.” They offer insight for newly-minted architects who harbor doubts about the typical ways in which architecture is practiced or uncertainty about how things might change.

Portrait of James Cheng.
James Cheng: “You have to believe in yourself and your portfolio, because as an architect, that’s the most important thing that we have to represent us.”

James Cheng (James K.M. Cheng Architects)

You started your firm in Vancouver in 1978, and since then you have weathered more than one recession—and in fact your firm has done quite well. What advice would you give to architects at the beginning of their career in the current mood of economic uncertainty?

How you weather these things depends on the stage of the career you’re at. If you’re mid-career and working for a firm, the firm can support you, and if you set out on your own after that you’ll have some real experience with built projects to convince potential clients. For a recent graduate it’s more difficult. My first piece of advice to young people starting out is to be tenacious. You have to believe in yourself and your portfolio, because as an architect, that’s the most important thing that we have to represent us.

It was a horrible economic climate when I graduated from the University of Washington with an undergraduate degree in architecture. Architects were not getting jobs or even interviews. I was lucky to have part-time work from when I was a student, and I had already won national awards for my design. I stayed with the firm for a while—and they offered to pay for my graduate education—but I eventually decided that Seattle didn’t have anything more to offer me. At that point I moved to San Francisco, which was the biggest city on the West Coast for architecture. I was a nobody. I had no connections. I tried to show firms my portfolio but they said they were not hiring—I couldn’t even get in the door. It was very tough—I was sleeping in my car because I couldn’t afford rent in San Francisco.

As luck would have it, I had learned architectural photography as a student. I was good at it, and a couple of my photographs were published in Architectural Record. A senior editor, Elizabeth Thompson, had her office in San Francisco, and she was very kind to me—she wrote to me about how I could improve my photographs. When I got to the city, I took a chance and called her up to say I was looking for a job and that I was getting nowhere. She said she’d take a look at my portfolio. She thought it was great—good enough to get me a job. Then she picked up her phone and called the top architects in the city to say, “You’ve got to see this guy.”

So I got an interview with a renowned architect in the city; we talked for an hour, and he said, “Well, I’d love to offer you a job, but we just don’t have any work. But I have friends and you should go see them.” One of these said, “We have no work, but if we find something we’ll contact you.” A month later I got a letter from them saying they had three months’ worth of work, and was I interested? I said Sure! That month turned into three years, and I’ve worked my way up since then.

The second piece of advice is to pick the best firm to work for. Now that I have my own company, the first thing I look at is: where did you go school? The second thing is: what firms have you worked for? If you’ve gone to a great school and worked at one of the top firms in the world, then automatically you’re at the top of the pile.

The third thing that’s very important in today’s world is your skill set. A lot of us think we’ll be great designers right out of school, but that’s not true. There’s a lot to learn that is not academic: knowing how to put together a building, manage a project, and so on. No firm is going to give a young graduate a major project to do. But this is the computer generation, and most graduates today are good at four or five different programs, and they’re very savvy with social media. Most firms need this because nowadays communication and presentation is almost everything. Our clients are conditioned by the internet to expect an instant response.

Unique expertise is always beneficial, especially if it has to do with presentation—editing, writing, graphics, photography. Recently I’ve been invited to participate in the RFQ [request for qualifications] for a major federal project—a $500–$700 million job. To even submit our qualifications, we have a team of more than 20 people, including lots of very talented writers, photographers, designers, and people who know the system and how to score. Clients are sophisticated. They know about branding. They know how an architect can help their object by creating a certain image.

A subtext to all this is connection. I’m surprised by how many staff we hire through reference from people who work here. They like the firm, they tell their friends, and pretty soon their friends are in here for an interview. That’s very important: maintain connections with your classmates and colleagues, because that’s how you get a job.

The first thing for young people is to round out their education. After I graduated from Harvard and moved back to Vancouver, I called up Elizabeth Thompson again, and asked her, “Who are the good architects in Canada?” She said to go see Arthur Erickson. She wrote me a letter to go to see Arthur, but initially I didn’t really want to work for him because I was worried that I’d be too overwhelmed and that I’d be too influenced by him. But I wanted to at least meet the guy. When I did, he liked my portfolio and we talked for over an hour about architecture. And he offered me a job. I didn’t take it because I was worried. I had read the history: he had been offered a job working for Frank Lloyd Wright, and he decided not to take it for exactly the same reason—because he didn’t want to turn into a mini-Wright. But I realized after talking to other top firms in Vancouver that his firm was unique. He had just gotten a big job, and he had people from all over the world working in the studio. So I decided to take the job. It changed my life because I was exposed to international practice. On big urban projects I got to meet with experts from San Francisco and New York—to sit together and draw with them.

Another thing I would suggest is to win as many awards as possible and get published. Joining and winning competitions is one way. While working for Arthur Erickson I also did a competition for the Chinese Cultural Center in Vancouver. Since winning that competition and getting a house I built published, I’ve never had to go looking for a job. People start to hear about you and the jobs come your way.

Just being an architect is not good enough nowadays. A lot of smart young architects collaborate and share studio space. Some might specialize in graphic design others will be industrial designers, some focus on research, and so on. And then they go for jobs together. These people know their own strengths, and they also know they need other people with different strengths. Somebody might want to focus on affordable housing, or to do nonprofit work. You can do environmental research or be an activist. Ask yourself, “What do I want to do as an architect?”  Then prepare yourself for that role—it could be anything, the opportunities are huge.

Portrait of Emanuel Admassu.
Emanuel Admassu: “I’m in favor of designers and artists learning how to listen, but also learning how to accept critique. We have to embed these in the pedagogy and make sure that we practice them on a daily basis. It’s something that you can always get better at.”

Emanuel Admassu (AD-WO)

As the co-founder of a new firm (with Jen Wood) that works in the worlds of both art and architecture, have you found the current economic situation difficult? Have you had to adjust the way you practice due to the pandemic?

There was no work in 2008, after I graduated as an undergrad. Now a lot of practices are actually pretty busy. Our firm is relatively small, and we’ve been working on a big exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, as well as a couple other projects, so it’s been an incredibly productive time. The real challenge has been figuring out how to work from home. The lockdown happened a month after we had our son, so managing new parenthood alongside the practice was a challenge.

But maybe it’s better not to think in strictly economic terms. A driving force for us has been thinking about the role of architecture in producing certain forms of inequity. This has led us to question the ethical implications of the discipline of architecture and how we’re contributing to systems that have always been incredibly problematic. That fits the second half of our practice, which has less to do with architecture and more to do with research and art production. When we receive an invitation from a client or an institution, it always comes with a set of constraints and requires us to position ourselves in relation to those constraints. In contrast, the art side of things has been fairly imaginative, and it has allowed us to be a lot more radical with ideas.

Is there more of an appetite now for your radical ideas, compared to 2008? Would you have been able to do your artistic practice back then? I’m thinking of your role on the board of the Black Reconstruction Collective and the MoMA exhibition.

The Black Reconstruction Collective was produced out of a certain frustration with institutions. A particular institution invited 10 Black architects to do an exhibition, but it became clear very early on that they weren’t ready to really understand the implications of that exhibition. This is unique to architecture and design, because the other departments at that museum have already engaged with these issues more directly and have done a kind of institutional critique. Even before the pandemic, forming a collective gave us leverage to go back and forth with the institution and ask for certain things. When you’re operating as a set of individuals, you are a lot more vulnerable, especially to these structural problems.

My personal understanding of this recent history is that the 2008 recession really helped us understand how much of a luxury sport architecture is. A lot of us had to recalibrate and ask, “What is the role of architecture in this particular moment, when a lot of the harm that we’re seeing is caused through the speculation of occupation?” I think that was a moment for us to move away from the self-righteousness that was always embedded in architectural discourse and ask, “What are we doing and how are we implicated?”

By the time I went to grad school around 2011, the shift was already happening, and it was mostly driven by the incredible injection of capital into the realm of art. A lot of my colleagues became curators. The curator-architect type came out of the post–Great Recession era, and it started an engagement with critical theory and other ideas that architects had typically shied away from.

Now we’re at a moment in which even the figure of the curator is no longer new, and more architects are leaning into art practice. For instance, Amanda Williams and Lek Jeyifous, two out of the 10 founding board members of the BRC, left architecture a while ago and became artists. The rest of us are catching up and thinking that a lot of the ideas that we’re interested in could be explored much more directly and with a greater level of precision within the realm of art. Architecture is still not really providing space for that conversation, especially when it comes to anything related to race, gender, or class. I think the shift is happening now with architects who are producing artworks.

To do a genealogy, I would say that after the Great Recession there were the austerity architects trying to do cheap buildings. Then came the figure of the architect-curator. And I think now we’re really starting to see the figure of the architect as an artist. That might be too reductive because all of these figures have existed for a while, but it’s intensifying due to recent shifts in culture, politics, and economy.

It’s also driven by the people on the ground—activists who are demanding a better world. Institutions are still not fully meeting the moment.

Do you have advice for someone who might want to start a collective or collaborative practice?

For me, it’s very simple. When you’re operating within an academic institution, a cultural institution, or even practicing within a firm, you begin to hit a wall when the work you’re producing starts to feel soulless—it feels as if you’re contributing to a world that you’ve always been against. The first step is to identify a set of people that you want to be in extended conversations with and who will continue to challenge you. Build a community that has embedded within it certain contradictions and disagreements, but also fundamentally some sort of mutual respect and willingness to challenge one another. That way you can be sure to grow as an artist or as a designer. Being part of BRC means being part of a group where the people don’t always agree with each other’s methods, but we have a common goal and there are certain fundamental things that we’re not willing to compromise.

Is there a set of skills necessary for collective practice?

Absolutely. In our practice we have a certain commitment to drawing, and we put a lot of energy into producing drawings that we believe in. We are interested in beauty, for sure. But beyond that, there are certain faculties like critical thinking and even just being able to genuinely listen to people. These aren’t taught in school. I think a lot of the conversations about decolonizing pedagogy and decolonizing the canon are really about listening: can we actually listen to other people who are from non-dominant cultural backgrounds or who come from environments that are “marginalized”? I’m in favor of designers and artists learning how to listen, but also learning how to accept critique. We have to embed these in the pedagogy and make sure that we practice them on a daily basis. It’s something that you can always get better at.

When it comes to forming collectives with a group of people that might not have the same aesthetic sensibilities or political sensibilities, you need to find ways to negotiate and listen to the people you don’t agree with. I hope that architects will stop trying to be tastemakers and instead try to understand how our ideas of beauty have been constructed, how they might be in conflict with someone else’s ideas of beauty, and how negotiation produces something fresh.

In this hypercapitalist world, we’re taught to be individual free agents selling ourselves, so even just sitting down and agreeing to work with somebody can be a leap.

Everything is being further fragmented, individuals are turning into brands, and everything is really tied to a certain underlying value system—some voice saying, “Get that money.” And that’s at the cost of everything else. That’s at the cost of the planet. That’s at the cost of relationships. I hope we can really begin to think about those fundamentals and the things that we value in our everyday lives.

Has the pandemic helped put things in perspective?

No matter what, twice a day we have had to go for a walk, to get out of the house—and that compresses the workday. I think it’s been great because it forces us to edit out all of the things that we typically say yes to, and to really focus on the things we value.

Portrait of Jennifer Bonner.
Jennifer Bonner: “My advice is to focus on your work—no matter what the noise is around you, no matter what’s on trend.” Portrait by Christopher Dibble.

Jennifer Bonner (MALL)

How does the job situation look for architects right now, from your perspective of running a boutique practice? How tough is it?

I think graduates are getting jobs right now. When I finished grad school, it was in the middle of the Great Recession. People were leaving architecture before they even started because they were frustrated at having worked so hard and then not being able to do the kind of work they wanted to do. I have friends who ended up in film, and others working as consultants at think tanks. Now it’s different—we’re not in a recession like that.

As for getting projects to work on, it seems like there are a lot of developers who are still pursuing large-scale building projects. In most cities nobody is going to build an office building for a few years, so office projects are out. But those developers are switching to housing—affordable housing or the missing middle. I’m working on a project designing the cladding and aperture system for a modular housing project in the Pacific Northwest. It’s fun because it’s not the entire project, but a very particular scope of work that overlaps with my spring 2021 core housing studio, “Matchy Match,” which was all about the role of materials, contemporary culture, and the city.

How do you choose between focusing on one particular approach to architecture and being more of a generalist?

My critique of American practices is that they get locked into a single building type and method pretty quickly, and they end up churning out the same formal project. In contrast, I’m interested in designing a small number of buildings that are each very different. Each project attempts to have a different form, a different program, and a different idea. The aim is to jump from working with CLT [cross-laminated timber] on Haus Gables—a single-family residence in Atlanta—to working with wood frame construction on Lean-to ADU, an accessory dwelling unit in Los Angeles. And then to dive into a mid-rise tower.

This strategy is linked to a way of seeing architecture as an intellectual pursuit. Some people see my work and think I’m all over the place, but I’d politely counter by saying it’s an optimistic way to build a boutique practice: being able to reinvent yourself with each project is liberating. The generation of architects before me named their housing projects in numerical series—houses one through 10—and some of my contemporaries have continued in this tradition. Pushing back on this approach to architecture and thinking about how to transition from Haus Gables, I was interested in moving beyond the diagram of the roof plan. The next house will have a flat, commercial roof, and it takes a deeper dive into a material argument.

This has certainly been a process of discovery that I would connect back to my time at Foster and Partners, where I was exposed to the workings of a big office. I initially had ambitions to run a  larger office—like Jeanne Gang or Farshid Moussavi. It was jarring to begin a practice during the recession. Slowly my career has evolved into what it is today, with one foot in academia and one foot in practice.

Running a solo practice, how have you kept momentum in this last year when most of us have felt pretty isolated?

The cross-conversation between colleagues and friends about architecture is not happening right now on design crits. I’m missing those run-ins, but I’m really enjoying putting my head down into making new work—specifically, leaning in on creativity. For example, Hanif Kara and I put together a book called Blank: Speculations on CLT. Hanif calls it our “lockdown project.” We conceived of and completed the book virtually from our respective cities of Portland and London, and throughout the process we conducted dozens of conversations with all the contributors on Zoom.

So my advice is to focus on your work—no matter what the noise is around you, no matter what’s on trend. That’s the strategy I took during the last recession, too. Even though there was no work—except for the odd gallery installation —I filled out one hundred RFQs for public art callings with my partner at the time, Christian Stayner, under the label Bonner+Stayner, posing as public artists. We didn’t necessarily plan on working in the realm of public art, but rather seized an opportunity and made sure the projects had architectural ideas embedded within them. Out of one hundred applications, we landed our very first commission in Miami. That’s been my secret strategy: work your way out of it.

Portrait of Elyse Agnello and Alex Shelly
Elyse Agnello (left): “You really need to be a self-starter, but beyond that it depends on what you want to do. If you’re working at a firm, you should be educating yourself on the process of making and how a project gets delivered.”

Elyse Agnello and Alex Shelly (DAAM)

How has the pandemic changed architectural practice in Chicago, and at your firm?

EA: The biggest change was that we decided to go remote. We also downsized a little bit early in 2020, but then residential work really started to take up for us as people were spending more time in their spaces and figuring out the additions and renovations they needed. Then early in 2021 there was more commercial work as people were getting vaccinated, but the construction industry has its own challenges, so it has been slow to start those projects. We’ve been trying to stay lean—to take on the new work, but to move through it methodically. We haven’t staffed up yet, although we’re now thinking about it and deciding whether to run a remote studio or to return to a physical space for our office.

AS: It seems that there’s a strong interest out there in getting back to working together because architecture is such a highly collaborative industry. Also, it’s good to have a kind of third space to work intimately with other people—with some aspects of work and some aspects of a more personal space. But we’re a bit cautious at the moment.

And to echo Elyse, the other biggest challenge has to do with the ever-changing dynamics of the construction industry—supply chains, material costs, and so on. Wood prices and delivery times have shot up, for example. The last 12 months have been a lesson in adaptability and flexibility—just trying to keep the ship moving forward, but understanding that the wind and the waves are moving in all sorts of directions.

Are clients more forgiving of disruptions that are beyond anyone’s control?

EA: We have had the good fortune of working with some great clients that have come to us through referrals, but they are not as experienced as institutions and larger companies are, so it has been important to be transparent about issues that are beyond our control. If we send a millwork package to five different local fabricators and everyone says that they can’t take it on until November, that’s tough news for a client to hear. We’ve always been willing to take on projects that have challenges—whether they have to do with existing conditions or budget—and that means that we’re always rolling up our sleeves and having to work harder and smarter. That ethos has made relations with clients smoother in the current situation.

I’d imagine that working with larger institutions would be tough right now. They might not hesitate to put a project on hold if the numbers come in too high. It’s hard to know how everyone is reacting, which is its own challenge.

AS: At least everybody’s in the same boat and relatively aware of what the entire world is going through. There’s a general sense of wanting to make the best of a bad situation.

Do you see changes in what clients are asking for as a result of the pandemic? Is the focus of architecture itself shifting?

EA: I think that there’s an awesome opportunity right now to rethink so many things. For instance, we’re working with a local design company on their new office space—we’re working with 12 designers as clients, so it’s an intense situation to say the least. We’re inventing a new process for how to engage them. A few years ago there was an easy answer: it’s a creative office, so you’re going to have an open studio space, breakout rooms, and so on. The pandemic has allowed us to inspect it all differently. How do we work? How’s it been to work from home? What did you find that absolutely hasn’t worked? The slower pace of work in the pandemic has given people an opportunity to reflect on what’s important. Maybe we’re entering a period in which people value quality over quantity. Minimal aesthetic interventions, less ostentatious, but higher quality building systems, for example. Prioritizing physical comfort might be a real turn for architecture.

How do you strike a balance between specialization and broadness at your firm?

EA: I think our projects to date have followed our interests. But when you’re known for certain things, it can become difficult to get different kinds of work. Even getting a foot in the door can be really challenging. My thinking on this is that you should enjoy the projects that you do get, and you will continue to amass projects. We’ve found that doing an excellent job on any project, no matter the scale, no matter the type, can give us leverage to break into other areas. For example, we were able to convince a developer in Green Bay to hire us to do a 60,000-square-foot condo project—at least the first couple of phases before it went on hold. And we didn’t have that type of experience actually.

AS: I would agree that once you have a project type, it’s easier to continue to get similar projects, but if you want to diversify or expand—whether that’s in scale or typology—that’s a bigger challenge. So we’re always strategizing around that.

How do you make work you’ve done at other firms legible to clients? If you’ve worked as a project architect at a big firm, how do you convey that?

AS: We do leverage our past experience at other firms, for sure, because our first wave of projects are really only being completed now. We always get permission to show work done at other firms in our promotional materials. Generally speaking, previous employers empathize—they’ve been there, right?

EA: No one teaches you in school that if you want to be an architect, you also need to be a salesperson. Otherwise there really is no firm. That means that you need to frame and reframe, and pitch and repitch. It’s a very complicated business. There’s a reason that the Genslers of the world have business development departments. So give yourself all the props that you can in presentations, on your website, and so on.

AS: Narrative is really important. You need to be cognizant of your client’s goals and interests and understand how your skill set meshes with them. In the sales conversation or on an RFQ or RFP, you have to craft a project narrative that incorporates your strengths as well your understanding of what their needs and desires are. Architecture, particularly in Chicago, is dominated by older, more established firms. When you’re dealing with millions of dollars of somebody or some institution’s money, they want to be sure they can trust you. So we try to build that trust by overdelivering on promises—even if we’re making a big promise.

What skills are most important right now?

EA: You really need to be a self-starter, but beyond that it depends on what you want to do. If you’re working at a firm, you should be educating yourself on the process of making and how a project gets delivered. It’s obviously different at every firm, but having more than an academic understanding is important.

AS: You’ll stand out above the rest if you do one thing really well, whether it’s assembling models, creating renderings, or even just design.

EA: There’s a certain way that we talk about architecture when we’re in school that doesn’t translate to the professional world. I’m talking about the words you use and the personality you’re putting behind those words. There has to be a cognitive shift between communication within academia and within the firm, versus more externally focused communication. The sooner young architects learn that, the more powerful they’ll be. Contractors, clients, consultants aren’t necessarily in our internal club, and we need to know how to talk to people not in the club.

AS: Know your audience. Who’s in the room with you? What’s their level of experience with architecture? We may have conversations in our office that are similar to what you’d experience in academia, but then with the client, word selection may be changed or topics are slightly adjusted to get the point across.