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Architecture is a zero-sum game

Witold Rybczysnki recently had this to say about the American Institute of Architect’s plans to ensure better equity across the profession:

But the architectural profession is not the post office. It depends on the availability and preferences of clients, it depends on the swings of the economy, and success relies on individual drive and talent. Architecture is a zero-sum game, of course: there are a limited number of building commissions at any one time and if one architect gets the job, another doesn’t. Some of the most prominent commissions—the ones that build a reputation—are the result of architectural competitions. In these blind auditions, only the most talented have a chance to shine. And talent is not evenly distributed; “cream rises” as Stewart Brand memorably wrote in the Whole Earth Catalog. Hard to put your thumb on that scale.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s account of what happened when orchestras first started conducting blind auditions in the 1980s. I think he talks about this in his book Blink. As soon as selection committees could no longer see the sex of candidates — and could only hear their musical output — orchestras immediately started hiring more females.

This is a neat and tidy example that seems to demonstrate that women are perhaps better classical musicians than men, even though the opposite was believed to be true before large screens started obfuscating our inherent biases.

But the selections process for architects isn’t always as simple. This makes it a bit more difficult to determine if we truly have a meritocracy or if there are in fact some deep rooted prejudices that we maybe aren’t aware of.

Of course, there is also the possibility that we have more or less a meritocracy, but that we have structural issues which are precluding certain people from fully developing their merits in quite the same way.

Whatever the case may be, I agree with Witold that blind design competitions are probably a fairly reasonable way to level the playing field. The problem is that design competitions are not universally used. We have never done one when searching for an architect.

I would like to think that we simply look at their portfolio (in search of both cool and relevant projects), objectively assess their abilities, and then consider their fees. But I also know that us humans are riddled with biases.

1 Comment so far

  1. interesting and worthy topic. thanks for introducing it. i do believe that Rybczysnki’s point is only scratching the surface and actually missed the point to a large degree. i will speak to the residential sector, since that is my focus, but i do not think it is isolated there. architecture is shelter in its most basic form, yet most building projects do not involve an architect and if they do are for the elite and their role is largely diminished. why is this?

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