The American Institute of Architects has a window of opportunity in Los Angeles that it has not enjoyed in the last twenty years. For a variety of reasons, few having much to do with the AIA, young designers in California are fighting tooth and nail to qualify for and pass their licensing exams as quickly as possible.

While in most parts of the country this is the uninterrupted norm, California had been different. Through the late eighties, a quarter-century-long building boom sustained an unprecedented number of architectural practices, licensed and unlicensed. A generation of designers educated and trained in California remain convinced that licensing is an anachronism, one suffered only by less talented, (and/or) more corporate practitioners.

Without naming names, many of the most published boutique designers in LA practice without, and completely within the law. As long as drawings are “signed off” by an engineer, the architectural designer is (generally) liable only for design and code violations, not structural flaws. As long as one is careful not to call oneself an architect, one can build a lot of fine buildings without NCARB’s imprimatur.

For many smaller offices threatened by spiraling insurance costs, liability for structural failure is too expensive, whether or nor such coverage is available to a licensed practitioner within the firm. In such cases, having a license without full coverage may add to one’s exposure in a lawsuit.

It would appear strange then that students fresh out of architecture school in California are racing to take their licensing exams, but the era of “Deprofessionalization” is over.

The obvious and over-arching cause is the economy. In a recession, many turn conservative, running under the institutional umbrella of the licensing board and, by extension, professional organizations such as the AIA. The logic is as age-old and as corporatist as children of the sixties would condemn it for being: the more qualified, the more likely employed, and the more paid. Though one hears over and over from principals that skills, not qualifications count, the fact remains that skilled, under-documented designers receive less pay than skilled, licensed associates.

But work may be even more scarce for the over-schooled and over-qualified. When work was plentiful, a few years in other disciplines look like painless digression. When design work is scarce, passing up qualifying hours seems far more irresponsible. Two revolutions in architectural education – the ascendancy of computer-based design and the incursion of critical theory into architectural instruction were each heralded as the final liberation of the architect from the shackles of apprenticeship. Neither has set us free.

The first promise is often summed up in a platitude: with a powerful computer one can rival the output of an office at a fraction of the time and cost. But firms bought the technology as quickly as private consumers did, and in general made better, longer-term investments. To get near the best design systems today, one must don a suit and go knocking at Gensler Associates or Anshen + Allen. Don’t arrive without CAD experience and a license, and don’t expect entry-level CAD positions at any of the larger offices. Almost all architects at larger firms are designing on CAD, with little help from interns.

The second case is more complex. Practitioners often lament the turn that architectural education has taken in this country toward interdisciplinary “discourse,” but most students embrace the broader discussion of their work. A recent SCI-Arc graduate, Ariel Asken speculates that as schooling and practice are no longer parallel enterprises, some may feel obliged to establish institutional credibility in the workplace as a corollary to their theoretical training, rather than an extension of their studies in the “building arts.”

Whether practitioners choose to humor its dictates or not, critical theory had at least one major impact on the workplace. Many of the most talented people entering architecture school in the late eighties did so not to practice and build, but to write, teach, and fill slots at the myriad of new architecture schools that have opened in the last twenty years across the country. Many of these schools and others, more established, survived the recession in tatters, certainly in no shape to support the academic careers of would be architectural theorists with professional degrees other than PhDs.

Both revolutions in technology and theory promised radically open-ended design environments, architectures without Architecture, to paraphrase Rudofsky. Neither has come to pass, and both failures have left a current crop of graduates with more peers and fewer options than perhaps any generation of designers in the post-WWII period.

With prospects so grim, what could the AIA do to capitalize on this renewed interest in the mainstream institutions of the profession?

Shy of direct subsidies, not much, said most.

With prospects so grim, is there something the AIA could do to make getting licensed to practice architecture in California more attractive?

Kevin McMahon, Head Librarian, SCI-Arc: “Create the illusion that there is work here.” Elizabeth Lemell, student: “Promote the weather. The sun is the only reason people stay. “

Michaele Saee offered this suggestion: foster competition. Throughout continental Europe, small firms compete for work through mandated competitions for commissions of any size. Larger firms are encouraged to hire young talent through national agencies that place students with firms in their second and third years. Perhaps Theory isn’t the only export we should purchase wholesale from the French.

Joe Day is a recent graduate of SCI-Arc.

Back to May 1994 Newsletter: Los Angeles Urbanism