Posted February 6th 2012 at 7:42 am by
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Finding meaning, finding purpose: An architect's journey

Architects see the world different than most. We are trained to heighten our awareness and raise our sensual aptitudes. We see the world through a lens of optimism and opportunity, ambition and aesthetics. Architects aspire to eradicate problems, enhance culture and expedite change through the built environment. We are hopeless visionaries – often self-obsessed and self-driven to extract the marrow out of ourselves, our relationships and our families – all for the work. Yet, nothing in the world fills me with more passion, satisfaction and joy.

After graduation, a tremendous opportunity to work for a leading design firm arose and my trajectory towards becoming the next great architect seemed inevitable. I was privileged to work on three high profile and highly designed homes on fantastic sites in Canada and Pennsylvania.

Imagine working for two and a half years without time constraints, budgetary restrictions or aesthetic limits. Every project presented another opportunity to be published in a number of international publications. However, after angry client phone calls, devastating design changes and countless iterations, I realized that there must be more to this great profession.

Architecture must be more than designing for the incredibly wealthy and building houses that may only ever be experienced by two people.

The Shift

An Architect Finds Meaning, Purpose

Guests at Father’s Heart receive a hot meal and then a blue bag filled with non perishable items to take.

Shortly after my girlfriend (soon to be wife) moved to New York City, her church connected her with Fatherʼs Heart, a soup kitchen in Alphabet City. Every other weekend when I would visit, we would volunteer to serve the marginalized, working poor and homeless. I moved to NYC in the fall of 2008 and followed my wife’s lead in joining a church community and participating in the hunger prevention program.

What I saw each Saturday was 600-700 people who were in need. Guests came in need of food, employment, housing, legal assistance, English classes, GED classes and spirituality. I began to recognize the disparity between my experiences providing architecture to the upper echelons of society and the marginalized populations I served each week. I began to see myself as a part of a much larger narrative. My preconceived goals and ambitions had become obsolete. The ability to serve others provided more meaning and purpose than I had ever known.

The Application

An Architect Finds Meaning, PurposeAfter leaving my job working with the wealthy I became resolute in the belief that architecture should serve people in the same way that my wife and I did each Saturday. I needed to pursue buildings that would engage the public and contribute to the community. This fundamental and professional shift allowed me to work on buildings that facilitated educational development, provided a cultural center and renovated a place of worship.

The philosophical shift in my value system had permeated the profession in which I loved so much – but that did not mean the transition was easy.

Shortly after moving to New York the recession was in full bloom. Jobs were scarce and opportunities for architects even more difficult to find. My unemployment status seemed to define me until I would volunteer each weekend and be reminded of how blessed I actually was.

After two lay-offs in 9 months, I found a stable job that provided me with a terrific learning environment. I was working on a church renovation for a vibrant community in Harlem and became a part of something much greater than myself. The office name may not make covers of international publications, however I learned a great deal about working with communities and building public buildings.

The Reality

The three and a half years I spent in New York taught my many things that apply to my life and architecture.

First, the goal of this life is not to serve yourself, but to serve others. We may do this by volunteering, blogging or building architecture. In any case, when we align our talents with serving others our lives become meaningful.

Second, the noble task of undertaking work for churches, non-profits or other cultural institutions is not easy. In fact, it is far more challenging to meet the incredibly tight budgets, schedules and client demands with very little resources. I have found that these constraints yield unforeseen solutions and unpredicted creativity.

Third, the exasperating process of contributing to public work is exhausting – often demoralizing. The notion of doing architecture for the other 98% is not always as romantic as one might imagine. One must keep in mind that the unique reward for buildings that serve and engage communities: the tremendous sense of purpose and profound meaning one experiences.

The Charge

Architects are some of the world’s most gifted and creative individuals. Unfortunately, they are also marred with reputations of arrogance and self-entitlement. Recent trends set in place by public oriented practices such as the Rural Studio, Design Corps and Architecture for Humanity are overt attempts for architecture to contribute to society. However, the simple notion that architecture must serve the citizens, communities and neighborhoods in which it resides must permeate our entire design culture.

The idea that architecture should reach forgotten programs such as homeless shelters, mental institutions, supportive housing and addiction recovery centers is somewhat new.  Related efforts are nascent in their development. We must ask each professional, each practice and each building how it contributes to the existing built environment and creates a enhanced sense of place.

If our profession can seek to serve the communities in which we build instead of subscribing to an antiquated self-serving profession, we will see a monumental shift in our collective value system and our work will shape the built environment like never before.

Post by Ryan Kurlbaum.

5 responses to “Finding meaning, finding purpose: An architect's journey”

  1. Jim Papas says:

    Architecture is not just a science or a profession. It is an art! I believe that most of us feel like artists!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful essay. I really identify with your journey. Best of luck in your next phase.

  3. Amy Stitely says:

    Thanks, Ryan, for sharing your story on colab radio. I also identify with your story. I was an architect from 1996-2002 and then again 2004-2006. During the two year break, I had a similar shift in consciousness. I left the practice in 2006, and haven’t designed anything since. Sometimes I miss the method of architecture, the particular way of seeing and thinking. But mostly, I’m happy to now be working closer to the issues that resonate with my deepest core values. I hope you find the right balance in your own life.

  4. dorothy bloom says:

    Congratulations on renewing the centuries old questions of the purposes of architecture.I suspect that there are lots of new answers.

  5. world clock says:

    CoLab Radio » Blog Archive » Finding meaning, finding purpose: An architect’s journey – just great!