Architecture and the Architect

Architecture and the Architect
H E architectural profession was almost completely ruined by the crisis.
Residential building sank to one-tenth
or normal.
Unemployment was so widespread that the small percentage of architects
and draftsmen at work in 1932 enjoyed only
a seasonal and insecure occupation at a wage
often less than half of their weekly incomes
in 1929.
T h i s slump was all the more catastrophic
because of the extreme optimism of architects and their illusions of unlimited" prosperity.
For several years they had been
employed on projects of magnificent scale,
and had seen higher and higher buildings
rising in the cities. Everywhere new buildiijg was evident; the prosperity of the middle
and upper classes was realized in an immense quantity of private suburban homes.
T h e sudden cessation of work was a shattering and unexpected blow.
Already before 1929, the profession was
acquiring a new character. Formerly made
up largely of independent architects working on a percentage or fee basis, in their
Qwn small offices, employing a few assistants
or draftsmen, the profession changed its
composition more and more in the decade
preceding the crisis. T h e salaried architects
and draftsmen became the preponderant elements. As many as three hundred men
were employed in the larger architectural
offices. Large corporations, especially chainstores, which required constant building or
remodelling, employed their own salaried
architects. In the great architectural offices
the employers rarely engaged in the work
of design, but were essentially business men
who obtained contracts, supervised the activity of the office and affixed their signatures
to the designs. These designs were commodities, protected by lawsuit against unfavorable architectural criticism. T h e employed
architects and draftsmen worked anonymously and collectively; and although trained
as artists who regarded their work as an individual expression, very few of them could
realize a project completely or carry out a
design in all its detail. T h e intense division
of labor imposed by the scale, uses and techniques of modern building involved a routine specialization. T h e architect was forced
to submit to commercial requirements often
pernicious to artistic quality. At the same
time, with the growing scale of operation,
manufactured units were increasingly standardized. Less and less planning and drawing were required in suburban projects, made
up of rows of almost identical houses, and
in high buildings with repeated storeys of
fairly uniform design, lacking ornament and
mouldings. For a given floor space in 1929
perhaps half as much drafting was neces-
sary as in 1920. Even if building had
continued after 1929 at the same rate as before, technological unemployment seemed to
be imminent in architecture.
T h e rationalizing of design was developed
further during the crisis despite, or even
because of, the cessation of building. Economists looked to the revival of the building
industries for the first impetus in overcoming the depression. But no market existed,
and an intense effort was made to discover
means of reducing the cost of building, of
designing standardized houses which could
be produced largely in the factory and set
up quickly with little labor and planning.
It was hoped that such houses, sold at
$1,500 to $3,500, would reach a market
hitherto untouched by housing promotion,
and play a role in American economy like
the automobile during the last boom period.
T h e numerous designs that emerged at this
time could find no financial backing; such
projects threatened the values of existing
mortgaged property and past investments;
and besides, the market was illusory. Savings had been consumed during unemployment, and the uncertainties of the slight upswing were unfavorable to such speculation.
But even unrealized, these projects indicated
the reduced prospects of the architectural
profession. T h e new standardized types of
housing required few designers.
Architects became aware now, if only from
the literature Of the construction industries,
that the future of their profession lay largely
in housing. But private capital cannot by
itself build such housing. Wages are too
low to permit a rent sufficient for profitable
large-scale building operations. A government subsidy is therefore absolutely necessary for private building enterprise.
state is thus drawn into the field of housing,
and the future of the architect, his economic
security, the character of his work, are intimately bound up with the goverhment's
policy. But even with such subsidy, private
residential building must be decidedly limited,
especially in the larger cities where land is
so costly.
Architects, even of conservative tendency,
recognize the present impasse of building.
They observe a monstrous situation—immense technical resources for building, miserably housed masses, an army of skilled architects, technicians and building workers,
unemployed or assigned to temporary relief
Appeals from social workers, liberals and
manufacturers for government support of
private housing seemed to promise a renewal of building; but to date this promise
has yielded very little. T h e government has
poured out huge sums to salvage bad mort-
gages and has engaged in elaborate engineering projects, but the amount of subsidized
or directly supported building of homes for
the workers and lower middle class has been
insignificant in proportion to the constantly
proclaimed need and to the normal quantity
of construction before 1929. At the same
time the government has collaborated with
private industry to reduce the wages of
building workers and architects. T h e pay
of skilled architects assigned to federal and
local projects has been fixed at $23 to $30 a
week—half, and in many cases, one-third of
their wage before the depression. And even
the present low standards have been won
only through the militancy of the first national union of architects, the Federation of
Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Techni- /
During the crisis, architects have lost their
zest for esthetic problems. Architecture is
an art only when people build; the alternatives of design must be real to excite enthusiasm and conflict.
Modern architects are stimulated by the
wonderful variety of materials and the new
technical resources of building. They are
inspired by the thought that they are at the
same time imaginative artists and scientific
technicians, that they create communal environments as well as spectacles for the eye,
and that their creations touch upon every
aspect of human life. But these possibilities
are hardly realized today; and the writings
of architects, who appreciate the dignity of
their art, have an inevitable Utopian ring.
T h e most progressive and gifted European
architects have to their credit many plans,
but few buildings; and those who were most
active in Germany before 1933 are now in
exile. Although large-scale planning is, for
economic reasons, essential to architecture as
a technique and as an art, such planning
under capitalism cannot attain the freedom,
the control over its means and ends, which
existed for older architects in designing single
buildings. T h e r e are few if any projects
assigned to architects in which they can
build according to the most advanced scientific and human standards. If they design
housing on a large scale, they plan for low
standards of living, tiny rooms and mediocre
equipment; if they build skyscrapers, they
build to advertise a property, and design
structures which are forcedly vulgar, pretentious and unhealthy, and which add to the
miseries of city life.
T h e good modern
buildings are few in number, rare, almost
exotic structures, more often those in which
no conscious reference has been made to
artistic values or human needs, but have respected the highest requirements in the
proper housing and operation of machines.