Aaron Cayer, Peggy Deamer, Sben Korsh, Eric Peterson, Manuel ShvartzbergAsymmetric (Eds): Asymmetric Labors: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice, The Architecture Lobby (New York): 2016
At best, architectural theory work adds to the practice of architecture by offering knowledge of how to tackle a design problem. It is per se a practice that circles around problems and symptoms that make visible what is not working – in our cities, in the built environment, in architecture, and hence in our society. It adapts to different genres. Sometimes its subject is historical and sometimes it is contemporary. Architectural theory work, like the practice of architecture itself, is an endless process of analysis. It tries to understand what is real, without idealising its subject of research. Theory work produces fragmentary knowledge.
Yet what is its value? The question itself stems from a need for justification of a practice that seemingly is not easy to commodify and hence is rendered an obsolete practice beyond academia (put here as the untenable placeholder of the last space of “freedom”). This results in ever more tight and obscene frameworks within academia in order to make this kind of work quantifiable and productive within the given economic logic we live in.
I only can speak of the quality theory has for myself. So, let me quickly introduce myself: I am an unaffiliated researcher, having directed various research projects up to 1 Million € (all of which rated “excellent”), published a handful of books, lectured and taught here and there. I am also a licensed architect, engaged in housing projects and spaces for new forms of labor. And, since my wife died some years ago, I am also a single dad of a 4-year old little girl. This very last instance, I think, is important to grasp when we speak of the value of architectural theory work.
Theory work is unpaid labour, like taking care of a child. Many tell you it is necessary to do and admire how well you do it, but nobody will offer you money for it. I don’t get paid writing a scientific paper and sourcing (and often paying for) its images. And I don’t get paid when I pick up my daughter every day at 3:30 from kindergarten, or when she is ill and I am stuck at home. Sometimes I have to pay a babysitter to attend a business meeting. It won’t make you fit for the labour market.
Let’s be honest: Jobs in academia (at least in Europe) are scarce and underpaid. And the so-called “real” world of the building industry is not interested in someone who just spent years writing a PhD thesis on a little tiny aspect of whatever let alone a single dad (or mum) who is unadaptable to the rhythm and peculiarities of the subject with which one is engaged. One can’t be as flexible to move around the world as the academic system and the labour market demands.
As a male in the male-saturated world fond of gender mainstreaming, I’ve learn a lot about myself and the surrounding world. I’ve seen what both a PhD and fatherhood can offer you. Doing a PhD helps sharpen your observations and your understanding of the world. Being with kids, with their straightforward ability to observe their surroundings, constantly astonishes. Both will enable you to see the world beyond prevalent preconceptions and hence allow you to think about new ways of living together.