Specialization, Generally Speaking

Event: Conversations: Specialization in Architecture — 2008 Richter+Ratner Roundtable
Location: Cornell Club, 04.16.08.
Organizer: Richter+Ratner
Sponsor: AIANY OCULUS Committee

Are you a generalist or a specialist? A seemingly simple question, but many design professionals hesitate to brand themselves with limiting labels. Participants of the annual Richter+Ratner Roundtable sought to answer this question, exploring subsets of specialization such as economics, sustainability, trend spotting, and the consequences of globalization.

Most of the participants were architects and designers, from a variety of firm sizes, project specialties, and career levels. When asked to define specialization, debate centered on the effects of technology and client expectations. Economically speaking, specialization can attract clients based on experience with a particular project type. However, specialization can place firms at the mercy of the economy. For example, residential work is suffering in the current real estate climate. Also, designers risk falling into a “cookie cutter” mentality, churning out repetitive and unimaginative projects. A common viewpoint states architects must be generalists to manage all aspects of a project, from schematic design through construction, coordinating among consultants, clients, and contractors.

“Globalization” evokes both positive and negative connotations. While the world may offer architects flexibility and the excitement of designing in exotic locales, designers must be careful not to produce generic architecture that disrespects the cultural or physical context. Similarly, sustainability has become such a catch phrase that some fear it may become more of an image than a practice. Designers are responsible for translating green concepts into meaningful architecture, for the clients and locales.