We’ve all heard the term brain drain. But usually we associate it with poorer, far away places like India, Africa, and Eastern Europe, where money and opportunities are in short supply. But in the small segment of “design” architecture, a significant brain drain is taking place here in the United States; our talent working elsewhere. We’re a country that still boasts some of the best training in the world, but some of the fewest opportunities for innovation.
It’s not hard to see the issue. In my own office, for instance, two firms, Synthesis Design + Architecture and Freeland Buck, are carrying out their only major projects in places like China and Thailand. A former office mate, Platform for Architecture and Research (P-A-R), is pursuing most of its work in Europe and Asia. If you move up to LA’s most established design firms, they’re doing the exact same thing. Where are Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Neil Denari doing most of their projects? The Middle East, China, and Europe.
According to the AIA, the percentage of their membership billing work overseas is between seven and 12 percent, including corporate firms whose profits are more and more tied to international projects. That’s not a huge percentage. But when you start to look at the firms doing the most ambitious work, that figure rises significantly. The evidence is more anecdotal (and of course so many great firms are still working in the U.S.), but from where I stand it’s quite real. There’s just less to build here. We had our major growth spurts, and now the mantle has been passed to emerging markets. Another major factor is globalism itself. Firms worldwide are crossing boundaries like never before; sometimes it’s hard to remember where each firm comes from.
Which isn’t to say that nobody should work abroad. Quite the opposite: architecture is and always has been an international profession. The growth of international work spreads expertise and talent and often raises the bar through competition. And nobody can blame firms for chasing commissions, despite the toll taken from long trips and late phone conversations.
But the United States needs to do more to encourage its best talent to invest more domestically, which means creating more opportunities. Projects should be opened to a broader array of talent, via competitions and programs that support less experienced architects. Public and private clients need to embrace what architectural talent can offer (see New York developers, who have finally figured out how much money top tier architects can bring them). Buildings all-but ceded to non-architects, from mass housing to everyday shopping facilities, need to be taken back by architects; and we need more patrons to help reverse what has become a disturbingly conservative streak in our country when it comes to architecture.
These remedies are just the tip of the iceberg. But if we don’t start focusing on keeping our best talent in our own country, the best buildings in the world will continue to be built elsewhere.