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  • Writer's pictureNíall Hedderman

The Real Lost Generation

Since the start of the Great Recession there has been much discussion about the lack of opportunities for younger Architects, particularly graduates. The architectural media have taken to calling this group the lost generation, because they are leaving the profession to earn a living elsewhere and, once gone, will find it very hard to return.

I have real sympathy with this group, particularly when I get sent CV's that almost beg for a chance to work. It was nothing more than good economic luck that I was able to establish my own career in good times and had no difficulty finding a job. This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that Architecture has lost a generation of graduates. This also happened in the early 1990's and is probably a symptom of every economic downturn.

There is a another, hidden, lost generation within the Architectural profession however, who's presence is seldom discussed and who's impact isn't fully understood. Unlike recession graduates, this generation is unique; having lived through a huge change of culture in the profession, without actually having participated in that change. 

Let's call them the Anti-CAD generation.

CAD, short for Computer Aided Design, is the generic name for any software programme that allows drawing to be done on a computer. CAD was introduced in the 1980's and coincided with the digital revolution, moving every paper based activity into the digital realm. This revolution has been so far reaching that most Architecture practices today are indistinguishable from any generic office, full of PC's. The drawing board is practically extinct in the todays profession.

The Anti-CAD generation will have entered the profession sometime before the digital revolution, making it's members at least fifty years old today. The youngest members of this generation would have been in their late-thirties when CAD was adopted as the industry standard. Most were at a stage where they were senior enough not to need to adapt, as there would have been younger Architects and technicians to do the drawings for them. This generation went on to found or take over the running of well known firms. They are today's generation of partners, directors and senior lecturers at universities. 

They are the leaders of the profession.

In the years before I started my own Architecture Practice, I worked for five different firms. They were all very different from each other but they had one thing in common, not one of my former employers could use CAD and some couldn't use computers at all. Not even email! One director used to compose all his letters in a single word document, each for different jobs or clients, one after the other on one file, creating chaos as he went. This may be my own individual experience but I know it's not unusual.

So how important is the method used to produce a drawing? does it matter whether an Architect is computer literate? Lets make clear that I am not saying every members of the profession over the age of fifty is a techno-phobic Luddite. I know many older Architects who have embraced digital media and who regularly teach me things, they don't qualify for membership of the Anti-CAD Generation. I'm also not trying to make a value judgment between digital drawing and hand drawing, for the record, I enjoy hand drawing. I always sketch out designs before drafting them using CAD (I use Q-CAD Professional as my drafting software) I also believe that it is best to learn to draft using a traditional drawing board first, later transferring the skills to a computer. 

What I am trying to do is to identify an unprecedented situation in my profession, where a clash of culture has emerged because of a lack of shared experience on either side of the generational divide. 

The real importance of the Anti-CAD generation is that they presided over this change of culture, from hand drawing to computer drafting, without participating in that change. For the first time, those who ran the business could not do the business. For centuries, the partners or directors of a firm could, if necessary, use a drawing board as well as their staff. This culture of continuity, where the master had greater skill than the apprentice, was challenged because the apprentice had acquired an entirely new set of skills the master did not have. The opportunities for inter-generational knowledge transfer were reduced as a result.

This lack of shared experience has been corrosive to mutual respect. 

Younger Architects can be very dismissive of older colleagues who don't interact with the digital world, this is a mistake and a lost opportunity to learn from more experienced professionals. Many older Architects I know need the skills younger members of the profession provide but at the same time appear to resent the situation. One elderly Architect I knew described it as feeling impotent. I cant imagine the chances of promotion being that great if the boss resents your skills to such an extent. 

This is the real Lost Generation, a period from roughly 1990 to 2020, by which time the majority of the Anti-CAD Generation will have retired. I hope the next generation to lead the profession will have far more in common with those younger than them.

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