2016 Architecture Commencement Ceremony Keynote Address

Posted by Erik L'Heureux May 20, 2016


Below is an edited version of the keynote speech Erik L'Heureux, BA96, delivered at the 2016 Architecture Commencement Ceremony on May 20, 2016. L'Heureux is a founding principal of Pencil Office and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

Thank you, Dean Lindsey. And thank you to the esteemed members of the faculty, proud parents, family members, devoted friends, and graduates.

Congratulations to all of you. And specifically to the graduating class of 2016!

It is a great honor and sincere privilege to be back here at Washington University in St Louis.

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I sat where you sat, in the blazing St. Louis summer sun on the green lawn of Givens Hall, listening to a wonderful commencement address by B.V. Doshi, an amazingly talented architect from India. I didn’t understand a word of what he said, though I am sure he imparted important life lessons that my subconscious picked up by osmosis. Maybe it’s by coincidence that I now live halfway around the globe in Singapore, closer to India than the U.S., where I try to do what most of you will try to do in your near future: be an architect or urban designer, or care about the environment in which we live through a practice of design.

Twenty years ago I had just finished four years of undergraduate education at Washington University and I was excited to be done with all that Givens Hall offered, yet I was tremendously insecure at the same time—as many of you might be about what sits ahead for your future.

At that pivot point between academia and the professional world, I was looking unsuccessfully for a job, and my future plans seemed precarious. Some friends were off to graduate school, others to New York or LA. And while I thought I knew a lot about architecture, the reality is that I knew very little. I had a girlfriend at the time, and thought that she was my future—which a few months later turned out to be someone’s else’s future. Yes, I was young and distracting myself from the important decisions of life at that important moment.

After a few setbacks that summer—putting the car up on cinder blocks, dying my hair yellow, then brown, eventually returning it to its natural color to clean myself up—I made it to Boston by way of Durham, North Carolina, and ended up in a very small firm on the roof of a warehouse in Somerville, Massachusetts, freezing my way through a very cold winter. I was their first employee, pretending to know AutoCAD when I interviewed (which I didn’t) and then teaching myself how to design with a mouse and some curious keyboard commands on the T ride home every night. It was a shaky beginning.

Since that time as a young employee starting out, I have learned that architecture is a strange and mysterious discipline.

No one really knows what it is we do.

Architects don’t usually build in the literal sense. We don’t actually make buildings as a builder does. While at Washington University, I recall a classmate of mine who was entirely enamored by a very large, sweaty, manly man who was cutting steel plate for her with a torch in North St. Louis. She liked that he was doing it, with his strong muscles glistening in the St. Louis afternoon, and not her. Architects are kind of like that. We get turned on by other people pouring concrete, but if we do it ourselves, it’s entirely boring and more than likely we will mess it up.

Yes, architects make drawings. But we are not entirely artists, either, as we uses crutches such as Rhino or Revit or AutoCAD—or in my time, drafting instruments—to draw because we can’t draw very well with our own hands.

Architects are interested in technology, but the engineers think we are all idiots.

We try to write using English and that thing called grammar, but our comparative lit friends think we write utter garbage. And trust me, thank god for spell-check, because I would never have had made it without it.

Let’s not even talk about comparing ourselves to lawyers, other than providing them opportunities to make money from our mistakes…or doctors (all of those volatile organic compounds we keep putting into the air from the materials we specify)—you get the idea.

Lately for me, the most depressing comparison is with my business colleagues. Let’s be truthful, we are usually terrible at making money, as well.

What are we really good at if we are so horrible at so many things? What kind of worth can we give an architecture degree, anyway?

In case the parents and grandparents are getting nervous right now, I offer some positive suggestions.

We are good at Legos.

We are good at Jenga.

We are good at spending crazy amounts of other people’s money on dead things called space and materials.

We are good at self-importance.

We are good at pretending to be amazing at a lot of things.

And finally, I think this is where it is at. We are great synthesizers. We can sum up a ton of stuff, with tremendous amounts of complexity, and somehow put it to boil in our heads. If we are focused, we synthesize all of it into something that we call a design that captures a bit of culture, a bit of technology, a bit of humanity, and if we are lucky, we can add a touch of poetry to make it all worthwhile. It’s really an amazing discipline that very few of our friends can do, even if they make more money or save more lives than we do.

Isaiah Berlin classified intellectuals into two types in his seminal essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”—the Hedgehog, who knows one thing very well and sees the world through that lens, and the Fox, who knows many things very well and is able to see the world through connections between concepts.i

Architects, I believe, are typically of the fox type, running around making sense of the world, capturing little bits of knowledge in various disciplines, and putting them together synthetically. In the end we might call this a building.

If you do not think that synthetic knowledge is important, I give you a personal example. I recently had to have two surgeries due to a small skin cancer on my eyelid, of all places. I know, it’s a terrible place for an architect to get cancer, given that my eyes are my most sensitive and seemingly important organ.

The cancer is out and I am fine; the point is that I needed two specialists to do the work—one to cut, the other to repair—with the possibility of a third doctor cutting somewhere else to do a graft. The doctors where I live now are largely trained to be hedgehogs—as talented specialists. Unfortunately they could not collaborate or communicate together in order to coordinate among the three of them. One said, “I will do the removal, but I can’t repair.” The other doctor said, “I can repair, but I cannot take skin from another location in case we need to do a graft.” And the final one said, “I can remove skin for a graft, but I cannot do an eyelid repair.”

I realized at that moment that synthesizers are super important. What I really needed was a doctor cum fox cum architect to make my eyelid great again.

And I think we need more foxes and architects to make the world and America great again by synthesizing—and by great, I do not mean by some guy with funny golden hair, even if he has architectural envy. But that is another story.

So you are lucky to be here, right now, along this grand axis of Brookings Hall, because the amazing education at Washington University provides all the various ingredients and skills and thinking processes to be a fox. The diversity of classes, taught by the preeminent scholars in their fields, offers not only an excellent architectural education, but also an education for synthesizing and making sense of the world around us. The diversity of your classmates and the context of St. Louis, with all of its troubles and promise, will shape you in the years to come. Being a fox is a powerful asset, and indeed this is a gift that Washington University and the Sam Fox School have provided to each one of the graduates. Maybe it’s just by coincidence that your School is named after Berlin’s own concept of a Fox.

Yes, there are many ideas, reflections, and thoughts that are probably still floating around in your head that do not seem to fit. But trust me, these will settle down, and with a little experience and continued design practice, you actually do get better at synthesizing all of it.

Eventually the business people and lawyers and some doctors—maybe even some politicians and community organizers—get bored with their tremendous money and want to do something else just as important with their lives, to create a better environment around us through design. And if you are still around being an architect, they do a funny thing—they start to call you. Architecture is a lifelong practice. Be patient. It does gets better with age.

So between this moment—right now—when you think you know all about architecture, and that moment in the far, far, far distant future, when someone actually might believe you…

Let me offer a few words of advice to the graduating class.

• Have a five-year plan. Be like Stalin or Mao. They had five-year plans. They never really worked, but at least they looked good from the outside. Look forward, have some goals to reach for, and be focused, as architecture can be terribly distracting. Have a plan, just like a building has one, and with your good foundation from Washington University, I am sure you will move forward in an amazing direction with positive impact.

• Be open to totally changing your five-year plan. Maybe love gets in the way. Maybe you break your little toe. Maybe 9/11 gets in the way, as it did for me. Maybe a future on some far-off tropical island seems more interesting. If anyone would have told me 10 years ago that I would be living in Singapore, on the hot and wet equator, married to a South Korean with two little kids running around speaking Mandarin, I would have been shocked. Life as an architect is a great ride of unexpected collisions. Enjoy it. But don’t forget to update your five-year plan when it changes.

• Cultivate your friends. Especially the ones you met here on the South 40, or in Olin Library, or at some frat party on the Row. By that I mean cultivate non-architect friends. Architects hanging out only with other architects become entirely dull. Broaden your social and cultural circle; be open in case one of these strange friends who are not architects decides to call you to do some architecture in that far, far distant future. Hint: They will be your clients.

• When or if you start to do your own practice, I suggest you try it alone. Unless your partner is really the opposite of you and he or she is an amazing designer and you know you are just terrible at it—maybe in turn you are really good at making friends and getting those clients. But please, if you have designer envy and client envy, just do it yourself. It’s not worth the divorce later on. I know you won’t listen to this one, because everyone thinks struggling on architecture with a partner is such great fun. But trust me, after things go south in the partnership because your friend thinks they are a better architect than you it’s really frustrating. Have confidence in yourself, and try to improve on that part of you that you think requires a surrogate. Do it alone—or in threes, like KPF, SOM, and HOK. Each one of those partners brought something very specific to the table, like clients or technical expertise or business acumen. Only one of them was a designer. So be smart about it and…

• Be honest with yourself. Not everyone is the next Louis Kahn. And it’s OK not to be a great designer. Our built environment needs significant people working on design from different positions, from writers to community enablers to highly technical intellectuals to architects who know how to engage in politics or designers engaged in humanitarian relief. But if you want to be like Kahn, have a few mistresses, illegitimate children, and be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, that’s OK, too. I won’t judge. But at least be honest with yourself.

• Try to make a mark before you are 40. Once kids, a mortgage, gray hair, and real responsibility kick in, focusing on design becomes more complicated. Try to say something important or at least do something you believe in before everyday life responsibilities take priority. Forty is that magic number. That’s three five-year plans for most of you. I am 43 this year and I am already out of the sweet zone—and I am struggling. It might get better when the kids go off to college, but for now, it’s tough being an architect and a dad and a husband and a professor and a friend. I am more conservative and less prone to taking risks than when I was 30. So do it when you are single or relatively young, living it up in some big city or small town. Now is the time to make your voice happen.

• And for those of you who don’t want to rush to New York, you might be the smart ones of the bunch and doing something better for your long-term career. Mark Wigley, former dean at Columbia University, once said, “Do it outside of New York first;” then, the Big Apple might actually be interested in you. Look at Bjarke Ingels. He did a few projects in Demark, which up to a few years ago only had Jørn Utzon to think of. Now, whether or not you like Bjarke’s work, he seems to be loved by Gotham. Go to North Dakota, or South Dakota, or Uganda, or Chile. Follow your hunch; explore the world. And try to do some good while you’re at it. If you want to return to New York or London or Shanghai, show them what you did after your travels. I am sure they will be envious because the architects there spent years in tiny apartments designing even more tiny apartments. And that gets boring after awhile.

• And finally, the discipline of architecture is really the worst. We cut down forests, dig up the earth, kill who knows how many animals, and pollute the air. We do all sorts of horrible things with our designs. Try to do it with at least a little conscience. Maybe you don’t need to tear down that building, or maybe the recycled tile is just a bit better, or maybe you can simply design an office with an operable window. Wouldn’t that be great? Some fresh air. More importantly—and don’t forget this—you will design for my kids’ future. Don’t do stupid things, and please don’t mess up the world any more than it already is.

It’s at this point in the typical commencement address where one gives some uplifting quote or an important philosophical description of life. I will not do either, but what I will end this talk with is something a bit more serious and a bit of a challenge for your future.

We are facing an unprecedented moment in human history. Not because of climate change—that is a huge problem in itself. What we are facing is a huge problem of architecture. And that is, that there isn’t enough of it.

By 2050—that’s in a mere 34 years from now—the population of the world is expected to reach just under 10 billion people. If half of that new population lives in cities—which is the world’s current urbanization rate—it’s adding another 1.3 billion to our urban environments.ii

How many people is that?

1.3 billion people is like building two urban Beijings every year for the next 34 years. Let me repeat. We will need to build 68 Beijings in 34 years. And the only one we have now—which took a few thousand years to make—has air pollution so bad it’s not just that you cannot breathe, it’s that the U.S. Embassy there terms the air “crazy bad.” I do not want my kids growing up in crazy bad air, and neither do you. And never mind that we need to make two Beijings next year, and two more the year after that, and onward.

Closer to home, we would need to build 4.5 New Yorks every year for the next 34 years—that’s more than 150 new New Yorks—or 18 urban St. Louises every year—that’s almost 620 new St Louises. It’s shocking when we think of the scale and the speed and the required resources of the task in front of us.

For architects and urban designers, this is good news and bad news. This is good news because it means there is a lot of work to be done. It’s also bad news for us as humans, because if we consume as we have in the past to create all of these cities, we won’t have a livable earth to call home. And all this urbanization will create tremendous societal and cultural and political problems not yet envisioned the world over.

It’s your generation that will engage in this amazing frontier of urbanization and architecture, offering ideas, provocations, and directions to make the world a better place for my kids—and for your kids, too. It’s a great time to be an architect; it’s at a moment analogous to when Le Corbusier or Mies or Gropius came onto the scene 100 years ago and confronted a massive industrial city in Europe. The challenges are just as real and just as important today, if not more so.

The future is yours to think, to craft, to make, and to synthesize. And maybe you will remember a few of the points I just gave even, if only by osmosis.

Stay open, stay focused, stay rested, stay colorful, stay honest, and most importantly, enjoy the Jenga.

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2016. It only gets better from here on out.


[i] http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9981.pdf. Accessed on May 15, 2016.

[ii] http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/un-report-world-population-projected-to-reach-9-6-billion-by-2050.html; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Projections_of_population_growth

Assuming 7.4 billion people in 2016 (see www.worldometers.info/world-population) and a projected 10 billion people in 2050, the growth in 34 years is 2.6 billion people. The current world urbanization rate is 50 percent; thus, 1.3 billion more people are expected to live in cities by 2050.

Current urban population of Beijing is 19,000,000. 1.3B/19M = 68 new Beijings/34 = 2 per year.
(assume https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing)

Current New York population is 8,500,000. 1.3B/8.5M = 153 new New Yorks/34 = 4.5 per year.
(assume https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_New_York_City)

Current urban population of St. Louis is 2,100,000. 1.3B/2.8 = 619 new St. Louises/34 = 18 per year.
(assume https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis)