Dissertation: Design and Profit: Architectural Practice in the Age of Accumulation
Design and Profit: Architectural Practice in the Age of Accumulation examines the shifting nature of architectural practice between the 1960s and 1990s, when corporate architectural firms began to dramatically increase the scale and scope of architectural work as a response to the volatility of speculative urban economies. The dissertation uses the Los Angeles-based architecture and engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall (DMJM) as a lens through which to view these transformations. DMJM grew from a profit-sapping three-person architectural partnership in the mid-1940s to the largest architecture, engineering, and urban planning conglomerate in the world (now named AECOM). Out-pacing a number of large-scale practices that began to falter during the 1980s, such as Caudill Rowlett Scott in Texas and The Architects Collaborative in Massachusetts, DMJM maintained stability by acquiring and developing subsidiary firms that broadened the domain of architectural work—from architecture to engineering, real estate to data processing, planning to aerial surveillance—and in so doing, architectural practice itself began to take on the shape of an urban economy. As a result, architects were able to draw new types of urban infrastructure into the fold of architecture, including the nation’s first underground Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) bases, as well as wastewater treatment facilities for cities such as Los Angeles.
While an increasing body of scholarship has turned attention to post-World War II architecture firms and their entanglement with industrialization, DMJM’s history exposes a pivotal neoliberal juncture within American architectural practice. My research reveals how the possibility of conglomeration for architecture—the act of acquiring existing firms that were increasingly unrelated to architecture—was predicated on a redefinition of architectural labor during the 1960s in terms of economic value rather than cultural influence. Pressed by a necessity to economically contribute to their firms, architects began to view themselves as workers with value akin to engineers, urban planners, and economists, rather than as individual creative auteurs.