China, architects, and earning a M.A. in History = Perhaps, a rewarding career.

by Professor Roger L. Martinez

"A rendering of Bending Paths, a villa designed by a Seattle architect for a Shanghai developer." NYT

Perhaps the only thought more terrifying than not knowing what to expect when beginning a M.A. or Ph.D. program in History is contemplating your career options after that program. Thinking broadly about the skills and knowledge you acquire is essential to your future. Certainly, traditional teaching and research positions are an option even in this challenging job market, but what are the other possibilities? What is the range of career options?

Anthony Grafton’s article, “No More Plan B,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, rightly argues that historians participate and lead in a variety of high impact fields. He writes:

Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a Ph.D. in history opens a broad range of doors?As historians, let’s begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside of academe: historical adviser to the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, speaker of the House of Representatives, the chief of staff to the speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international-business consultants, high-school teachers, community-college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). (See more at: http://chronicle.com/article/No-More-Plan-B/129293/)

Grafton is absolutely right and now more than ever we should be thinking inventively about what we bring, as historians, to the broader world.

For example, I recently read an article in the New York Times that highlighted a curious development in the world of architecture — that is, China is emerging as a “dream client” for U.S. architectural firms. Lawrence R. Cheek’s piece, “Architects Find Their Dream Client, in China,” points out that the Chinese economic engine is producing an enormous demand for new luxury residences for the country’s emerging economic elites.  While these wealthy elites only represent a small proportion of the population in China, that percentage is a very large “actual” number when you consider the republic has a population of 1.3 billion persons. In short, there are a lot of people with a lot of disposable income that want to live in homes that reflect their new societal prominence.

As a result, Chinese residential developers have turned to North American architectural firms for help in building new communities, but with one very curious caveat — Chinese clients want homes that are functional, but they are not demanding specific designs. Describing one of consulting engagements offered to a U.S. firm, Lawrence R. Cheek writes:

IT was an unusual commission, unlike anything that Stuart Silk, a Seattle architect, had been offered in his quarter-century of practice: design three high-end custom homes for clients he would never meet. Although there were some specifications for functions and dimensions — total square feet, for example, and the number of bedrooms and baths — there wasn’t a clue as to style or a construction budget.
(See more at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/business/16build.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=architectural%20firms&st=cse&scp=1)

In this manner, China is transforming into a growing, but perplexing line of business for North American design groups.

At this point, you may be wondering, “What does new housing construction in China have to do with earning a M.A. or Ph.D. in History?” I’d offer, “More than you can ever imagine.” As U.S. architectural firms begin to invest more effort in their Chinese clientele, the wisest will realize that securing long-term clients and opportunities will be tied to acquiring a deep cultural knowledge of Chinese perspectives and history. It is arguable that the most successful North American architects will be those that can implement housing project designs that blend modern construction approaches with China’s distinctive patterns. In sum, architectural firms will need experts in Chinese history, language, arts, and culture.

In many ways, professional historians of Asia are uniquely positioned to serve as key team members in U.S. architectural firms serving the Chinese market.  Historians are immersed in the complicated realm of researching and interpreting the longue durée of culture and thus could become irreplaceable external consultants or staff members on architectural design teams.

It is in this more fluid approach that we should be contemplating how M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s knowledge and training can be harnessed for unexpected, but potentially very rewarding careers.

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About Roger L. Martinez

Assistant Professor of History University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
This entry was posted in student opportunities and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to China, architects, and earning a M.A. in History = Perhaps, a rewarding career.

  1. uccshistory says:

    Thanks for this post, Roger. You all might be very interested to know of a long-running series “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” which my friend Professor John Fea runs from his blog at Messiah College, at http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/search/label/So%20What%20Can%20You%20Do%20With%20a%20History%20Major. There are 37 posts to date in this series, featuring John’s former students who are doing just about everything under the sun with their history majors!

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