During the last three decades of the twentieth century, architects in the United States expanded and made fluid the geographical, professional, and economic scope of their practices. In many large firms, architects were no longer fixed to their drafting tables upon which they produced drawings for single buildings, nor were they defined by work in a single firm. Instead, they worked in multinational and multidisciplinary corporations, comprised of several diverse firms, and their work supported the production of entire cities—from buildings to infrastructure to the financial systems that made each possible. This dissertation examines the historical emergence of this expanded form of architecture practice, including the ways in which these new definitions and compositions of work precipitated, and were precipitated by, a series of broad, yet interrelated social, political, and economic shifts in the US between 1960 and 1990.
This research uses the Los Angeles-based architecture and engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall (DMJM) as a lens through which to view these transformations. Initially formed as a three-person architecture partnership in 1946 in Santa Maria, California, DMJM emerged as a multinational corporate conglomerate, comprised of nearly a dozen diverse subsidiary firms beneath it, and it was responsible for the formation of what would become the largest firm in the history of architecture and engineering by the twenty-first century, named AECOM. Out-pacing a number of large firms that began to falter during the 1980s, DMJM maintained stability by acquiring and developing firms that broadened the domain of architectural work—from architecture to engineering, real estate to data processing, and from urban planning to finance. This research examines the particular ways in which architects expanded their roles, and how, as a result, the shape of architectural practice began to take on that of an urban economy. Within this new economy of work, architects began to pull new types of urban infrastructure into the fold of architecture, including government-sponsored military bases, ballistic missile facilities, and wastewater treatment plants.
While a rich body of historical scholarship has described how the prominence of large architecture firms after World War II were results of the organizational and collaborative aspirations of corporate capitalism, this dissertation exposes a pivotal juncture within the history of American architectural practice, when architecture firms began to both exemplify and reinforce a shift from capitalism to late capitalism. An unrestrained and unabashed pursuit of profit was coupled with a steady hand of Cold War state patronage, and architecture firms were fragmented and re-combined with others in new ways. DMJM’s history reveals how the possibility of conglomeration for architecture—the act of acquiring firms increasingly unrelated to building design—was predicated on a culture of practice in which architects were required to view themselves as social and economic equals, rather than as superiors, to a broader range of urban practitioners; as a result, they were able to make legible, as well as to increase, the economic and political value of their labor.