Paul, my business partner, once told me, “Architects are their own worst enemies.” By that, I think he meant the way many architects, architectural schools, and even the AIA (the main architects’ professional organization in the U.S.) have worked hard to promote architects and architecture as “Artists” creating “Art”. This has certainly given us some social credibility – how many times have I heard “I always wanted to be an architect (but I wasn’t good in math)” – but the byproduct is an aura of precious elitism which the profession has cultivated. Have we branded ourselves as intelligent, creative, and irrelevant?
Last month, while paging through the February issue of ARCHITECT, this photo inspired a snide bark of a laugh. It’s the architecture jury from the most recent Progressive Architecture (PA) Awards. Eschewing the typical frontal shot, the jurors face the edge of the frame, jaws clenched, as if steeling themselves against some architectural disaster just out of the frame. I imagine my dentist or accountant or any number of friends – realtors, social workers, financial advisors, politicians, bike mechanics, restauranteurs, businesswomen – running across this photo while waiting for a haircut. If the question, “Fun to work with this group?” popped into their head, I’m guessing they’re thinking “Not so much.” Architects, in our serious quest to be taken seriously, sometimes forget the appeal, or approachability, of charisma. Creating can be a rigorous exercise to be sure, but also deeply satisfying and even (gasp!) fun. This photo certainly speaks to me, “don’t trap me in the corner with someone who is going to blab endlessly on aesthetics,” but it doesn’t say ” join us at our end of the table!” I don’t want to be that kind of architect.
Architects almost universally whine about a) losing design market share to realtors, design/build contractors, and controlling owners; and b) being under compensated. Might we learn a lesson from the playbook of residential realtors – who are considered virtually indispensable to home buyers and sellers? Concentrate on quantity to the same degree as quality, and don’t under deliver on customer experience. Not customer service, customer experience. I think Frank Lloyd Wright, a prolific tinkerer, understood that; while Le Corbusier, a crabby perfectionist, probably did not. Both were acclaimed designers with sweeping careers. Bonus points to anyone who can guess which one architects more commonly study in design school. HINT: not the one from Wisconsin.
We like to immerse in a complicated project with a lavish design budget as much as any firm, but many of our clients need less than “full service” – a few inexpensive sketches to solve a space planning issue, preliminary ideas to establish a budget for a project, or schematic designs that will be finalized later by an owner or contractor. They can’t always afford a masterpiece, or just don’t want to pay for one, but they still want creative. This “design lite” model isn’t our ideal project; it has liability implications, and can be challenging if clients expect to receive apples-to-apples competitive construction bids. However, more moderate services are often more in line with what clients expect or are willing to spend. We don’t propose doing the same amount of work for less, we suggest providing a quality service, lesser in scope, commensurate with the fee. The advantages to architecture firms in terms of increased workload might outweigh the headache of reassigning risk and altering established project delivery methods. Who wants to write a spec anyway?
I’m not for belittling the creative, sometimes magical, energy we bring to people and projects, but I think the profession would be economically healthier if we marketed and leveraged our imaginative abilities, rather than broadcasting the aloof persona of stubborn design crusaders hell bent on delivering a legacy.
These guys look like more fun.