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Letter to a Discontented Architect March 9, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, creativity, function, identity, optimism, problem solving, survival, the economy.
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Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress.

Mohandas Gandhi

Dear Architect,

Thanks for writing – now it’s my turn. I know it’s particularly hard out there right now and it’s hard for even the most diehard optimist to come up with the words you need to hear without sounding either glib or out of touch. But I understand your restlessness and discontent with your situation and may have a suggestion or two on how you might turn things around for the better.

First, let it be said, to be discontent – with our profession or the built environment, with your lot in life or the lot you’ve been given to work with, the cards you’ve been dealt and position you’ve been put in, the state of the economy or the way government is handling it  – is a natural, healthy state to be in. Like stress – it is a critical part of what it means to be human and, to a point, our dissatisfaction with the way things are keeps us focused, energized and motivated.

As an architect, you in fact need to remain discontent for as long as you can stand it. For to be discontent means you are alive, have a pulse, blood is running through your veins – all good.

You just need to be sure you are discontent with the right things.

By nature a discontented lot – architects look at what is and envision the way it can be. They not only create the built environment but see their interventions as improving the world around them – both the natural and the manmade. Yes, you heard that right. Most architects believe and have it ingrained early, that their work actually improves upon nature. Consider that! Most wouldn’t bother doing what they do if that wasn’t the case.

Architects are a discontented sort. They don’t like the way empty sites just sit there – so they look for or create opportunities whereby they can fill it with something. They don’t like the way existing buildings go underutilized – so they propose new uses for them. They don’t like the way others design their buildings – so they improve upon them by proposing their own. They don’t like the way clients stingily give them one building at a time to design so they go ahead and give their clients – for free – a value-added master plan indicating the unasked for, strategic placement of backlog for years to come! They don’t like the way developers maximize the gross area to reap the maximum reward irrespective of what needs there might be, so they propose buildings that meet the needs while making more efficient use of the site.

Architects improve upon whatever they see. They are always looking for ways to make things better – to the chagrin of our clients – even when they don’t necessarily need improving. They don’t like the way things are done and – action-oriented, creative, energized as they are – they do something about it.

That is why it is important to remain discontent – and sustain a perpetual state of restlessness – for as long as you can. For architecture – and becoming an architect – takes a long time. And you need to be there for it.

Discontent with those content

It’s a strange, contradictory and even a bit snobbish truism that architects who are content with everything are held in lower esteem by peers and even seen by some as sell-outs. It implies a serious lack of critical judgment, ignorance and worst of all, curiosity. Strange and unfortunate, but true.

To be content with something is seen as a sign of weakness. If you are OK with something it either means you have no values, you have no guts, you have no morals, you are too easily pleased, you’re a push-over, you’re ignorant or you have no ideas of your own. You’re made up of lesser stuff. Not up to snuff, there’s a place for people like you and, well, it’s not with us.

There is a great deal that needs improvement in our world and contentedness implies self-satisfaction when there’s still much work to do. Always is. As though to say, to be dissatisfied is to be alive. I’ll have plenty of time to be satisfied when I’m dead.

This is just to say I understand your discontent with your situation. You put in a lot of work and expended a lot of energy to make your way through school, to land your first positions, only – you say – to be handed this.

The Art of Being Discontent

So be discontent. A little discontent is fine and to be expected – this is what we are and who we are. Its par for the course for architects as we make our way through school into our careers as designers and custodians of the built environment to be a bit disgruntled with what lies in store or just outside our window or within our purview.

We need to be a bit discontent to be motivated to put up with all we have to put up with on the road from concept and visualization to realization of built form, whether we’re designing our careers or buildings.

Buildings made from contented architects would be a little bland. The world does not need more blah.

That said, choose wisely the things you are discontent about. Know the difference between supportive, constructive words and a rant. Less screed, more helping each other to succeed.

Criteria for healthy discontent

The allure of skepticism is its exoneration from obligation: if nothing works properly why try? If everyone is insincere why be honest? How can we trust when deceit is rampant, when cultural heroes are routinely toppled? – Baruch Epstein

But also like stress, like anything taken too far to excess, discontent turns into something vile and largely unhealthy to the body politic, and starts to appear less as a natural and understandable dissatisfaction and more like sarcasm and cynicism. Discontent becomes unsustainable as an operating procedure – bitter to be around, alienating, undermining our very efforts at communication and progress. Discontent becomes dour, corrosive and regressive – adding little but bile to the conversation. When like that you become disbelieving in the very possibility of sincerity of human motives.

Architects and cynics alike design and build protective walls to stand behind and contain. Skepticism and irony, sarcasm and cynicism are merely barriers to protect the deeply emotional expectations architects have for themselves in these uncertain times. This is entirely understandable – it’s scary out there. And yet, it may seem that without cynicism, architects have no place to hide. But as enclosures go, cynicism is the drafty, unsustainable, energy-wasting kind. Don’t go there.

As important as it is to be discontent – it is just as important to not be cynical. Cynicism will eat away at you. Know the difference between cynicism and sarcasm, discontent and skepticism. Only the latter two will serve you well. The former will make you dispassionate; you’ll come across to colleagues and clients alike – however unintended – as snide and angry and obtuse, standing in the way of the very progress you profess to perpetuate. Go on ridicule sincerity – when sincerity stands in your way of accomplishing great deeds.

Building designers – and for that matter bloggers and others who start and contribute to online discussions and forums – are content providers while, dissatisfied consumers of these have largely become discontent providers. Before adding your two cents, ask yourself these three things. Is, what I’m about to write nurturing? Is it growth promoting? And does it work (for others?)

If not, perhaps it doesn’t need to be said.

This criteria, it would seem, doesn’t allow for humorous, ironic and sarcastic responses and asides. Bringing more humor into our lives is always welcome. The question again is one of intent:  is the jibe intended to hurt or to help? Because right now, we – as a profession, as colleagues and co-creators with one another – need a little less sarcasm and more support.

As you may know, I recently posted “81 Reasons Why There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be an Architect.” Unabashedly optimistic, positive, uplifting – and asking for trouble. An outpouring of responses followed. Most of the positive ones were lengthy, while those less enthralled identified themselves with just two initials, posting 3-word screeds as though to say it wasn’t worth the time and effort (i.e. what is?) So, perhaps understandably, yk wrote “this is a joke, right?” and kh commented “Feel good fluff,” some more mean-spirited than others, one implying maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation “if your posts were more concise.” One comment perhaps spoke for everyone else: “I’d trade all 81 reasons for work.”

While contrarian views such as these are targets for concision, some of the comments that were left were downright accusatory, as though to say: all things considered, you really ought to be less content. You ought to be less happy and a whole lot less optimistic.

Architects comment on industry forums angered at the fact that they cannot call themselves architects while unlicensed technologists can. Standing on the sidelines back against the wall, design architects are deciding whether to bow out or wait out this dance. Cynical? Absolutely. Sneering? Sarcastic? To be sure. But also fearful. They’re afraid. Very, very afraid – about their future, about the fact that their hard fought education – not yet paid for – may have been for naught. That the initial inroads into the profession was at best a misfire, spent on the sidelines or behind the scenes cleaning-up other people’s mess. And yet, and yet we needn’t worry until we start to see the language of fear verge toward the language of anger. And this seething anger is, I’m afraid, something we are starting to see.

The content of discontent

There’s an inherent optimism in an architect’s discontent, as though to say: “I don’t like the way things are and I’m going to do something about it.” In this way, the act of architecture is one of healing. Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, healing the earth. There is always the initial recognition and awareness that something is wrong that needs to be righted, something is broken that needs to be fixed.

One fallout from the current economy is that under- and unemployed architects are subjected not only to the prospect of having less work but having seemingly less opportunity to make positive outcomes from their critical stances. In addition to the indignities of our current state, we remain discontent without the apparent creative outlet or opportunity to introduce change. To right what has been wronged.

But to believe this is wrong. We can tap into and turn our natural abundance of discontent toward the improvement of so much in our world that needs fixing. It may not be the occasional fire station, student residence or library for the near term. We will have to find other subjects in need of our healthy discontent to address in the interim.

A prelude to progress

Thomas Edison said that discontent is the first necessity of progress.

What are the right things worth being discontent about? Here are a few important things to consider:

  • Global warming: Improving the environment while using less energy
  • Education: Teaching future designers and architects what they need to know to succeed in the future
  • Our future as designers: Explaining the value of design to the unaware
  • The natural environment: Explaining the real meaning of sustainability to those who can do something about it
  • Sprawl I: Identifying ways to contain sprawl and present them
  • Sprawl II: Devote yourself to the improvement of our suburbs
  • The profession: Create a viable, win-win value proposition for architects in the age of BIM and IPD
  • Stubbornness, stagnation and unwillingness to change: Become a change agent for those unwilling to change
  • Construction: dissatisfied with the amount of construction, time and money waste and want to do something about it
  • Collaboration: with the way team members withhold information and work at odds with each other
  • Professional organizations: want to feel that members are better served while helping to serve yourself
  • Value proposition: frustrated with owner’s expectations about how/how little design professionals are paid

I’m sure you have a list of your own. If not, this is the time to take note.

What are some of the things that we shouldn’t bother being discontent with?

  • Trivial things, minutia
  • Things we have no control over
  • Situations that wouldn’t be improved despite our intervening and attention

In these cases, they need a whole lot of care from someone else – namely themselves.

Your Turn

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. George Bernard Shaw

The world needs you even if clients or employers don’t seem to right now. As an architect you have always had two clients – a paying one and, in the public-at-large, in building users and surrounding communities – a non-paying client.

Now it’s your turn. So go on – be discontent, dissatisfied with your situation. Turn it toward positive results. Turn – this negative energy toward something constructive and productive.

Turn – the collective frustration into a major rebuilding effort.

Turn – your anger into something productive.

Turn – your frustration into improving the profession

Turn – your experience into something helpful and positive

Turn – your attention to what needs fixing

Turn – your unending creativity toward building up rather than tearing down

Turn – your words around and ask what you could be doing for your community, for your industry and your fellow professionals in need – right now.

This may very well indeed be the winter of our discontent. If so, use it to improve one small corner of the world. And then get out in front of it. Our good works aren’t a bastion against anything – but rather a backdrop for what, ahead, is sure to be more a promising time of it. Together – if each of us takes our one small place – we will in time create a better world and lives for ourselves and for those around us. And that is nothing to be discontent about.

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Comments»

1. lefarchitect - March 9, 2010

Beautiful…and incredibly inspirational. Thank you for writing/posting these words.

2. IT Architects - March 20, 2010

Thank for sharing good and useful information. This information is very valuable.

Regards.
http://www.cooperburns.co.uk


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