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It is the Enviable Architect who gets to Stay on Deck and Burn October 27, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect types, architecture industry, career, change, identity, survival, the economy, transformation.
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This post will introduce a very short poem.

One that I feel perfectly captures the predicament architects find themselves in today.

But first, a few words about change.                    

As in What will it take for architects to change?

Let’s start by removing the word “change.”

Changing the word change.

Architects don’t like the word any more than anyone else.

Change itself is stressful and just the word alone has been known to raise one’s blood pressure.

And fight or flight response.

So what will it take for architects to evolve?

In order to transform, the pain of remaining the way we are has to be stronger than the pain of doing things differently.

From what I have seen and heard, architects have reached their pain threshold.

We’re crying Uncle.

Ready for the next step in our ongoing evolution.

Bring on the Next Age.

The next stage in our development.Is architecture a burning platform?

The term burning platform in business parlance means immediate and radical change due to dire circumstances.

Radical change in architects only comes when survival instincts trump comfort zone instincts.

When making major decisions or solving major problems a sense of urgency is required to achieve one’s goals.

Despite the hardships we face and have faced for the past several years, most of us have felt more of a numbness than any real urgency.

As though our eyes were transfixed on a nearby fire.

When it is we ourselves who are engulfed  in flames.Architects who would like an excuse to stay on deck

Thinking about architects and our situation today reminded me of a poem I’ve long loved.

A poem by one of the 20th century’s most esteemed poets – a poet’s poet – Elizabeth Bishop.

The poem is entitled Casabianca.

Four sentences.

Goes like this:


Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.’ Love’s the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
or an excuse to stay
on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

If one would judiciously liken the poor boy in the poem to the architect today.

And substitute the boy’s burning love for the architect’s passion.

The poem could be about the architect’s inability to describe, explain and justify their relevance – while crisis ensues all around.

Crisis of identity, of economy, you name it.

Who we are. What we are.

Where we belong. Whether we belong.

The poem would then be structured from the individual, into the world, returning to the architect in the final line.

As with the architect’s creative process, the lens of this poem widens from the architect to everything else and then, finally, back to the architect.

Something we often forget, and don’t give ourselves enough credit for:

Architecture begins and ends with the architect.

I know. There’s no architecture without a willing client.

And someone has to build the darned thing.

But while the building may belong to the world at large, architecture largely remains in our domain.

The poem’s build from the poor boy – and then back to the burning boy – is what makes this poem a whole, complete and memorable work of art.

Something the architect (stammering elocution) knows a little about.

I really miss architecture.

I envy you who despite all give it your all every day.

For it is the enviable architect who gets to stay on deck and burn.



1. Charles Starck, AIA - October 27, 2010


Great comments. I’ve been so busy of late trying to be busy, I finally noticed the burning feet. The comparison of the boy on deck and architects is an apt one.

As one still standing (barely) on deck, I don’t feel like the one to be envied. Having recently moved across the country to take a new job (only to have it evaporate thirty days later after uprooting the family and moving), it’s harder than ever to focus on just being an architect.

I suspect my experiences of the past few years have been repeated by any number of our colleagues. We are in crisis, at a crossroads. Which way we choose to go will determine who or what we become.

I miss architecture, too. Too much time is spent chasing the project so you can do architecture. Perhaps it does make a better hobby than profession. After 30 years, I still can’t imagine doing anything else. That, I think, is the problem. I really can’t imagine doing anything else. But what I’m doing now is not it.

Keep up the conversation, I value your insight.

Trying to see through the smoke,


2. Ted Pratt - October 27, 2010


I agree with Charles on this one but wonder if Dana Cuff of UCLA’s City Lab http://citylab.aud.ucla.edu/cuff.html
is on to something in her research. She is investigating the profession moving away from seeking clients to architects finding opportunities that cause clients to come to them.

My ship keeps burning with the desire of a thousand ideas yet to be explored.


3. Randy Deutsch - October 27, 2010

Thank you Charles for sharing your experience and insights. Your thoughtful words – and recent experiences – put my post to shame.

Ted, sounds like Dana Cuff is investigating the subject of “Pull,” which is also a new book by John Seely Brown et al http://amzn.to/bcpzaL Thanks, as always, for chiming in.

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