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A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty September 25, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, architecture industry, books, career, change, employment, identity, management, optimism, questions, reading, software architects, the economy, transformation.
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Today’s post will be brief: I have a presentation to edit and packing still to do. But I would be remiss in leaving town without first letting you in on a brand new book that I just read that I predict will take you and the architecture profession by storm. Before reading further, grab your wallet. You’ll need it by the time you get to the sixth line of this book review.

The book title: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice

The author: Eric J. Cesal

Why you never heard of him: He’s a recent architecture graduate with 5 years experience as an intern and has built little.

Why that shouldn’t matter: You will be hearing a lot more of and from Eric J. Cesal. 

The consensus: This may well be the best book by and for architects ever written. And (to my wife’s chagrin) I own and have read them all.

What the book will set you back: $14.93 ($21.95 + tax if you happen upon it in a bookstore, like I did. See “chagrin” above.)

Who should read this book: Out of work architects. Architects thinking of leaving the profession. Architects who have left the profession but want back in. Former architects who have left the profession for good but on deep, dark nights lie sleepless in bed wondering if they made a wise choice. Neighbors of out of work architects who wonder why they wear a tie when taking the dog out for a walk. Anyone who has ever had to wear a tie. Katherine Darnstadt would like this book. Parents who find their recent grads living once again under their roof. Or in their tent. Employers. Architect’s spouses, friends, relatives and roommates. Architects who think they might have a story to tell but question whether anyone will care to listen. Architects who are considering doing a tour of duty helping the world in some selfless way while they wait out the Great Wake. Architects who think they may be the next to be let go. Architects who sometimes wish they were the  next to be let go. Architects who read architecture blog posts in hopes of finding someone who deeply, passionately understands their situation. Architects.

Why you should get it: This book  speaks to you where you hurt. Cesal is wise beyond his 31 years (33 today) and whip smart. He knows what matters and he (and no doubts his talented editors) cut to the chase.

Why you should get it now: The sooner you read it, the sooner we’ll all be out of this mess; the sooner you’ll decide to stick it out in architecture; the sooner you’ll find a place for yourself in this new world.

Author’s espoused purpose in writing the book: “We want to find ways for the architecture profession to prosper as our world economy transitions.” p. 42

Why you should read it: Cesal wrote the book during a period of unemployment. Nearly every architect – employed, underemployed and unemployed – can relate.

Why else you should read it: Cesal names the Great Recession the Great Wake.

What will linger long after you’re done reading the book and give it to your colleague to read: The author’s voice.

What this book could also be used for: Like a commonplace book that soldiers used to carry around with them for reassurance and companionship on the front lines, you can keep this book nearby on your own detour of duty.

Why I love the book: Interjected throughout the book are short personal essays describing the author growing up, personal incidents and events that helped shape the architect/ author/ artist/ humanitarian he has become today. I love how the book captures timely subjects (the co-opting of our title by others) and timeless ones. I am most impressed by the way the author maintains a line of thought, without jumping around from subject to subject: a real feat and welcome revelation in contemporary writing. Like the late, great architect and author Peter Collins, Cesal asks hard questions and isn’t afraid to linger in them until he offers a solution.

Why this book may not be appropriate for all audiences: There’s an excruciatingly painful scene involving a tooth being pulled. Alcohol plays a part in a number of chapters.

The author’s eye for detail: How Cesal knew the recession had reached his city: “The coffee shop I usually passed by seemed to have too many people in it.”

Why I think Eric J. Cesal is architecture’s answer to Dave Eggers: Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius if it were written for architects.

Favorite passage from the book: The author’s attempt to find work at a temp agency. (p.117) Priceless.

The author’s education: Three master’s degrees in four years: business administration, construction management and architecture from Washington University in St Louis.

What book you might compare Down Detour Road with: During the deep recession of the 1970’s we had Harris Stone’s incomparably endearing and well-illustrated Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect (available here for a penny.) But let there be no doubt: Down Detour Road is our age’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. This book is our The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Someone famous the author hangs with but doesn’t once mention in the book (very classy): Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and ‘chief eternal optimist’ (CEO) for Architecture for Humanity.

Representative quote from the book: “For all the things I had intended my life to be, for all of the  things I thought I would be doing at 31, I was sitting in the dirt, on the side of an empty, unlit road, jobless, homeless, cold and hungry, lusting after a street sign.”

The author’s solution: Cesal recommends that we have to come to some hard truths about the limits of what we do “and then leap beyond those boundaries.” He goes on to describe 10 types of architects.

What are the ten architect types he writes about? The financial architect; The value architect; The risk architect; The paid architect; The idea architect; The knowing architect; The named architect; The citizen architect; The green architect; The sober architect. He refreshingly doesn’t over-use capital letters and dedicates a chapter to each architect type.

What it says on the dust jacket: As the world redesigns and rebuilds in the face of economic and ecological crises, unprecedented numbers of architects are out of work. What does this say about the value of architecture? That is the question that confronted architect Eric Cesal as he finished graduate school at the onset of the worst financial meltdown in a generation. Down Detour Road is his journey: one that begins off-course, and ends in a hopeful new vision of architecture.

Like many architects of his generation, Cesal confronts a cold reality. Architects may assure each other of their own importance, but society has come to view architecture as a luxury it can do without. For Cesal, this recognition becomes an occasion to rethink architecture and its value from the very core. He argues that the times demand a new architecture, an empowered architecture that is useful and relevant. New architectural values emerge as our cultural values shift: from high risks to safe bets, from strong portfolios to strong communities, and from clean lines to clean energy.

This is not a book about how to run a firm or a profession; it doesn’t predict the future of architectural form or aesthetics. It is a personal story—and in many ways a generational one: a story that follows its author on a winding detour across the country, around the profession, and into a new architectural reality.

Where you can find the author today: Port-au-Prince, managing and coordinating Architecture for Humanity’s design and reconstruction initiatives in Haiti until 2012.

No, really, where can you find him: You can find him here. But seriously, he lives in Haiti with a family of two dogs, 11 chickens, 5 cats and a goat named Newfie. Read more about it in the Huffington Post here.

What’s next up for the author: As Cesal explains on his webpage, “Two projects are currently in slow, agonizing, one-sentence/week progress: NCARB & I, a chronicle of architectural licensing, and Lets Just Finish These Beers and Go, a semi-autobiographical romp about how to become an architect while making every self-defeating effort you can.”

What does the word “detour”mean in the book’s title: de·tour, n.

1. A roundabout way or course, especially a road used temporarily instead of a main route.

2. A deviation from a direct course of action.

Likelihood that the book will be made into a movie: Very good odds. I’m not a betting man but I’d bet on it.

Final thoughts: Someone get this guy a MacArthur Genius Grant. And a second one to The MIT Press for having the foresight and gumption for publishing this staggering piece of exceptional writing from an otherwise little known entity. Cesal may very well be doing wonderful, necessary work in Haiti but we very much need him here back home with us.

The quickest way to get the book in your possession: Steal it from an architect in the coffee shop. Or click here

What to do while you wait for your copy of the book to arrive: Tell everyone you know to read Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice.

A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius: One Architect’s Detour of Duty by Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP 2010

Are You a Koala or Raccoon? July 4, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, career, employment, environment, identity, pragmatism, survival, the economy.
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4 comments


All architects are by training generalists and then in practice become specialists.

To see that this is true we only need to look at Vitruvius’s bucket list for the training of architects:

to be creative, apt in the acquisition of knowledge, a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies

Despite never becoming somewhat of a musician, many practitioners understandably have remained generalists their entire careers.

Some to great success.

That is, until now.

For while statistics aren’t readily available it is conceivable that the majority of architects who find themselves out of work, or underemployed, today are the generalist sort.

That the better gamble would have – years earlier – been to become experts at something.

But that thinking – while comforting to tell oneself – would be off-the-mark.

By suddenly specializing, generalists do themselves a disservice, are untrue to their calling and sell themselves short.

More than anyone employers need to realize this.

For while there are certainly merits and detriments to each:

Is the current trend to fill holes predominantly with specialists short-sighted?The Generalist Advantage

Using a biological analogy, a generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources while specialist species can only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions with a limited diet.

In more utilitarian terms, specialists know where to hit the nail to get rid of the creak in the floor board.

While generalists can recommend eleven types of flooring that don’t creak in the first place.

Generalists see the big picture.

Specialists have great depth of experience in one specific area.

Generalists conceive the big ideas and concepts that energize teams and carry construction projects through their arduous 3-5 year lifespan.

Specialists focus all of their effort and skill development on one specialty.

Generalists keep things interesting – they’re often whom colleagues and clients relate with best.

Specialists have an easier time selling their services once they find their market and can charge more.

Generalists are the glue that holds teams together.

In the body politic, specialists are the workhorse liver and spleen.

Generalists? The heart and sinew.

Specialists know the work inside and out.

Generalists – with broad peripheral knowledge and the ability to provide clients with alternatives if one solution doesn’t fit – are the heart and soul of the operation.

For that really is the crux of the matter:

When specialists die who attends their funeral?

When generalists die they’re standing 10 deep, nary a dry eye in the room.

Specialists may be safer in the short term but generalists are a whole lot more fun.Wanted: Specialists – Not Deeper Generalists

Is your specialty being a generalist? Are generalists the new specialists?

Architects have so much to learn that being a jack-of-all-trades isn’t really a conceivable route to take.

Even generalists are more specialized than they give themselves credit for.

One look at the jobs postings – what there are of them – and its dishearteningly clear: only specialists are in demand.

Employers now require recruits and candidates that are exact matches for the holes they need to fill.

Down to the detail – looking for people with single attributes.

In the wish list of job requirements “well-rounded” is not among them.

Forget round altogether. We’re living in square peg, square hole times.

Not fire starters but firemen – relievers – to put out fires.

Wanted: Closers, not openers. Fastballs, not knuckleballs.

Generalists in a Specialist’s World

And there’s no room for ambiguity, no growing into the position. You’re either it – or you’re not.

It may be well and good that the architect’s core competency is a hard-earned and all-too-rare comfort with ambiguity.

Make no mistake. We are living in clearly unambiguous times.

This talent – often referred to as agility and flexibility – to keep as many balls in the air for as long as possible isn’t needed right now, thank you.

For there are far fewer balls to maneuver and the few that there are seem to hang in the air longer.

Task masters are in. Multitaskers need not apply.

Going back to that biological analogy, most organisms of course do not fit neatly into either the specialist or generalist camp. Some species are highly specialized, others less so, while some can tolerate many different environments.

In other words, it’s probably healthiest for architects to think of the specialist–generalist issue as a continuum, from highly specialized experts on one end to broadly generalist practitioners on the other.Are You a Koala or Raccoon?

Forget the Hedgehog or the Fox, where the generalist fox knows many things, but the specialist hedgehog knows one big thing.

Instead, ask yourself: Are you a Koala or Raccoon?

A well-known example of a specialist animal is the koala which subsists almost entirely on eucalyptus leaves. No eucalyptus, no koala.

In our current work environment it is perhaps best to think of oneself like the wily raccoon – which are able to adapt to all sorts of environments, even urban ones.

Ever adaptable, the raccoon is a generalist because it has a natural range that includes most of North and Central America and it is omnivorous, eating berries, insects, eggs and small animals.

But then again, adaptability – like the generalist today – is underrated.

Perhaps it’s best to be a little of both?

But you’d have to be a generalist to see it that way.

I

107 Reasons Why You, Architect, Matter June 25, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect types, collaboration, creativity, environment, identity, marginalization, optimism, sustainability, technology, the economy.
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17 comments


We’re often asked to imagine life without people, life without buildings, even life without oil.

But how about a world without architects?

That’s not so hard to imagine.

It’s easy if you’re mostpeople.

Because mostpeople never so much as meet an architect.

Let alone engage one in a building project.

It’s also relatively easy to imagine if you’re an architect.

Because this is what we do, what we’re good at – imagining things that aren’t there.

Then relentlessly realize them until they are.

If architects were to disappear tomorrow – who would care?

At the moment – facing a double dip in the economy – architects feel overlooked and underappreciated.

Elitism is out and elegance a low priority when living in deeply discounted times.

Beauty not a necessity, barely a nicety – too high on Maslow’s hierarchy – when focused on the lower rung of the pyramid labeled paying the mortgage.

So to say that we matter. To whom exactly? And what for?

To matter means to be of consequence, of importance (but not self-importance;) significant, relevant, worthy of note and of crucial value.

To feel appreciated and valued, not left-for-dead, abandoned or ignored.

But why ask whether architects matter when so clearly other things matter more.

The unchecked ravages of genocide, extreme poverty, child labor, AIDS, environmental degradation, Alzheimer’s disease, global warming and compulsive consumerism – these certainly matter more.

But this isn’t a contest. Architects can still matter.

Why the world still needs architects

The 107 reasons that follow may seem like overkill. A tad bit much.

But we need reminding. Really need reminding.

Some will inevitably say – tell it to our clients or convince a contractor – that we’re not the ones who need convincing.

Before we can convince anyone else that we matter we must first convince ourselves.

From the architects I’ve talked to and heard from we need a talking to.

And if we’re not going to remind ourselves – who will?

This is not a desperate attempt to justify our existence nor rationalize our cosmic importance. These reasons came easily, rolling off the pen and hammered out in an evening.

And as with most things worth doing, if I had more time there would have been far fewer.

You need to know you matter

The world may not always affirm what we do (try this: google “architect appreciation” or any facsimile thereof and what comes up?*)

* Nothing.

People are not born with an appreciation for architecture.

Nor, for that matter, for architects.

Your employer may not always tell you that you – and the work you do – are valued.

But that doesn’t mean that what we do and who we are doesn’t have a profound impact on our world.

It does. And we do.

In the big scheme of things – we make a difference. A big difference. The world would be a very different place – a lesser place – without us.

And our interventions. Our ideas and ideals.

Think of these as the gifts architects give to society.

Think of these as The Gifts of the Architect:

How a Tribe of Tectonic Nomads Changed the Way People Everywhere Live and Feel.

Think of these as – in the spirit of Yale’s Why X Matters series

107 Reasons Why Architects Matter

(or the 107 Things I Like About You)

Reason1: Architects are optimists. So what? Otherwise we couldn’t survive, anticipate and prepare for an unknown future and imagine what is not there. Imagine a world of pessimist designers, planning for the worst. That’s the world without architects.

Reason2: Architects balance multiple intelligences. So what? It’s a job requirement and for some a liability. Architects use all of their faculties when they design and document – including spatial intelligence.

Reason3: Architects are wired to care. So what? Architects naturally empathize. We have the empathy gene. In abundance. More than our fair share, allowing us to put ourselves in other’s shoes. Others may be in it for the money – we’re burning the midnight oil because we care.

Reason4: Architects are strategists. So what? We ask tough, penetrating questions, seldom taking assignments or answers at face value. We reframe questions that are lobbed at us. And go about our work less as object designers than chess players or basketball coaches parlaying the playbook.

Reason5: Architects think in terms of systems, not just things. So what? Because we understand that the world is not made up of individual, disconnected things. And that everything is causal, interrelated and connected. We design the spaces between things as well as the things themselves – and help others to see what they were formerly unable to see and was certain wasn’t there before we gifted them with a new pair of eyes. We’ve all done this for someone in our lives.

Reason6: Architects think laterally and simultaneously – not linearly. So what? The very thinking skills that we need to nurture in others as we move ahead into the 21st century.

Reason7: We do more with less. So what? So there will be more for others – including our children – when they need it. Eaarth will thank you for it.

Reason8: Architects design outdoor spaces. So what? Think Central Park. Designed by a landscape architect (architects of all stripes.) Architects gave the world outdoor rooms, helping people to feel comfortable in their surroundings, to feel as though they belong, and on a good day, to dwell poetically.

Reason9: Architects are well-educated. So what? Who is most qualified to lead integrated project teams? (Those who deem this elitist need not respond.) The person trained to think of other’s needs before their own, the person who is licensed to protect the health, safety and welfare of the project’s inhabitants. The person dedicated to continuous learning.

Reason10: Architects are T-shaped – both deep and wide. So what? More than mere experts at what the do and know, architects – due to their training and education – are able to see through other’s eyes, empathize and understand what is important to others at the table. We have deep skills and wide wingspan breadth.

Reason11: Architects are “keepers of the geometry.”  So what? Form-givers, architects give shape to our world. Who else provides our buildings, cities and lives with a sense of continuity and coherence?

Reason12: Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul. So what? Life speeds by fast. We need to slow down. Architects design places that help us to slow down, look around and take in the view. And then, before we realize it, we’re no longer in the place but of it. Architects have the ability to design places that touch the soul.

Reason13: Architects transform chaos into order. So what? While nature, animals and biomimicry are definitely trending, one look at architecture without architects and you wish you had called an architect.

Reason14: Architects give the world meaning. So what? So what?Architects may be involved in only a small number of projects, but just think of places where you have been happiest, felt most at home, felt a sense of purpose and accomplishment, at ease with yourself and your surroundings – and more than likely an architect was involved.

Reason15: Architects uplift the downtrodden. So what? Architects raise not only roof beams but eyes up toward the sky, and awareness to a higher plane altogether. We provide worthwhile, heightened experiences, naturally. (Ever walk across the structural glass floor to the outdoor amphitheater overlooking the Mississippi on Jean Nouvel’s Guthrie Theater? Then you know what I mean.)

Reason16: Architects think differently. So what? Yes, Apple thinks differently – but what of what Peter Bolin FAIA and his cohorts did for Apple? For Apple! In NYC. It’s no easy task wowing Steve Jobs. Architects do so on a regular basis.

Reason17: Architects are masters of branding. So what? Not corporate branding, but identity, genus loci and placemaking. Branded environment architects give places identity – to orient, so that you know where you are in the world and, in the best of places, why you are there and why you’ll return.

Reason18: Architects traffic in beauty. So what? Beauty is perhaps a dirty word these days – but we cannot live without it. While nature does her fair share, architects – in their riffs off of nature – certainly supplement in wondrous ways.

Reason19: Architects provide the wow effect. So what? Because life is not just bread and water. That sense of awe when standing before something manmade, masterful and inexplicably beautiful or grand. That’s the gift architects give to the world.

Reason20: Architects create the places that inspire – and where we live out and realize – our dreams and destiny. So what? You are here, on this planet, for one reason and one reason alone. And more than likely an architect was involved in helping you to recognize this. Just think about it.

Reason21: Architects are technologists, artists and craftsmen. So what? Architects learn with their hands, create with their imagination and put the human touch into technology. This assures that what we help to create will be useful, bring about joy and remain for some time.

Reason22: Architects serve the underprivileged. So what? Architects have a reputation for pandering to the wealthy. Creating low income housing is a higher calling for many architects where good works are the ultimate goal. Fee-wise we may take it on the chin, but the work we produce means a great deal to the people who live there.

Reason23: Architects are custodians of the built environment. So what? If not architects, whom else?

Reason24: Architects keep moving the ball forward. So what? Neither sentimentalists nor futurists, architects as optimists recognize that humans are still evolving. And so too their work. So so what? With each commission architects attempt to push the envelope just that much farther, to do their part to advance things. That is how the world progresses – and architects share in this movement.

Reason25: Architects bring poetry out of doors into the world. So what? Art and poetry reside almost exclusively indoors. Museums and libraries may contain these – but architects work hard to bring their qualities to the design of the outdoors, through their sensitive integration of their buildings into the landscape.

Reason26: Architects are master shapers of light. So what? Kahn in particular was transfixed by light: The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building. Nor did anyone else for that matter.

Reason27: Architects are for the most part fascinating people. So what? My uncle, when I was 5, told me his best friends were architects: they’re the most interesting people I know, he’d say. Architects try to live their lives by this credo.

Reason28: Architects are intrinsically motivated. So what? It’s better in the long run for all involved. As “I Types,” architects are not in it for the token gift card. We do it because we love it, because it is the right thing to do, because – we trust – it makes a difference in people’s lives.

Reason29: Architects operate from both sides of the brain. So what? Neither exclusively right nor left – architects are the original whole brain thinkers. In doing so, we help to keep things whole.

Reason30: Architects are practical dreamers. So What? Floating ideas like prisons in the sky.  This is how we’ll solve large-scaled, complex and intractable problems facing millions: through the persistent application of our imagination, looking at things sideways until they appear to others right side up.

Reason31: Architects get design. So what? An understanding of good architectural design is vital for creating livable buildings and public spaces and architects understand how to design buildings. We make a difference to the positive outcome of the design of our world.

Reason32: Architects give others something inspiring to aspire to. So what? We have all heard someone say that they would have liked to be an architect. Going about the world as an architect is one of the last callings commensurate with our ability to imagine and to create. So so what? Architects have one of the few careers that guarantee that, while practicing, you will remain a lifelong student.

Reason33: Architects involve all of the senses. So what? While we’re lampooned for wearing all black – we know the value of color, the meaning of light, the importance of involving all of the senses in our work.

Reason34: Architects consistently provide people with what is important to them. So what? Some people know what they want while others look to the architect to tell them. Architects adapt to the client – and make it their goal to meet their needs. Sounds simple enough – but this in itself is all-too-rare  in the business world, let alone the arts.

Reason35: Architects take ideas and pay it forward – by giving it a twist. So what? In doing so, we create something new. What we produce fits – because it gives the impression that we’ve seen it before – but at the same time it is fresh, unprecedented – keeping life interesting. Architecture, not variety, is the spice of life.

Reason36: Architects turn what is used, old, broken and decrepit and reinvent it into something living and healthy environment for people to use, in cities as well as in the suburbs. So what? Don’t take my word. Take Ellen Dunham-Jones’ word.  Click on any of these links or read a sample chapter – and argument for doing so – of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs here.

Reason37: Architects are sexy So what? The world has become increasingly bland, globally with little that distinguishes itself. The architect, in the midst of this sameness, has retained her appeal. Why else would we be chosen as the number one career for lead roles in movies? Far from superficial, architects manage to keep things both relevant and interesting.

Reason38:, Architects are problem identifiers. So what? Not only problem solvers, architects recognize that identifying the right problem to solve is often 80% of the solution. Often, the problem they have been assigned is not the one that truly requires addressing. Architects work efficiently and effectively to make sure that everyone is focused on the most pressing, pertinent problem.

Reason39: Architects’ small acts have huge impacts. So what? You only have to think of the Bilbao effect. Don’t let statistics that architects design or impact less than 5% of buildings built. The buildings that count, that create a sense of place and pride of place, the places we take visitors to see and inhabit when in town, that best represent us – public places large and small – these are the buildings we remember and return to. And these are designed by architects.

Reason40: Architects got your back. So what? Architects assure that someone is watching out for you. We make sure you are safe by watching what’s behind you when you’re busy looking ahead. Who else besides the architect watches out for the health welfare and safety of society?

Reason41: Architects wow. So what? While we may only design 5% of all structures –how amazing, absorbing, uplifting they are. You have architects – and their cast of thousands – to thank for that.

Reason42: Architects draw by hand, mouse and by wand. So what? Creatively ambidextrous, flexible and agile, we are not stuck on any one means of communication or delivery. Architects make the best use of available technology to get their point across – but we are not above using a stick in sand, rock on pavement or a burnt piece of charcoal in order to connect and help you understand.

Reason43: Architects design like they give a damn. So what? We care. We make a difference. This matters.

Reason44: Architects give something back. So what? Architects don’t go into architecture to take or even to make money but to give something back. We’re continuously giving, whether going the extra mile, burning one more end of the candle, or by putting their talent and resources in the service of those who need it most. Such as the The 1%, a program of Public Architecture, connects nonprofits with architecture and design firms willing to give of their time pro bono.

Reason45: Architects are change agents. So what? Not merely open to change, we assist in moving change along. No matter how traditional or conventional the assignment, architects make great strides to incorporate the latest advanced technologies. For example allowing for earthquake resistance in tall buildings or in the case of Wright’s Tokyo Hotel. So so what? But at the same time expressing and infusing local or regional character so that the buildings appear to belong to the place where they reside. We may be comfortable with change but recognize that we first have to make it palatable and acceptable for others.

Reason46: Architects – by just being architects – give hope. So what? This is something we do for others. So many aspire to do something interesting with their lives, belong to a profession that offers endless opportunities to challenge yourself. Being an architect is one of the last callings that matters.

Reason47: Architects work in all media and dimensions. So what? We model in clay and digital clay.

Reason48: Architects serve as role models. So what? Citizen architects, such as Sam Mockbee of Rural Studio http://citizenarchitectfilm.com/ , urban activists, getting involved at the grass roots level, some going as far as government.

Reason49: Architects make connections. So what? As systems thinkers, by connecting elements in a project with its surroundings, architects create a social fabric: the semblance of a cohesive, consistent and meaningful world. Architects create worlds that hold a mirror up to life.

Reason50: Architects rise to a good challenge. So what? We challenge ourselves – and each other, our organizations, the profession and industry – to keep moving the ball forward. Improve improve improve.

Reason51: Architects draw crowds. So what? Imagine the world without Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudi, Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Louis I. Kahn, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano and Herzog and de Meuron. Doesn’t matter to “mostpeople?” Think again. Then why are these (in order) the 10 most visited architects in the world..by non-architects!

Reason52: Architects are driven from within. So what? No carrot? No stick? No problem. Architects are self-starting, self-motivating and self-activating. That’s why architects like to think of what we do as an inside game.

Reason53: Architects are linchpins. So what? And being so, are an indispensible part of the design and construction process. We are at the crux of real estate, development, concrete and plumbing. On projects where there may be well over 100 independent entities – from interior design to energy analysis – all pass through the architect. Architects are the common link between project constituents.

Reason54: Architects see the big picture. So what? So many it seems have a difficult time seeing the forest from the trees. Not architects. As I explained here, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink called this ability to see information in its wider context: coup d’oeil or court sense or “giss,” the power of the glance, the ability to immediately make sense of situations. So so what? Architects may not be born with this all-too-rare and exceedingly important ability, but by the end of their formal training they’ve got it. In droves.

Reason55: Architects are meaning-makers. So what? While many make it their job to provide meaningful work for their employees, or to help people find meaning in their own lives, no one but the architect is dedicated to making the world – the built environment – meaningful and coherent.

Reason56: Architects make the world a better place for all. So what? Making the built environment useful, safe, comfortable, efficient, and as beautiful as possible is the architect’s quest. No one else makes this their ultimate goal. The world is a better place for our having been there.

Reason57: Architects are rare. So what? At a time when it seems like there are too many architects for the work available – an imbalance of supply and demand – architects make up just a tiny percentage of professionals, let alone the workforce. Architects are a rare but powerful breed.

Reason58: Architects represent and serve all clients – paying and non-paying. So what? Architects matter because they are the only entity who serves not only the paying but non-paying client (society-at-large.) So so what? Who else is going to represent the needs and wants of the neighbors, community, stakeholders – while balancing the client’s wishes? Architects respect the needs and aspirations of both the individual and the community.

Reason59: Architects are a luxury. So what? Admit it. Human beings the world over have built homes with nothing more than their own two hands. Up until recently, the world existed for millennia without architects and can very well do so again. But why do so? Architects – for all we do – are a luxury that most cannot live without.

Reason60: Architects understand the patterns of everyday life. So what? Architects get urban design. Architects know that the design of cities and buildings affects the quality of our lives – whether this is acknowledged or appreciated is another matter. The bottom line is this: When it comes to creating urban form, places where people live, work and play, architects matter.

Reason61: Architects are influencers. So what? Not everybody has their own ideas for how to live, work, shop and play. Some architects, such as Christopher Alexander, not only influence their own tribe but worlds beyond their own (i.e. urban planning to software engineers. The adoption of Alexander’s pattern language by the software community is one such instance.)

Reason62: Architects keep things whole. So what? Since Deconstructivism died, architects – irrespective of style – one way or another have focused on whole building and holistic design. Our hemisphere needs architects to keep things whole, to distinguish east and west while acknowledging the best of both, much as the olympics have. So so what? To keep globalization from creating an indistinguishable world. To provide order but also character and pride of place.

Reason63: Architects look to the beyond. So what? Beyond the immediate problem. Beyond the immediate issue at hand. Beyond their immediate surroundings – to look at the impacts of what they’re creating on the world beyond. The universe needs architects…to explore how to inhabit other places beyond our planet.

Reason64: Architects touch sp many walks of life. So what? The world needs architects – the earth, our continent and country needs architects to address national issues. Our region needs architects – to represent what distinguishes one locale from another, to make sure that our work belongs to specific place and time, so that we might place ourselves in it. Our state needs architects, our cities needs architects, and especially our suburbs.

Reason65: Architects save lives. So what? And not just hospital design architects. “Architecture can save lives”— Newsweek. Just look at what we are accomplishing in Haiti. Producing housing structures for displaced and disadvantaged populations, rethinking humanitarian assistance and pursuing innovative solutions to contemporary housing crises. Focusing on disaster relief and inexpensive and affordable design solutions.

Reason66: Architects work at making stronger communities. So what? Our community needs architects. Our neighborhoods and even our families need architects.

Reason67: Architects are as diverse a group as those they design for. So what?  Some will try to tell you that architects have a diversity problem. Forget the stereotype – it doesn’t exist. Architects themselves are a diverse bunch making them particularly effective at designing for diversity. We champion the values of diversity in a beautiful way — values essential to creating livable cities and housing.

Reason68: Architects give good design. Daily. So what? Architects, some may feel, are a luxury. So be it. But architects, as purveyors and perpetuators of good design, are truly needed. Good design is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Reason69: Architects have respect for the past, perform in the present and aspire to have their work help create the future. So what? Architects work attempts to represent the time in which they build – which for us, today, represents turmoil. As Frank Stella said: Architecture can’t fully represent the chaos and turmoil that are part of the human personality, but you need to put some of that turmoil into the architecture, or it isn’t real. For many architects it is not enough that their work represents a specific time and place – they strive to have it belong to both their time and all time. So so what? It matters because our work will not look dated and have a sense of permanence and inevitability, not leave the user with a sense o f otherwiseness. As another Frank has said (Gehry): Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.

Reason70: Architects are gifted. So what? Not a wrapped keepsake voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation but a notable capacity, talent, or endowment. Whether born with talent or acquired along the way, architects are made, not born. So so what? We owe their many gifts to their professors, educators and trainers along the way. Everything they need to know they learned in school.

Reason71: Architect’s work is a gift. So what? No matter how much they are paid – or whether they are paid at all – what architects leave behind outlasts them. More time is always put into a project’s design and making than our fee could cover.

Reason72: Architects give it away. So what? Architects worldwide regularly provide pro-bono services to communities that have survived war, government oppression and natural disasters. It’s also an antidote to apathy.

Reason73: Architects create nations and destinations. So what? Architects gave the world the Roman Colosseum, Sagrada Familia, Fallingwater, Pantheon and Guggenheim Museum to name but five. Creating timeless destinations serve as evidence of some of man’s highest achievements and something for every artist and architect to strive for.

Reason74: Architects get sustainability. So what? We not only get it – we act on it. We knew long before the recent revelation that location of a green project mattered as much – if not more – as the project siting, orientation and inclusion of systems and products.

Reason75: Architects make connections II. So what? Another sort of connections – we’re literally connectors – but also associative thinkers. The world needs more of us – to feel less isolated. Our product – buildings – may be one-offs, but not the way we design or plan them. We’re always linking and making connections between things. We can’t help it – it’s the way our minds work.

Reason76: Architects make cities real. So what? Architects have given the world the best architecture cities in the world. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and they had vanished. Barcelona, Spain, Beijing, China, Istanbul, Turkey, Chicago, USA, Athens, Greece – Parthenon vanished. Millennium Park and FLW home and studio. No more. Sydney without the Sydney Opera House? The work disappears – but so does its host. So so what? Architects create works that are inseparable from their environments –and the way we think about them.

Reason77: Architects listen. And listen. So what? People are helped when architecture is democratic. Take the underprivileged. Three past and present California architects come to mind: Michael Pyatok, David Baker, Charles Moore  – all as well-regarded for their exuberance as for their participatory design approaches.

Reason78: Architects need to know it all. So what? Architects work with what they know, creating a harmonious balance our of disparate parts. As Vitruvius wrote over 2000 years ago: An architect should be a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies. So so what? A career in architecture, as one parent of an architect put is, is a never-ending learning experience with a myriad of “career spokes” springing from the hub of the core disciplines. The architect takes it upon herself to continually learn and grow, remaining throughout their career a student not just of architecture but of life.

Reason79: Architects are lifelong learners. So what? And not just because they’re required to gather tally, and document their continuing education credits. We’re curious types – in the best sense of the word. We want to know it all – everything – and are thirsty for knowledge. Which is a good thing – because we need to know it all.

Reason80: Architects are all alike. So what? There has been some grumbling that there are now too many architects – software, enterprise, business – and not enough design architects. Or that design architects aren’t getting their fair share of the airwaves. So be it. So so what? The bottom line is this: all architects is alike. We share similar values, obsessions, fixations and interests. We can learn a great deal from each other. So stop complaining – and join the tribe.

Reason81: Architects are action-oriented. So what? Remember Mies’s “Build – don’t talk.” That’s not just a Chicago credo. Architects design to build – with building in mind. So so what? We use words, images and action to get our ideas across and accepted. But in the end, most want to get their designs out in the world, for others to use, live in and among and yes, even critique and judge.

Reason82: Architects are master puzzle makers. So what? Architects are needed because they can put it all together. We fix what is broken and repair what’s been devastated. When given a 500 page program containing 1000’s of input and data – it doesn’t even occur to us that the end result will be anything less and a complete, cohesive and coherent work of whole building design. Bring it on!

Reason83: Architects are pleasers. So what? Architects are comfortable with ambiguity. We keep everyone’s needs, wants, aspirations and wishes – their ideas and ideals – in mind throughout the design process. With many balloons in the air you’d think it would be hard to make everybody happy.

Reason84: Architects are in it for the long haul. So what? Architects matter because they know what they produce will be around for a while – and therefore carry the additional weight of responsibility for their choices and actions. So so what? For, as Lord Byron said: A man of eighty has outlived probably three new schools of painting, two of architecture and poetry and a hundred in dress. Architecture changes a lot less frequently than trends. This means that architects cannot be at the whims of fashion – what we do, what our designs look like, have to make sense and last for many generations.

Reason85: Architects are never satisfied with good enough. So what? Why settle? Life is too short. If you can give everybody what they need and want – and at the same time, through trickery or talent, perseverance or insight – find a way to deliver more, why not try to do so? No architect strives to do good enough design – but rather, good design that is enough.

Reason86: Architects use what they got. So what? Architects try to make the most with what they have and are given – even if it is not expected or asked for. Had they not – the built world would be confined to making shelters. Like Helmut Jahn, we strive for an architecture from which nothing can be taken away.

Reason87: Architects, ever patient, persevere. So what? Architecture takes a long time to plan, finance and build. It requires not only the long view but the vision for the long haul. So so what? The architect has the perspective to provide this. Who else on the design or construction team can same the same?

Reason88: Architects work in flows. So what? Architects not only improve the build world and environment but also design in order to improve processes. Architects understand it’s not about the building – it’s about the business and the people and what they do when there. Upstream, downstream and throughout the project – architects follow the flow of movement and energy to and from their projects.

Reason89: Architects put is all into perspective. So what? Architects know the price of their art – the hard work that goes into it, the sacrifices they make, often impacting their family life and sleep. They’re willing to put in the extra effort, to go the extra distance, to pace ourselves over a long career. We truly are the change we want to see.

Reason 90: Architects pay the price. So what? Architects work hard, very hard, at achieving their goals. FLW said: I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.

Reason91: Architects are of two minds. So what? Architects are able to think in both business and design terms, to use their design sense to further the business ambitions of their clients. Call it design thinking. Architects are leaders when it comes to design thinking – the ability to apply design sense to help others with their business needs.

Reason92: Architects envision what is not there. So what? But it doesn’t stop with sight or foresight. Architects are trained to be creative thinkers. We see things others don’t or can’t and are able to describe and explain them in ways that help others to understand and act.

Reason93: Architects make others look better. So what? Architects matter because they are there to help their clients succeed. Architects and our professional services firms don’t succeed unless the client does. Architects love to help others achieve their goals and reach their dreams and find imaginative ways to help them get there.

Reason94: Architects learn by doing. So what? Architecture is too broad and deep of a subject to ever really know it all. Continuous learning – there’s always something more to learn – keeps us perpetually on our toes.

Reason95: Architects thrive on less. So what? Our’s really a case where less is truly more. Architects recognize that in tough times such as the current one we’re facing better architecture can be the result. That tough times may in fact lead to better architecture. So so what? This is important because the opposite could occur – where fewer resources result in lesser buildings, less pride of place, and all of us being the lesser for it.

Reason96: Architects are here to serve. So what? Despite the reputation of some, architects exist to serve others. Except for the occasional architect-designed museum, it is what happens inside their buildings and spaces that matters – not the building itself. Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea. Yoshio Taniguchi.

Reason97: Architects operate both in the world – and outside it. So what? Architects practice an art that is in the world and also of the world. But at the same time – stands apart – is its own animal. As Thom Mayne has said: Architecture is involved with the world, but at the same time it has a certain autonomy. This autonomy cannot be explained in terms of traditional logic because the most interesting parts of the work are non-verbal. They operate within the terms of the work, like any art.

Reason98: Architects are markitects. So what? Architects help people and organizations make their mark on the planet – and do so with the widest appeal and the smallest carbon footprint. For better or worse, the first subject Prince Charles really went for as Prince was architecture. It made an impact. He was very intent to use his years as Prince of Wales to make his mark and architects helped him to do so. So so what? Wouldn’t you rather have an architect help make built statements than any other entity? They will at least be responsible, keeping all of the factors in mind. So make your mark!

Reason99: Architects play well with others. So what? Architects may come across as Howard Roark types – lone wolves in sheep’s clothing. But we are all born collaborators. Architects are trained and educated to work productively in teams, and despite the current interest in autonomy know that they get the best results when involving all stakeholders and working well with others. So so what? This matters because we live in a time of crowdsourcing, of co-creation, of participatory design. Architects are there to work with others to come up with the best solutions for all involved.

Reason100: Architects connect the past with the present and future. So what? Architecture serves to connect us in time – with works from the past, with past civilizations. Helping to locate and place us in time, to provide us with a sense of continuity, help us get our bearings and makes us truly inhabitants of this planet, not just hangers-on.

Reason101: Architects work with a palette of possibility. Architects are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be. So what?

Reason102: The work architects perform touches so many parts of life – and of learning. It has so many facets, it can keep a person interested for a lifetime. As Richard Rogers said: I believe very strongly, and have fought since many years ago – at least over 30 years ago – to get architecture not just within schools, but architecture talked about under history, geography, science, technology, art. So what? Attorneys leave law due to burn-out as well as a lack of meaning in their work. Architects may leave the field for financial reasons, but few if any have done so for lack of what was found there.

Reason103: Architects strive to heal the world. So what? Architects still believe that their works and deeds can help to heal the places where they are privileged to work. Despite what Thom Mayne has said: I’m often called an old-fashioned modernist. But the modernists had the absurd idea that architecture could heal the world. That’s impossible. And today nobody expects architects to have these grand visions any more. Nobody expects this – except us architects, ourselves.

Reason104: Architects hake the hard decisions. So what? When a sales rep calls and asks for a decision-maker they hand the phone to an architect. Why? Architects matter because we have to make the hard decisions – thousands of them in every project. As Arne Jacobsen said: If architecture had nothing to do with art, it would be astonishingly easy to build houses, but the architect’s task – his most difficult task – is always that of selecting. Architects are first and last decision-makers. We make the decisions that count.

Reason105: Architects design for the heart as well as the head. So what? Architects create projects and places that affect us emotionally as well as intellectually. We address the whole person.

Reason106: Architects are passionate about design. So what? Architects do what they do because they are passionate about architecture and design. Despite the rigors of school and the relative lack of money to be obtained in the field, architects that have been in the field already for some time do what they do because they love to do it: plain and simple. So so what? This assures that we will go the extra mile, which is often necessary, to achieve a successful outcome.

Reason107: Architects matter because they sign and seal documents. So what? Exactly!

Don’t see a reason? Make it an even 108. Please let me know. Chiming-in by leaving a comment. Thanks!

Being of Three Minds June 7, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, career, change, essence, identity, software architects, technology.
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2 comments


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Technology is […] a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.

C.P. Snow

While being interviewed the other day for an article about my blogs, I was asked about their genesis: What had provoked me to write them?

Explaining how my other blog http://bimandintegrateddesign.com/ came about was easy.

Architects and other design professionals have to deal with change from new disruptive technologies and work processes.

My other blog exists to help fellow professionals confront the forces that create an immunity to change – forces brought about by fear, hesitancy, uncertainty or misinformation.

What makes an architect an architect?

The original purpose of this blog – Architects 2 Zebras – was different.

It came about in order to identify and discuss what it is exactly that all architects have in common.

In other words – what makes an architect an architect – irrespective of what type of architect they are.

Instead of focusing on who stole who’s thunder and identity and reclaiming “our” title back, this was to be a blog focused on what architects of all stripes have in common and what we can learn from each other.

In the 18 months since the first post, the term “architect” has become increasingly common with non-design entities and many design architects resent this.

But it is not just the title design architects are concerned about – nor the inconvenience of doing a job search only to come up with IT positions.

Some design architects wonder if software architects have not only usurped design architect’s title but in doing so their mojo?

A Tale of Two Bookshelves

One only need visit any of the big box bookstores in the U.S. to witness two very different circumstances.

On the one hand, books on technology, computing, software and social networking are thriving.

Where sold copies are replaced as soon as those on display are depleted.

At the bookstores I’ve visited architecture-related books told a different story.

The shelves where architecture, interior design and planning books are displayed have been decimated, the few remaining titles left in disarray.

This could be seen as a positive sign – one, say, of strong sales – were it not for the fact that these shelves remain unreplenished.

Or perhaps a reflection of the buying power of the two architects at this time in history? Perhaps.

A situation all the more disconcerting for someone like myself who plans on having a book published and displayed on such a shelf in the coming year.

A Third Culture

“The third culture consists of scientists and other thinkers who are taking the place of the “traditional intellectuals” in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

John Brockman, The Third Culture

Good packages – like omens and wishes – come in threes (BIM, IPD and LEED come to mind.)

Thirds in fact seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

With owners and contractors, architects often feel like the Third wheel.

There are the Third world impacts from globalization to contend with.

Architects focused on the design and inhabitation of Third places – such as bookstores, cafes and bars.

We’re planning the Third chapters of our careers.

Our current focus in architecture on the virtual representation of the Third dimension.

The Third Teacher (a marvelous must-have book on design of schools and education by Bruce Mau with OWPP/Cannon Design)

A Third Way

And some less relevant to our discussion:

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; The Third Reich; The Third realm

and

Why My Third Husband Will be a Dog

A Tale of Two Cultures

Design architects like to say that architecture is both an art and science – both of the humanities and of the sciences – the two cultures first identified by C.P. Snow in his seminal lecture and subsequent essay The Two Cultures published 50 years ago.

It’s a reflection based on the premise that intellectual life was divided into two cultures: the arts and humanities on one side and science on the other.

Software architects on the other hand associate themselves with technology, a culture not yet represented by design architect’s two cultures.

Until now, that is.

In the intervening years since Snow’s lecture, third cultures of course have been proposed, generally termed “social science” and comprised of fields such as sociology, political science, economics, psychology, and anthropology.

As mentioned earlier in this post, my other blog focuses on this third culture: the social implications of technology on design professionals, firm culture, organizations, and the profession and construction industry as a whole.

But the social impacts are a result – a symptom that needs to be addressed – not the cause.

The cause is the technology that seems all but inescapable in the practice of our art and science.

So I wonder if for architects our third culture is something closer to that of technology?

To be sure, one could argue that technology has been with us all along, as the so-called science of architecture is building science, otherwise known as building technology.

But there’s no mistaking the fact that with the advent of BIM and other IT-related tools, architects have started to wonder:

Whether our profession now comprises all three cultures: art, science and technology?

And if it does – does one take precedence over the other?

Or is it – like Vitruvius’ triumvirate – more a matter of maintaining a balance?

firmitas, utilitas and venustas

Commodity, firmness and delight – structural stability, spatial accomodation and attractive appearance – have been called architecture’s ultimate synthesis.

Roughly speaking – these three terms mirror architect’s three cultures: art, science and technology.

Could it be with the advent of new technologies and the collaborative work processes enabled by them that we as professionals are finally in a position to achieve Vitruvius’ ideal?

Perhaps it would be helpful for architects to think of themselves as being of three minds?

To think of ourselves as having an art mind, a science mind – which we already possess – and a technology mind.

To see technology as less of a threat and rather as something that was there all along – helping us to stay balanced.

And in doing so garner some of that technology mojo for ourselves?

delightful, delovely, design

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Building science and digital technology both require that the architect have a strong grasp of how buildings are put together.

One cannot use digital tools, let alone practice architecture, without a thoroughly understanding – in minute detail – how buildings are constructed.

With technology and building science covered – let’s turn our attention to Vitruvius’ venustas or beauty, art, appearance.

You could argue – with Bucky Fuller – that once structure and function have been addressed the resulting building will inevitably be beautiful.

But I’m not going to do that here.

I’m going to suggest you do something else instead.

This week – I am going to ask you to acknowledge and honor yourself and as an artist and as a designer: your art mind, if you will.

What resides deep inside – after the documents have been coordinated and submitted, and work out in the field has been observed – what in you remains.

You know what I am talking about.

It has gone on for too long underserved, unacknowledged – by others, certainly, but admittedly by yourself as well.

How to go about honoring ourselves as designers and artists that we as architects truly are?

Each of us has our own way of going about this.

Pour a cup or glass and flip through the pages of The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture.

Or a book on Italian Hill towns.

Or head out to visit your favorite building in person. And really spend some time there.

Or volunteer at one of the many architecture boot camp summer programs taking place at many of the colleges and universities across the states.

Or attend the AIA National Convention (Design for the New Decade) in Miami this week – in person or virtually.

Fill a sketchbook with ideas you have been meaning to explore.

However you choose to honor yourself, take the time – this week – to honor the small, still voice that resides in you that wants to be heard.

What have you done lately to address and honor your artistic side?

Architects have been criticized for being “artists” when others needed us to be responsible constructors and business partners.

We’ve convinced ourselves to work clandestine as artist/architects, under the radar.

So as not to let on that we’re duplicitous in our motives, representing not only our clients but also the call of our higher selves.

Do this one thing for yourself this week.

As with any threesome, art is threatened to be overcome by the two bolder – and seemingly more objective – of the three cultures: science and technology.

Art almost always loses out to the larger, more vocal forces.

We tell ourselves that – as with Fuller – art will be served by our working within constraints, meeting objectives, representing the health, safety and welfare of the building’s inhabitants.

This is just something we tell ourselves. But it never is.

Next week you can be an architect of three minds – art, science and technology.

This week – go out and let your inner architect play.

For those of us who don’t get to design every day, it remains critical to our identity, role, essence – our satisfaction, well-being and happiness – that we honor our artistic side.

Our art mind.

So get in touch with what truly mattered to you when you first started out.

And matters to you still.

Do this one thing for yourself this week.

Next week you can go back to the rigor and challenge of living and working within the three cultures.

If not now, when?

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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2 comments

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.

How Do We Know We’re Doing Things Right? Part II January 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, identity, possibility, questions, technology, the economy, transformation.
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While there are certainly more glaringly important worldwide problems to solve – relief in Haiti, global warming, the lingering economic downturn among them – design professionals are about to pass on an opportunity that they may never see again in their lifetimes.

Beyond the Death of the Master Builder

In the presentation Atul Gawande gave at the New Yorker Festival this past October, Gawande spoke about the importance of discipline and procedure in medicine, and how following a simple checklist can help save lives in the operating room.

The same procedures, he said, could be applied to the construction industry.

He ends the talk with this call to action:

“We have come to a time of the end of the master builder world with the question: What will we put in its place? This is our work.”

As with the current overhaul of the healthcare system, he added, “it will require a transformation to move beyond the death of the master builder.”

The Master Builder is Dead. What will we put in its place? This is our work

If the Master Builder – role, title, identity – were to return, who on the design and construction team is best suited to take-on this part?

The architect? Contractor? Engineer, consultant, facilitator, owner’s representative or construction manager?

Perhaps a new role needs to be created to play this part? And a new university curriculum created to produce candidates for this role?

Maybe the new Master Builder isn’t an individual but rather a combination of team members?

And what are we talking about here anyway – the Master Builder – or a Master Virtual Builder who oversees the creation and application of the project’s BIM model(s)?

The Quest of the Master Builder

The question of the master builder takes two sides:

Side 1: One side seeing the architect’s role receding, shrinking, minimized and even marginalized with the contractor and others in the design professions and construction industry taking-on more of their scope. Call this vision the Rebirth of the Master Builder.

Many in the industry echo Phil Bernstein’s (Autodesk / Yale School of Architecture) sentiments when he writes

Architects have not been ‘master builders’ since the Middle Ages, and the development of the profession of architecture is a social acknowledgment that building isn’t just parts assembly but requires a specific knowledge of things far beyond technical efficacy.”

Side 2: The other side is seeing an expansion of the architect’s role, as well as a need for their breadth of coverage, scope and leadership. A 2009 AIA convention seminar put it this way:

Historically the architect interfaced with all aspects of construction, from design and engineering to material and building systems. Over time, specialization has eroded the breadth of architectural practices and the concept of a master-builder. Due in part to advances in technology, changes in architectural education, economic constraints, and new cultural condition, the role of the architect is expanding again. There is a practice revolution occurring in which design professionals, trained as architects, are expanding their visions of their careers and their offices. For these architects, the lines between construction, fabrication, design, graphics, product design, development, furniture, and community activism blur in the interest of expansive practice models.

Largely due to owner’s disappointment and demand with wasted resources, infighting and lack of leadership – there have been several attempts and arguments in the recent past to rekindle the architect’s increased role as master builder.

The Need to Re-establish Onsite Construction Expertise

Today, it has been suggested that architects could play the role of virtual master builder, Master Digital Builder, Composite Master Builder per Bill Reed or information master builders as described in Branko Kolarevic’s Architecture in the Digital Age.

Architects can, once again, be master builders writes construction industry attorney Barry B. LePatner:

“Once the key player in the construction process, architects were referred to as the ‘master builder’ because they not only conceived and drew plans for structures, but they also supervised construction and could control costs for the owner. But architects have ceded much of their power to construction managers and owners’ representatives over the past few decades. Architects currently design less than five percent of America’s construction projects–a depressing statistic and a telling symptom of how marginalized the profession has become.”

LePatner goes on to recommend

“To reclaim ‘master builder’ status, architects must re-establish their onsite construction expertise, change the way they structure their fees, and then market themselves accordingly.” And concludes, “Architects with the resolve to assume these added responsibilities–and with the foresight to broaden their focus and help change an industry–will thrive. Shaping a new construction paradigm will be a challenge, for owners, architects and contractors alike. The architect who meets this challenge head on will reap the rewards of increased status, fees and value to its clients.”

James A. Walbridge AIA, president of Tekton Architecture and Artisan Builders Corporation in San Francisco agrees. He writes in BIM in the Architect Led Design Build Studio on The BIM Conundrum: Computer Skills vs. Construction Knowledge:

One of the issues that cannot be stressed enough is having a strong understanding of how a building is put together. Unfortunately, many of the young graduates we see entering the profession do not possess the fundamental understanding of constructing what is designed. In the new BIM environment and the current move towards integrated practice, this core-competency is one that is significant. Many of the young constituents of the profession have strong computer skills including proficiency with a BIM platform – but the level of construction technology is seriously lacking. Our experience is that a team member with sound construction technology expertise will be required to mentor the young intern and work side-by-side with BIM integration. This cannot be over-emphasized. True to our foundation in the architect as “Master-Builder”, all of our designers have extensive hands-on experience in construction. This type of experience is hard to acquire in the traditional model of today’s architect. Construction experience such as this is initiative-based from the individual and not all young interns can or will take this career choice. We must strengthen the construction side of the education experience and provide serious mentorship with our young interns in our offices so that the new integrated practice and BIM can continue to grow and develop more cohesively.”

There is a still great opportunity right now for the architectural profession to regain the role of master builder – irrespective of title or identity.

The important question is whether architects will have the courage to step-up and accept the risk and responsibility associated with taking-on this much needed transformative role, OR instead, overwhelmed by current societal, economic and technological forces coupled with their own feelings of disempowerment, recede into the silos and unsafe havens of their traditionally defined roles.

How do you recommend architects begin to regain their master builder status in the AECO industry?

The Dead Fish Museum December 10, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types, career, creativity, essence, fiction, identity, possibility, questions, transformation.
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What’s in your Cart?

That’s right, the Amazon.com shopping cart. The button with a shopping cart in the upper right hand corner of the home page on the Amazon website.

For most of us there’s an accumulation of items we’ve put on the Cart over the years under the wishful words Shopping Cart Items – To Buy Now.

My current subtotal is $1850.20

With this Important Message: Please note that the price of The Dead Fish Museum has increased from $11.25 to $11.70 since you placed it in your Shopping Cart.

I don’t recall what The_Dead_Fish_Museum  is – or why I placed it on my Cart. Or when. Which is the point of this post.

First a bit of back story. The other week I helped a friend out – made some suggestions on Skype about her in-progress house design in Revit – and she rewarded me by email with a generous gift card to be used at my favorite World’s Largest Online Bookseller.

It was the nicest gift I have ever gotten. In part because it was unexpected. In part because having helped was its own reward. In part because it was exactly what I wanted. And yet…

Critiquing someone’s design is hardly work. File under Joy, not Labor. And overlooking the questionable ethics of accepting rewards for performing work voluntarily and deciding whether to spend the loot on me, my family, or even on my friend, I immediately went to the Amazon.com website to shop.

That’s when I realized that I have 67 items in my Cart. I started adding to the Cart several years ago, around the time Amazon stopped removing items from the Cart and allowed them to accumulate, naturally, as they do in my basement and attic.

So, with the funny money (14 digit Gift Retrieval Code) in hand, I went shopping.

Rummaging through the items on my Cart, going back in time, is like slicing through a tree of your life to observe in the rings you’ve accumulated over the years; whether they reveal a harsh or mild winter followed by a barren or fruitful spring.

The Cart represents a timeline – of what it was you wanted, what once caught your eye or imagination, what you once desired. And unlike Amazon’s Wish List, the Cart is meant only for your eyes alone (and in rare instances, such as this, those belonging to readers of this post.)

Running down the list of items in my Cart inevitably patterns emerge. I have a tendency for example to look at – and place in my Cart – Buddhism books in the late fall. Every late fall. And poetry to help me get through the Siberian expanses of winter.

Every winter.

What follows are a few items in my Cart, annotated from memory of why they are there, what I was thinking at the time I placed them in my Cart.  Things I couldn’t afford at the time or saved for when I came into some cash. Things that speak to me.

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve DVD

Both my kids currently want to become marine biologists, if not entirely sure what that means. This Criterion Collection of short films set to the musical score of Yo La Tengo might be something we can share on cold winter days. The x-ray image of a seahorse on the cover is enticing. But will my kids watch it with me? If they wander off after one or two short films, do I really need to watch 21 short films about fornicating sea creatures? Verdict: Maybe the library will get it…

True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler

I cannot imagine a better use for a book, or time better spent. Verdict: Buy it.

Between Fire and Sleep: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose by Mr. Jaroslaw Anders

After 9/11 irony was dead, and humor was all but annulled. Poetry alone seemed to speak to those who needed consoling and Polish poetry spoke the most clearly and deeply, especially Stefan Garczyński, Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz and of course Wisława Szymborska. Now that the urgency has passed, it would be nice to know how they manage to work their magic on us. Verdict: “Nice to know” is not reason enough to purchase.

Secrets in a Box (Adventures in Art) – Joseph Cornell

Verdict: Wait

Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki by David Chadwick

The story of how Buddhism came to America. Verdict: It’s late fall…Buy it.

Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis: Opportunistic Architecture

A good-for-you book. Nurturing. I would get this for myself when I felt the need to return to what it was that truly matters to me. When it’s no longer about keeping the lights on and paying the bills, showing up at the train platform every morning in my rain slicker. When I finally get around to purchasing this book it’ll be to honor the architect of old, to benchmark how far I’ve wandered off the path, or how long I’ve remained on it, to remind myself where the path is and how I stay the course. Verdict: Jury’s still out…

These, along with The Dead Fish Museum, are some of the things in my Cart. What’s in your Cart?

Do you see recurring patterns? Long lost interests or secret fascinations that were put on hold to take care of more urgent – but no less important – matters at hand? With the holidays ahead – and the promise of at least some downtime – what would you pluck from your list? Carpe diem translates literally not as seize the day but rather “pluck from the day.” What will you pluck from your cart to enliven, to enrich your day?

Today, Be Your Own Architect November 21, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in career, change, identity, management.
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Despite alarmingly dwindling reserves of architecture books – not to mention privately owned bookstores – it seems for the past 20 years, no matter where in the country, every Barnes and Noble Architecture and Design book section contains at least one copy of a decades-old book.

This book is invariably entitled, Be Your Own Architect.

The book is no doubt part of the late 80’s or early 90’s DIY movement. Had I ever bothered to look at it, the blurb on the back jacket is sure to ask something along the lines of: Why engage and pay a professional when you can do it yourself? An illustrated guide showing prospective home buyers just how easy it is to design homes to fit their exact needs while saving thousands of dollars in architectural fees

It’s all part of American’s long held desire for independence. First from the British, more recently from architects.

Besides, who needs design professionals cluttering up their kitchen?

I have never taken a look at this book on any of the hundreds of visits to the bookstores. As an architect, having designed and built my own house, I have already made that rite of passage (and, yes, saved on architectural fees.)

But still, for some reason, the book’s title never ceases to capture my attention. Those four simple words spanning across the book spine subtly means something different every time, depending on the emphasis given to each word:

BE your own architect.

Be YOUR own architect.

Be your OWN architect.

Be your own ARCHITECT.

BE

What is it about the title? Could it be the word “Be” – that faintly Buddhist word, implying what you are – right now – in the here and now, as in another famous book starting with the word “Be,” Ram Dass’s Be Here Now

Or perhaps it’s the directness of the word “Be,” as in the Army’s admonishment, Be All You Can Be.

With this ever-changing, always in flux, mercurial, game-changing, technologically challenging world, the thought of just standing still while the world spins by must be appealing to some.

How appealing it would be to merely Be, allowing everyone else to chase that RFP.

To be, or not to be an architect: that is not the question so much as this:

How can I best use this time to once again be the architect I was meant to be?

YOUR OWN
Your own. As in, not somebody else’s, architect.

Not someone else’s idea of what an architect is – what it means to be an architect.

Nor someone else’s need for whom they need for you to be. Architects are by training – and nature – multifarious when it comes to their interests, abilities and talents. None other than Vitruvius himself expected architects to be creative and apt in the acquisition of knowledge, a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies.

If the architect doesn’t know herself, it is easy to see why.  It may be that going into school architects have an inflated and misguided idea of their own abilities and who they want to be – before reality settles in, and the nefarious need to please professors (before the need arises to please bosses and clients, parents and spouses.) For some, they were last their own architects in school. Or they left their ideal of their own architect soon thereafter, upon entering the workforce, dealing with deadlines and others’ impressions of who they are – or need to be – for the project or for the firm.

When were you last Your Own Architect?

This recession has had a profound effect on many lives for those working in the profession and industry, as well as those who work with, live with and depend upon them. No doubt the effect has been felt as undeniably negative by many, not the least of all economically. But there is at least one way in which the current downturn can be seen on the upside, and that has to do with the opportunity the current situation offers you to come into your own, to touch base again with who you are, the architect.

When work was bountiful and time fleeting with deadlines repeatedly looming, we may have been our teammate’s architects, our manager’s architect or belonged to our bosses and their perhaps understandably narrow idea of who we are and are capable of. We were our colleague’s architects, the profession’s architects, architects belonging to everyone – consultants and clients, regulators and gatekeepers – everyone’s architect, but one: Your Own.

Own it. Take ownership of it. Take custody of it. Be responsible for your own condition.

ARCHITECT

Use this time wisely. Get back in touch with what it once meant for you to be an architect. With who you are, deep down (it’s still there, dormant, latent perhaps, but looming.) Listen to the dictates of your Being – of who you are and have always been.

If not now, when?

For here’s the rub: No matter your financial condition, no matter whether you like the situation that you find yourself in, no matter your outlook on life, the economy or the profession, IT WILL NEVER BE  EASIER TO BE AN ARCHITECT THAN IT IS RIGHT NOW.

Many currently – whether out of frustration, financial demands or both – are considering leaving the profession or jumping ship altogether for safer harbors in other seas. It is widely known that even in good times 50% of those trained as architects wind up successfully working in other fields. But unless your situation is dire, you owe it to yourself, right now – today – to recall, and recollect, who it was you once wanted to be. Because you’ve been so busy for so long being everybody else’s architect you’ve neglected to be the one architect you are and were meant to be.

Today, be your own architect.

Regaining a Sense of Self August 9, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect, change, identity, the economy, transformation.
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Today’s New York Times has a front page story on the science of identity that has me thinking about how easy it is to lose a sense of yourself at this time – in summer but also in history. When it comes to identity the media has been focused almost exclusively on identity theft and much less so on the subject of our social identity – the roles we play and how we see ourselves in relation to others. In the midst of August – especially this particular August – with a recession reversing gears and uncertain signs of recovery ahead, it is easy to consider the possibility of an identity crisis.

 

Summer months in particular often relieve us of the social roles that we play: we shed our work clothes as we do our social identity or cultural identity. Just think of Congress or the Supreme Court justices on summer recess, donning swimsuits in lieu of robes and dress suits. Summer challenges our social and cultural identities – our professional identities – at a time when we are already feeling the stress and strain of reduced hours – or relief altogether of our workday duties.

 

As for myself, I have been spending most of my waking hours this summer – when not at the office – writing my book, “BIM and Integrated Design” (Wiley, 2011) and besides the isolated sustainable hotel design or infrequent master plan, not designing as much as I might. An architect is someone who designs buildings, right? Is an architect an architect when they are writing? Or going to the movies?

 

Aspiring Architect

 

It seems that even in the media architects are in a perpetual state of becoming. A recent article noted “When screenwriters give a hero a career, it’s often architecture. Think Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver and Adam Sandler in Click. When Matt Dillon attempts to impress Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary, he pretends to be an architect.” More recently we’ve seen several trailers for upcoming films with an architect in the lead role, not to mention the current hit in theaters, “(500) Days of Summer,” where Tom is an aspiring architect with a day job writing copy for greeting cards. “The public perceives architecture as a career for creative, free spirits who nonetheless earn good money while designing cool new buildings,” and yet the article concludes that “there’s a Grand Canyon of difference between the screen and reality.” This gulf is the very same one we ourselves feel – between architects portrayed on screen and the architects we are. Take that even further – architects we aren’t when we’re on vacation, on furlough or not practicing due to unemployment or by choice.

 

By the time they graduate from college, architects should be well-prepared for the identity challenges of multiple role-playing. The AIA’s Richard Hobbs believes that as many as 50 percent of the nation’s architectural graduates now work, or soon will, outside the profession. Consider this: Half of your classmates are doing something else entirely. It’s no wonder that for the 50% that stick with it and practice architecture within the profession must from time to time regain a sense of who they are – in terms of what they do. So to answer the question “When is an architect not an architect?” the best answer is probably one that finds the architect isolated from colleagues, not attending conferences and social gatherings, working alone or not working at all; going after work that doesn’t match their profile and tap into their core competencies; with each passing day living without the small but vital reminders – a coworker passing along an image found online, seeing a building that touches you somewhere deep down, an article that connects with you on some level that you can identify with – of who we are and why we do what we do. That is when an architect is least of all an architect. It is then that you know that you need to return – as so many are returning right now to school or to work – in order to regain a sense of self so that we might help others – through the work we do and the buildings we design and build – do the same for themselves. What are you doing right now to regain and strengthen your sense of self?