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Architecture’s Star Making Machinery April 17, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architecture industry, books, career, change, technology.
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7 comments

A couple things I came across in the mail last week got me thinking about my start as an architect…and whether there’s any real, lasting importance with rubbing shoulders with famous folks.

And whether the way we go about rubbing shoulders today, however different from the past, changes anything.

We could talk about what it means to be an architect today vs. 30 years ago, or wherein power in the industry resides.

But at a time when the term “starchitects” has anything but positive connotations, what value does it have, in terms of one’s career, to have access to well-known, publically recognized architects today?

My mail, in other words, got me wondering whether architects are better off today with the social access we have vs. the way we went about meeting the well-known in years past.

Two Items of Note

You may have already seen the two items I’m referring to in the mail or online.

One item, the current (April 2011) issue of Metropolis Magazine celebrates the past 30 years by taking a look back at architecture movements.

And, the other,

The East edition of the ARCHITECT’S NEWSPAPER (04.06.2011) takes a nostalgic look back at the New York think tank, the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS), which you are probably most familiar with by Oppositions magazine, the journal put out by IAUS between 1973 and 1984 and talked about ever since.

After grad school, I arrived in Princeton NJ at the tail end of Opposition’s reign, just as Steven Holl’s Pamphlet Architecture was gaining popularity.

Working as an architect by day, I attended Princeton University architecture school lectures at night, where it was not unusual to find oneself in the same room, sometimes seated in the same row, as Diana Agrest, Stanford Anderson, Alan Colquhoun, Francesco Dal Co, Peter Eisenman, Kurt W. Forster, Kenneth Frampton, Mario Gandelsonas, K. Michael Hayes, Fred Koetter, Rem Koolhaas, Léon Krier, Mary McLeod, Rafael Moneo, Martin Pawley, Colin Rowe, Denise Scott Brown, Jorge Silvetti, Bernard Tschumi or Anthony Vidler.

Dean Robert Maxwell would introduce the evening’s speaker, then would seemingly sleep through the entire talk, only to awaken at the right moment, rise to the lecturn, recite a perfect, insightful, witty summary of the presentation and ask if there were any questions at which time someone would invariably raise his hand and say he had one, then go on to ask a question that was almost as long as the presentation and that almost always contained the word “contentious.”

It was school after all. For many soon-to-be architects, school represented the most likely place they’d find themselves in the presence of famous architects.

Today we have Facebook

On the weekends, I’d head into New York City, to visit galleries or attend a book reading. One particular book signing stands out from this time: at Rizzoli in NYC attended by Robert Stern, Philip Johnson among many others, all seated at separate tables, signing fresh copies of their Rizzoli books for starry-eyed architects.

Handing him a book I had brought with me from home, I asked Peter Eisenman to “deconstruct” his signature (which he did, remarkably, without so much a skipping a beat, as though I had just asked him for the time.) I had everybody sign my book of architect interviews because I was too poor at the time to buy each of their books.

In Princeton, I twice lived in or next to Michael Graves. When I first arrived in Princeton, I lived in his former office that had just been converted back into a rental apartment. The landlord, only days prior to my arrival, had painted over a Graves mural on one of the walls, saying that the tenant had defaced the property by drawing on the walls. I spent  the better part of the next year attempting to restore the Graves mural to its original condition.

The unit’s best feature was a wall made up of 75 white painted cubes that Graves created in which I displayed my bounty from the previous summer abroad (books, sweaters, Aldo Rossi espresso maker, etc.) comprising at the time all of my earthly possessions.

A couple years later, I lived next door to Graves – in fact, we shared a driveway. The house he had designed for himself was on the rear of the property where I rented. Like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, I would find myself from time to time a guest at one of his lavish parties.

At the time, this was novel. Today, it would be considered stalking.

Prior to my arrival, Graves was known in Princeton as The Kitchen King for his series of inspired rear lot modern house additions, and had won the Fargo-Moorhead cultural center bridge design competition, which he had ostensibly designed years earlier in my then walk-in closet.

When friends would visit, I’d take them to see Graves’ house additions – Benacerraf, Snyderman, et al – which you could only do at the time by walking into people’s backyards, then run for your life when the homeowners came to the door.

Today, that would be trespassing.

Graves’ tea kettle had just come out and while known previously as one of the original Whites, he was still making a name for himself, signing autographs in local housewares shops in Palmer Square and appearing in Dexter shoe ads (which you can still purchase today, on eBay, for a mere $7.49)

I would sit in on Graves’ lecture course on campus and on Thursday nights, head home and watch for his car in the driveway, ostensibly so he could catch that week’s episode of thirtysomething. Anyway, his lectures would always end at 8:30PM, he would arrive at his door at 8:59PM and his TV would turn on moments later. (I’m only saying.)

It was a heady time

Just as there are guides for those who want to be a famous actor or slightly famous author, there are a disproportionally large number of books for those who want to become a famous architect: here and here and here, where, according to author Garry Stevens, successful architects owe their success not so much to creative genius as to social background and a host of other factors that have very little to do with native talent.

Even when the architect is oozing with brains and talent, as in the case of Jeanne Gang, FAIA, of Studio Gang, we have to ask how much of their success has to do with social factors?

For example, since Gang had not ever designed a high-rise before Aqua, let alone an 82-story tower in Chicago’s downtown, how much did it help that she and the building’s developer, James Loewenberg of the Magellan Development Group, first met in 2004 while seated together at a Harvard alumni dinner?

2004: the same year Facebook was founded.

Yesterday we had Harvard, Today we have LinkedIn

How many have “stars” among their contacts who at any other time in history would have seemed unapproachable – but today, online – seem almost to be within reach?

How many find themselves from time to time conversing with a well-known talent in blog comment strings, in online forums, on Facebook, by email, texting and on Twitter?

For example, in my hometown Bruce Mau is a neighbor and attends local events like everyone else.

Am I more likely to get a chance to talk to him before or after an event – or online via social media? What do you think?

All of this was unthinkable 30 years ago. The proximity social media affords us to players in our field ought to create opportunities that architects didn’t have before.

Do you agree?

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Doctor, Lawyer, Architect, Fail February 23, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architecture industry, books, change, employment, essence, identity, optimism, questions.
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11 comments

I’ve been thinking about the state of our profession.

For anyone who belongs to an online social media group the subject has been hard to avoid.

And from the number of commenters in discussions it would be fair to say I am not alone.

These discussions tend to present an exhaustive laundry list comprised of complaints and recriminations that run their course until someone steps-up and wisely says something along the lines of

  • “You get out of it what you put into it,”
  • “Be the change you want to see in the world,” or
  • “Ask not what your profession can do for you, but what you can do for your profession,”

The thread soon runs out of steam but pops up again on another site and starts over again.

Rinse, repeat.

Victim mentality

It would appear that some of us never tire of describing the infractions we’ve been victims of and injustices we’ve experienced at the hands of our chosen profession.

Uprising anyone?

Most of the threads boil down to a wish list of what our profession can do for us:

  • Stop everyone who is not a building architect from using the name architect
  • Advocate on our behalf by informing the general public who we are, what we do and why what we do should be valued
  • Clear up any misconceptions that others have about us (that we are wealthy, that we only care about the way things look, that we control project outcomes, wear black, have unrealistic expectations)
  • Give us job security
  • A direct return on investment
  • Tell us – and everyone else – when we’re doing a fine job
  • Only take legislative positions that align with my own
  • Serve refreshments at professional programs
  • Charge us $75 annual dues (like the other guys)

That’s not what professions are for. That’s what Santa Claus is for.

If we were to go back and reread the comments, between the rants and unrealistic demands – if one were to listen carefully and read mindfully – one can discern a voice of reason and compassion: constructive, positive, hopeful.

So much so that one discussion commenter recently concluded:

“I think the comments here are a great foundation upon which to rebuild the profession of architecture.”

Amen.

That’s a good start.

Bowling alone together

While some pay dues in exchange for a very expensive magazine subscription – and so they can call themselves card-carrying members – today most don’t see themselves as belonging to a profession.

They belong to communities, groups and tribes.

In Tribes, Seth Godin defines a tribe as a group of people who are connected to

1. one another, 2. a leader, and 3. an idea.

Godin – like some of the more thoughtful voices in the group discussion threads – encourages readers to find their Tribe, step up, and lead.

So, what distinguishes a profession from a tribe?

A number of qualities and characteristics can be attributed to professions.

Professions, unlike tribes, regulate membership – as opposed to communities and networks that socially certify.

Professions gather skilled practitioners by seeing to it that they’ve acquired and maintained specialized training.

Professions put service to society before personal gain (spouses might add, to a fault.)

Professions encourage a private language be spoken amongst members.

Again?

It’s all part of the body of knowledge considered inaccessible to the uninitiated.

And one of the things that makes a profession a profession.

Witold Rybczynski earlier this month chastised architects for their private language in A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis, Or an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk.

But that is what professions do: enable and foster professionals to talk to each other as professionals.

I am not saying that we ought to deliberately obfuscate and waylay the public (or use words like “obfuscate” and “waylay” when becloud and befog would do.)

But one way we reinforce our community is by talking to each other in terms familiar to ourselves (and a select few inebriated hangers-on of the 60’s and various sundry academics.)

Of the categories – individuals, teams, organizations, profession and industry – profession feels like the weak link.

There was a time we aspired to serve in professions. Stanley Tigerman asked in the introduction of his fine book Versus, in 1979; Growing up he’d hear his mother say:

My son the doctor, my son the lawyer. Why not, my son the architect?

Nobody would think of asking that question today (and not only because at least 40% of the time it would be addressed to My daughter the architect?)

Because we don’t think in terms of entering professions so much as careers.

How can we have a profession without shared memories, books, references, memes?

Who remembers (or still reads) Peter Collins comparing law with the profession of architecture in the brilliant book, Architectural Judgment, where Collins returns to law school so he might compare the two professions with firsthand experience?

Anyone?

$3.97 for a used copy (call me and we’ll discuss.)

What can we do for our profession?

“What is difficult about this moment in the history of the profession is that the field is moving in so many different directions at once. Changes are occurring in the structure of architectural firms and the scope of their services, in the goals of architectural graduates and the careers they are pursuing, and in the nature of architectural education and the responsibilities of the schools.”

Thomas Fisher wrote this in “Can This Profession Be Saved?” in Progressive Architecture, 17 years ago in February 1994. Read it here.

The title of this post – Doctor, Lawyer, Architect, Fail – invokes the professions, rhythm and cadence of author John le Carre’s spy novel: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Derived from the English children’s rhyme “Tinker, Tailor,” this group of professions had another variant:

“Rich man, Poor man, beggar-man, thief; Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.”

Doctor, Lawyer, Architect, Fail. What does this title say to me?

Our professions cannot fail us. Only we can fail each other.

What we can do for each other and for our profession is really quite simple. So simple, in fact, it’s worth asking why we aren’t doing some of these things more often.

So, what can we do for our profession?

  • Show up
  • Share our knowledge, stories and insights
  • Help each other
  • Listen to one another
  • Look for opportunities to improve our world
  • Be accepting and inclusive of others
  • Respect each other
  • Celebrate each other’s accomplishments
  • Mentor our fledgling members
  • Be authentic
  • Laugh more (make office Nerf N-Strike battles mandatory)
  • Give back
  • Give others a reason for wanting to become an architect
  •      

Now it’s your turn, by leaving a comment: What could we be doing more of for each other and for our profession? What one item would you add to this list?

Image courtesy NYTimes