Architecture and The Art of Getting it Wrong

December 12, 2013 — 38 Comments

Architecture is not a trade, it’s a craft … and it normally takes years of practice before you start to routinely exist in the delicate balance between programming requirements and artistic expression. I’m starting the downhill slide of my 40’s on my next birthday and I’m just now hitting my stride. That’s a long time to work at developing the skills it takes to practice architecture.


… kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original …And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

… We stigmatize mistakes. And we are running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this – he said all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.

~ Sir Ken Robinson, TEDTalks


Guernica 1937 by Pablo Picasso

Guernica 1937 by Pablo Picasso

In the quote above, I think the issue that Sir Ken Robinson speaks of points to one of the reasons the process of becoming an architect takes as long as it does. Traditional educational systems teach us how to work towards the correct answer … but most architects will tell you that there is no correct answer, just degrees of correctness based on the variables in play – what is right for one person will not be right for another. People have their own tools, mores, and values for setting priorities and, as a result, most people view the finished result of “Architecture” without considering the process of creating architecture.

The education of an architect intentionally and systematically breaks down the creative process “baggage” and untrained habits of their students, and then starts the process of rebuilding that process in a non-stigmatized environment. Students are encouraged to explore their creativity and create something that is more frequently than not, impractical. In the beginning, architecture students should be thinking about their “BIG IDEA”, rather than focusing on more practical matters like “how is this 10″ beam going to support my lunar lifestyle habitat pod?” That is frequently the reason why the design projects students tackle in college are unfamiliar or atypical (i.e. multi-family housing on the dark side of the moon) rather than a project type that is rooted in more practical solutions (i.e. a bus depot.) While an architect is in school, if during the review of their project the jurors are talking about the toilet room layout or the efficiency at which they tackled the programming, that should be taken as a skill set red flag … it might be time for them to take a step back and try to focus on freeing their imagination rather than drilling down into the rules to find their inspiration.

Fast forward a few years – the college process is now complete and architectural schools are churning out extremely creative graduates, ready to take on the design world … except few graduates will actually get to work on “BIG IDEA” design projects. More typically, most graduates start the indoctrination process of being told to shutter their creative side in favor of more direct and cost-effective solutions, that they need to consider the practical aspects behind the work they are charged with creating. Once again the process of beating the creative tendencies out of these young architects is at work because now the beam size of your lunar lifestyle habitat module really does matter, budgets matter, deadlines matter … everything matters now, not just the big idea.

Architects need to go through a period of time when they have to learn how to be creative once again while learning how to incorporate real world variables into the creative process. Finding this balance takes time to develop because the impractical and the practical are at odds with one another.

Or are they?

It is with some amusement that this process in the field of architecture is rarely called what it truly is – the Scientific Method. Develop a problem or a ask question. Attempt something to answer it. If it doesn’t work, review what was and wasn’t successful. Change something and try again, or try something else. Fail to get something useful? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The scientific method is a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. The only real difference I have picked up on is the concept of the “Fair Test.” A Fair Test requires that only one of these variables be changed while all others remain constant but there are far too many esoteric variables in play on most architectural projects. The creation and evolution of an architect is a process that is centered around the building up and tearing down of the individual over and over again. It takes time before the individual comes through the process and out the other with some mastery of using both sides of their brain working in concert utilizing a creative and practical delivery method.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, most architects don’t really start putting all the pieces together with control until they’re old enough to have experienced the process of getting things wrong a few times and learning from the process to know why something worked well enough to repeat the success without repeating the solution.

Like a lot of the topics I introduce on this site, today’s conversation is really an idea that I have been thinking about for a while. While I’ve used an architect as the case study for my article, this process can probably be used to describe many professionals. I welcome anyone to add their thoughts to the conversation in the comment section.

Bob-AIA scale figure

Print Friendly

even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Jason Burk

    Long ago, I had a “moment” in 3rd year at Ball State Universtiy; I was discouraged because my work was pretty average and nothing like some of other folks, even though I enjoyed a pretty good aptitude and deep passion for the field. I wanted desperately to have better ideas!

    So I met with my professor, Bob Fisher, who put it into perspective for me. He said that most architects don’t reach their prime until a lot later on in life. It was simple – I just hadn’t had the time and experience to understand it all.

    Now, 14 years into the field, I’m finding it to be completely true. Experience is something that cannot be traditionally “taught” in college. Also, what I didn’t realize back in 3rd year is that most of my colleagues, with whom I was comparing my work, were snatching their great ideas from the magazines and popular architects of the day (Morphosis, Tadao Ando, Will Bruder to name just a tiny fraction). Most of my stuff was original – and it looked that way!

    I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I made the best of hands on learning during design-build semesters and internships. Great times! The trip should be as much fun as the destination; get out there and get your hands dirty and don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes! The layering and complexity of our field and profession can be visualized (somewhat abstractly) by the short filem “The Powers of 10.” Just when you think you’re finally getting the hang of it, you realize there is another whole level of detail to master. It’s never ending, which can be both a curse and a gift. Make it a gift.

  • Ernesto Santalla

    I’ve learned that creativity applies to every step of the project. Yes, there is the BIG IDEA, and then there is the challenge to keep it alive. To do that we must master technical and practical considerations; and also the budget. The masterful execution of the project requires that balancing act. So now, as I am closing in on 30 years of practice, I’m starting to master the practice of making the seemingly impractical, possible. For that, I’ve had to learn to address the concerns of those who have told me “it can’t be done” and with their input, make it happen.

  • Derek Fordé

    I’m definitely a dreamer. Probably too much so. Which would explain why I’m at this blog. I fear mistakes mostly because of peer judgment. There are a lot of cruel people out there. But at the same time, I believe mistakes are invaluable to learning; they are crucial to education. Life can be very conflicting sometimes.

  • shiva jabarnia

    I think like any other story, there is another side to this. although I’m kind of new in the business (a recent graduate – 3 years now), I have also been there enough to understand what’s really going on, since my father is an architect too and runs his own firm.
    While working with different people, I think you could divide architects into two groups, those who dream and those who don’t. but when I say dreamer, I am not talking about those “bathroom dreamers”, in my point of view, the architectural dreams are somewhat theoretical – they are not about using new forms, (at least not anymore – maybe it was in the 60s). I’d be more fascinated if someone presented a new “attitude” towards a small thing, than a new form for a big building.
    saying this, I don’t regret the years I spent at the university. I mean, well it could have been much more beneficial than it was, but think about it, it should have served both the dreamers and the non-dreamers, so it could not have satisfied anyone more than moderately, right? 🙂

  • Pingback: Architecture and The Art of Getting it Wrong | ...()

  • David Harrier

    I feel that I need to express disagreement with the current architectural programs at the college and university level. They are not producing the Professional Architect that needs to be entering the Job Force – and – they are spending way to many years of the individuals education not producing the required results. There are students with the drive and support to pursue the building technology and science side of architecture through active internships, but these individuals are often fighting the tide of the educational system.

    I am afraid that the schools of architecture have become schools of design. They do not train people in the Profession of Architecture, they train them to be Designers. We are now left with a heavy load of individual who are now supposed to be trained in the Science and Technology of the Profession of Architecture, in the next stage of their professional development – MUCH TO THEIR SURPRISE.

    I was schooled in a period when architectural and engineering students were taught on parallel and often intermingled course paths. We both benefited for learning from each other. Our professors also were teaching on both sides of the line. The schooling that I received addressed the Art of Architecture, as well has history, etc. but you were not drawn to these schools and course because you wanted to create large dimensional art – but rather because you wanted to create buildings, for the use of people first – not necessarily for their enjoyment of your large dimensional art.

    Today, we have schools primarily marketing themselves to individual who think that architecture is truly an art form rather that a profession that primarily formats buildings that can present a degree of artistic value in their development and final execution. The schools retain individuals who teach to the test (or design) and often are not registered architects, who might have deliberately developed construction documents that lead to the actual construction of a building that they were responsible or able to be responsible for applying their seal. The schools retain individual that they have trained in their image to train new students in their image.

    This is exactly why it is not advisable for near relatives to conceive children. The profession is breading out diversity, and ability, for the benefit of extending the idea of training other individuals in their idea of the Art of Architect, and not in the abilities to Practice the Profession of Architecture. But I can understand why – how many individuals with a desire to exhibit their (assumed) artistic talents would pay the colleges and universities for four, now five years of training that teaches them the intricacies of designing and developing completed building and seeing them being built, rather than just designs. How many students actually realize that the reason that they will need to work and train under qualified architects and engineers is because the necessary course path and training is not what the schools want to market.

    In speaking with my associates in the engineering field, they are also amazed at how their field of graduates can apply the formulas, or have a program do the engineering, without realizing that the resulting solution does not fit the program. We were discussing an overdesigned roof where the engineer did not know that weights for polyisocyanurate roof insulation and other roofing materials might be given by the square foot, square (100 sq. ft.), as well as for different thicknesses –a 1 psf weight quickly becomes 100 psf to the uninitiated engineer or architect.

    • I can’t say that I entirely disagree with your comment – but I’m not on board 100% either. Don’t forget that the road to licensure (at least in the US) includes a mandatory intern period equivalent to 3 years time. This is suppose to be part of the education and training of an architect and you should not expect the recent graduate to come out of school as a finished product.

      That having been said, there is value in moderation of all things and the schools seem to be fracturing into trade school wich teach you how to do a certain thing – which it would seem you are advocating – and those that teach you how to address items that aren’t solution based problems. There needs to be a better balance between design and application.

  • Anand Hiremath

    I guess that the whole issue is about freshness of approach to an Architectural Solution which has more immediate needs than just marks/grades, as in Architecture Schools. The product we wish to deliver and finally deliver is not necessarily dependent on one’s creative prowess. The classical triad says, to create a good Solution, one needs a Consultant, an executing agency and mainly a Sponsor/Client!; and a compromise in any of these will not give a good product. This being a fact, we know for sure that the Consultant is the one to be blamed first!

    • Of course! (isn’t that what everyone does??)


  • Shiftyeyes29

    (cross post to reddit)

    Let’s play with scale as a response to this, if I may.

    First, failure is essential for design. That’s why we use tracing paper, and lots of it. Anything we do we have to try to do and fail at it, and work it out better. Even in something as potentially banal as a bathroom, who designs it perfectly on their first try? We eventually get so that we’re failing in our heads – we don’t need to commit that to paper because we know it can’t work – but we still NEED to fail.

    On a bigger scale, it’s important for students, and then professionals, to dream. We have to design the dream, then figure out how to make it happen, otherwise we are limiting ourselves, and our vision. Too often I have had students say, “oh, I didn’t put any ‘real’ design into this element (like a bathroom) because I know that in the real world, there wouldn’t be any budget for it.” what? maybe there is, maybe the client wants or needs that! Besides, it’s better to have the dream, then figure out how to make it, than just stay with what you know is possible. if we did that for everything, our vocabularies would stay at a 5 year old level. Like with school teaching us something new, we have to be ready to let design teach us as well.

    • I know people are dialing into the bathroom analogy but I’m not backing off that one – if you are an architecture student and you are spending time designing bathrooms, you are in the wrong school. Part of benefit of developing your creativity at the collegiate level is thinking big.

      Some of the best business practices I’ve seen in action typically have a balance of personality traits – someone who who is the creative and someone who is the tactician – because it’s really difficult to be both things. The most important thing I think any of us could do in this regard is to keep an open mind.

      Cheers – and thanks for contributing

      • shiftyeyes29

        I agree, for the most part. I think that students should design bathrooms. They just need to dream and design pretty amazing, cutting edge, lunar module bathrooms, not the same one they use every day.

  • Clumsy with Words


    I have been writing and rewriting this comment for the past half an hour. Not really being able to put in words what has been bugging me after reading your post and all the comments.

    I think it was the lunar lifestyle habitat and its ”BIG IDEA” that triggered something in me. I don’t find any creativity in these crazy assignments that just go wild and out of hand. Real creativity, for me, is to tackle the problems that present themselves along the creative process and to find solutions for them. But these exercises in “unfamiliar or atypical” as you called it end up more in ”look how crazy my design is” than in finding creative solutions for practical problems. Let us face it: building on the Moon should come with a ton of tasks, limitations and efficiency issues. What is so wrong with reconsidering the toilet room layout on a lunar pad – you could end up with the BIGGEST IDEA that could actually be implemented some day.

    I could also understand that what I just wrote wasn’t the point your tried making. But looking back on my architectural education (hopefully with a critical eye) I can see how this whole “creativity – practicality – mix of both” process in growing up as an architect had huge holes. How we were forced in a certain way to dream according to what our professors consider BIG, not what we found interesting or creative.

    In any case, thanks for writing this. Even if it sounds like I disagree with what you said, I actually loved the text and shared it with the comment ”everything I believe in written by someone else”.

    • For the record, I don’t mind when people disagree with me – that’s the the very nature of a conversation. If everyone agreed, it would just be a bunch of individual dialog’s

      I don’t know how old you are but based on your text I would guess you are still fairly young – a recent graduate. The basis of the conversation is that the process of becoming good at the profession of architecture takes time and it’s hard to see things for what they are until you’ve actually lived through the experience for a while and learned to appreciate creativity for the sake of creating. As an example, I am an architect yet I have been using this blog site for almost 4 years now to develop my creativity – and in a manner that is hard and challenging for me (because I am not a writer and there are all sorts of inhibitions that I had to get past to write posts just like this one). If I gave myself all sorts of restrictions on what I can or can’t talk about, I can guarantee that this site would probably not still be here. The analogy is that being asked to work on items that are unfamiliar or that you don’t have extensive personal experience with are going to challenge you in a manner that is different than allowing you to work on things where you already have some sort of experience, and therefore, a formed opinion on.

      Great bathrooms are great bathrooms but I would be incredibly disappointed if you were spending your time in school designing great bathrooms.

      • Clumsy with Words

        Yes, it is true. I am a young architect (finished Master a year ago and worked professionally only two years) and I never felt it more than when I read your text 🙂

        I did not try to argue the process of becoming a good architect – I agree with it. Even the worst project/teacher/client I ever had taught me something. But I am not backing off the bathroom analogy either. Art for the sake of art, creativity for the sake of creating is not what architecture should be. I believe that we wish for so much more than pure creativity if we choose architecture as a profession. If it was just for the sake of expressing ourselves, there are art and applied art schools to pick from.

        Even with your blog: you had to be aware of the restrictions so that you can work with or around them and create something. That is what I meant when saying that abstract assignments without any sort of “problem” are pointless. Blog where you just spill out anything that comes on your mind is as creative as Keeping up with the Kardashians. And in that sense, if you are trying to rethink a simple bathroom (I do not mean just the looks of it, I mean its existentiality) it could be as good for the process of learning as some huge project.

        Or probably I am wrong and my opinion will change in 20 years when I start approaching the years of “real architects” 🙂

        • I didn’t mean to infer that you weren’t a “real architect” until you’ve been practicing for years, just that the process of practicing over that amount of time will shape how you go about the practice of architecture.

          How could it not?

          • I didn’t mean anything bad with the use of “real architect” thus the smiley at the end. And now we come back to the part I agree about – practice makes you who you are. And this isn’t architecture reserved.

            But I don’t see this discussion progressing and I eagerly wait for more of your posts so I will sign out for now.


  • Andrew

    Hi Bob- Great post, and so true. I’m living this right now. I’m fresh out of undergrad in landscape architecture and have been working at a multi-disciplinary firm for 6 months now. It can be very frustrating at times to have my creative ideas shut down due to cost or efficiency, but I know that is the nature of the industry. My question to you is this. Do you enjoy or like it when someone who’s fresh out of college to throw out a ‘big idea’ for a project even though it’s probably not logical or feasible? Sometimes I wonder if my PM’s are somewhat annoyed with the time I took to quickly sketch out these ideas. Obviously, it’s a person to person basis, but what is your take on the matter? Thank you for all your shared content. I find it very relevant even as an LA.

    • The only time I get annoyed is when there are timing and fee issues dictating the amount of time we have to get something done – it makes following directions that much more important. Of course, this also predicates that I’ve actually told the people working with me that we don’t have time for them to experiment with other concepts.

      Time and place, learn to know the environment you are working within.

  • that is really good to hear – everyone wants to feel valued, I think it’s a basic need once food and shelter have been taken care of. Actually being needed and contributing to a process/solution is the best and I can’t help but think architects as a group feed off that.


  • AndrewM

    The ‘downhill slide of your 40’s’ is an unfortunate expression, but I guess if you called it ‘the second lustrum of your fifth decade’ no-one would have a clue what you are talking about. I read somewhere that architects mostly don’t reach their peak until their mid-50’s, so I’d say you’ve still got 10 years of climbing to go.

    • the downhill side of my forties but not my professional (and hopefully personal) growth. I’ve got my climbing gear with me so I’m ready!

    • Anand Hiremath

      agreed conceptually!

  • Mikheil

    Recently I was helping my 3rd grader Daughter to do homework in Science and there was a lesson about Scientific method’s main procedures and terminology, I could not see then analogy with Architectural problem solving, but after reading your post it looks really obvious. Thanks Bob for ‘aha! effect’ experience.

    • that’s pretty cool – glad to have contributed to a positive moment!

  • Craig

    This post really resonated with me. I have 2 interns who have invested ridiculous amounts of time on school projects that could never be built. One intern is a fantastic sketch artist and the other is a music genius. They both understand the creative process but also know that one of their primary goals is to get their art seen and heard by “The People”. I often tell them that creativity is subject to economics for most people. I try to use every smallest opportunity to be creative within the scope of all the “immovable” constraints of most projects. We get work because we make the structures work within the economic and regulatory constraints of a highly populated urban area. It’s usually the interesting, quirky, and well executed design details that impress the clients. However, the contractors are so impressed with our detailed and easy to understand structural details that they actually refer more work to us than any other source. I encourage my interns to pursue their individual talents as far as possible outside of the studio. I then break off small sections of the projects for them to focus on bringing something fresh. This works well for my practice and for their growth. Clients are happy, contractors are happy and committed to the vision, and we are happy when we get paid and referred!

    • Sounds like you have a healthy system set in place – I think that’s an important variable in this educational process. Sometimes people forget that our profession is an interning profession and our “basic” education doesn’t end at graduation, we still have three years of professional training to go.

      Thanks for sharing

  • Matt Noel

    One of my teachers in college said that he observed this of me, “You need to be backed in a corner, to get anything done.” I agree with him. My artwork has to be squeezed out me. That’s how I work to this day!

    • I’m not sure being backed into a corner in order to get anything done is a good thing …

  • This is a commentary on our entire society’s reluctance to allow people to fail, starting with childhood. Everyone gets a ribbon.

    Additionally, as expected, it’s another great piece of writing, too. I love this fragment: “how is this 10″ beam going to support my lunar lifestyle habitat pod?”

  • Kerry Hogue

    As we found out in design studio in college, there are many correct answers. Usually, the ground rules were few. In practice, there are just a few more ground rules, many you mentioned. These should not stifle the creative process. They are just additional variables in the equation to be solved to get to one of the correct answers. I think that too many architects use these as excuses for not being creative. Budget does not stifle creativity, it adds to it. So do the other constraints. Creativity is what should drive our profession.
    good thought provoking post Bob.

    • I love that you mentioned that constraints should add to the creativity, not stifle it.

      Thanks Kerry, one of these days we will have to have a conversation in person.

  • Mark Wilson

    Bob – Interesting and thought provoking. Have had particular interest in the way our children are now learning that if you’d like to pursue an interest not math or science related, you’ll be left behind. I submit the below animation that speaks volume. Shouldn’t the real role of education be to teach our children how to think, and not what to think. Keep up the great writing. Mark

    • Thanks Mark.
      You know, my wife has advanced degrees in math and over the years I have some to learn that despite the linear nature at which she solves problems, she is a very creative thinker. Her brain works beautifully in the abstract … it makes me wonder how our daughter is going to turn out 🙂


  • rebekah kik

    “…learning from the process to know why something worked well enough to repeat the success without repeating the solution.” I think it is a great sentiment for the generation behind us. {As I slowly hit the other side of the 40 slide as well} Slow down, evolve, keep learning. It isn’t supposed to happen overnight. It certainly didn’t for me. It REALLY is okay if you don’t have the answer today. Thanks for putting words to something I try to tell my younger staff all the time.

    • Thanks Rebekah.
      I think the other trait that is getting weaned out of people is the face to face art of asking a question, another by-product of teaching people they have to get things right on their own through some linear problem solving process.