There is a reality check waiting for most graduating architects … Practicing architecture for 99.9% of the architects out there means something other than designing – at least what you think design means. The practice of architecture is more than sketching on trace paper, parti diagrams, deciding what pens to draw with, groupies, and last-minute trips to Vegas. It means solving problems – sometimes incredibly mundane and uninspired – yet very important problems to the people who retain your services.
If I sat down with college aged architecture students, maybe even recently graduated architecture students, and told them what I do most days, they would think I have it pretty good. I get to design interesting houses that have very respectable budgets while working with clients that are almost always interesting. When I do my job properly, they tend to think I’m awesome and that I’ve changed their lives through the process. While that might be a little bit of an overstatement, it’s generally not too far off. Who wouldn’t want that? You get to do a job you like, your clients respect your opinion, and you go home at the end of the day getting to point to something real and say “I did that”. You know, it is cool – and I love what I do for a living. However, there is a not so sexy side to what I do and it takes up a majority of my time – I just don’t talk about it much because, well … it’s kind of boring.
My job requires certain personality skills in order to be successful and even routine days can be stressful. Every day I run through about 20 deadlines and to someone, their deadline is the most important deadline in the world. Long gone are the days when I came to the office and worked on one project. Now I typically juggle 5 or 6 each day and I generally don’t do much drafting anymore. Most of my time is spent using a calculator, writing documents, processing pay applications, sending a million emails that only have three sentences in them, and talking on the telephone. If you look at the picture above of my office you can see that I have two monitors – one is for whatever I’m working on and the other is for
Twitter or Facebook my calendar so I can keep track of what’s going on and those 20 deadlines that can’t be forgotten.
Another not-so-sexy side to practicing architecture is that you also need to be able to take a lot of crap from other people regardless of whether or not you deserve it or had anything (however remote) to do with creating the “situation” (we don’t call them problems). All anybody cares about is that you are expected to solve it immediately because most assuredly there are people sitting around waiting for an answer. For every time I actually say “that’s not what you said”, I have probably thought it 1,000 times. Frequently I notice that I’m the only person writing things down … but you know what? It doesn’t matter – results matter – and the quicker and easier you get there, the happier everyone else tends to be.
Make no mistake, despite all the preceding evidence to the contrary, I’m not actually complaining. I know how things work, I know my role, and I have found a balance between the job of being an architect and what I thought practicing architecture meant. A real big part of it means getting the work built … everyone who matters knows it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built.
I am reminded of a story that I heard when I was younger – I don’t know if it’s true or not but I like it and it suits what I am talking about here. When I. M. Pei was interviewing with Jacqueline Kennedy for the JFK Presidential Library, before she came in for the interview, he had the entire office painted white and spread white lilies around the office because white was supposedly her favorite color. Fast forward a bit and you know that he received the commission. I don’t know if it was his gamesmanship that led to him winning the project – he’s a pretty good architect as it stands. What this tale conveys is the lengths an architect will go to get a job beyond simply being a world-class architect. It was about putting the wishes of the client ahead of his personal predilections. There is a quote in the book I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture authored by Carter Wiseman that reads:
Ultimately, however, Kennedy made her choice based on her personal connection with Pei. Calling it “really an emotional decision”, she explained: “He was so full of promise, like Jack; they were born in the same year. I decided it would be fun to take a great leap with him.”
To be a good architect you have to be a lot more than a good designer. You have to be a good communicator, a good listener and good at making other people’s problems your own and then solving them. In the end, that’s why clients will like working with you because you care about them and take ownership of the problems. Once you figure this out and put it into practice, your world will be a lot better – and probably a lot busier.
I am going to climb down off this soapbox before someone decides to push me off.