idealism is an attitude

I believe one of the most important lessons taught to me at my former office was to accept that projects in and of themselves may not be great, but to make every project great. In other words, be idealistic. This was a truly liberating moment ten or fifteen years ago as I felt that I was waiting, just waiting for that ideal project to walk in the door only to discover that it wasn’t coming any more than that date who stood you up.  At that point I had to decide would I concede to the project as is or could I attempt somehow to instill in it something that would elevate it beyond itself. Free it from the boundaries of common understanding and perhaps alter the way one other person would experience it became a choice. See I am an idealist; I am an architect.

Now to some of you reading this you may be thinking it is (solely) our job to be responsible with the client’s money, program, time, budget, etc. Give them exactly what they want and let the market decide the future. Architects are too often criticized for being impractical and for imposing unwanted services or designs on their clients. I believe that is an unfair perception and in the least a straw man argument.

I don’t believe my thesis and my duty are mutually exclusive concepts. Yet in our recession lesser work, lesser desirable projects and certainly lesser fees are causing architects to concede to merely “cranking out” another banal project to generate fees to keep the office open. Despite what some might be thinking, my head is not so far up in the clouds where I am aloof to the requests of some clients that wish I kept my academic rhetoric to myself and simply deliver their project efficiently and at the least cost. However, this recent culture of moving architects away from who they are into mere technicians has me concerned.

I believe it is unfair and disingenuous to ask an architect to avoid being romantic and perhaps quixotic at times. Whether it is a bathroom renovation or a new museum I posit our integrity insists we see things beyond what they are into what they could be. See it is in our DNA to be idealists. The traits that lead us here also drive us and feed us. Otherwise we die, perhaps if only inside. Why must idealism be equated to ego or worse yet narcissism? Why isn’t it seen as a positive trait as long as we act responsibly towards our clients?

Other professions have analogous situations. Teachers must believe they can teach the material to a diverse audience of students who may lack interest or ability in learning the material. Yet the good ones continue believing that they can make a difference. Doctors fit this profile as well. What doctor (of value) doesn’t see that the possible cure or treatment is just around the corner? If they just push a little more, they might find a way to elevate someone’s life by finding either a treatment or some form of comfort. They can’t be satisfied with the medical knowledge to date. Both of these professions (and others) have their antagonists that work to thwart their idealistic efforts. However if they lose that quality, how can they go on?

I came across this video on ArchDaily of an interview with Steven Holl. (It is over twelve minutes long.) I’ve admired his work for many years, but his belief that we must not operate on a double standard, but remain idealistic in all situations struck a chord in my mind. He admits that we may work on bedroom renovations, garages, even carports. Yet we ought to attempt to elevate it to a work of architecture. Now I don’t believe we can create a business plan of only projects that initially appear to have great potential and turn down the rest. Therefore it is my belief that idealism is an attitude. A hopeful and positive motivator that allows us to continue to see how things could be accepting that reality may be a bit different. Some projects may never be a ‘work of architecture’, but if we don’t dream, none will be.


Don’t you want that in your architect, really…seriously? Put aside the pragmatism, fees, schedules and your request to just “give me some drawings” and think about your building, your space. If the architect is not going to inspire our human existence, who will? Perhaps if you let your architect be involved earlier in the process, to rewrite the program, to reexamine the site or maybe simply question your choice of paint colors then maybe, just maybe things could finally be as they could be and not as they have been. You may be pleasantly surprised and not have paid a buck more to do it.

photo is from svimes’ photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

idealism is an attitude

12 thoughts on “idealism is an attitude

  1. The title of your article drew me in as I am an idealist too. My favorite part of architecture is the unique challenges of each project and problem solving, so I am sometimes happier with more constrained commissions.

    I have also been frustrated with the available work, and the quality of what is being built. However, being into problem solving as I mentioned, I decided to tackle the issue. I developed Nestiv ( ), an online marketplace where architects can sell their plans. It turns the traditional model around. Now you can be as expressive or restrained as you want. The market will still decide it’s success, and it is a bit more of a gamble (although for home plans, it is a very reasonable investment of time), but I am hoping it really helps open up some doors.

    1. This is fascinating that you found my blog, thanks for commenting. I find what you’re doing very interesting and relevant. It sparks a lively debate amongst architects (not sure, try it on LinkedIn and sit back and watch). I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I lean towards the idea of developing well designed houses that could be mass marketed. There are a few out there that are doing this. If you haven’t already done so, check out what Greg La Vardera is doing at Please keep reading and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Lee, darn you. You never let me leave your blog without making my mind go off pondering in all different directions. Is architecture art? Should it be art? Very polemic subject.

    @Elizabeth – best wishes for your site. We need more architects with ethics and business acumen.

  3. you summed up my own views and aspirations with 1/2 a sentence
    “things could finally be as they could be and not as they have been”
    Oh to dream! 🙂 Great post as always! Cheers.

  4. Will May says:


    While I enjoyed the thought of being able to do more than just “I just need enough to get a building permit”, the economy and architects who could be considered my competition are looking at just getting enoung to get the client the building permit, afterall, either I do it or someone else will – I still need to feed my family and pay bills.

    Idealism is a luxury that frankly many architects can’t seem to be able to afford. Ask the many previous employees of the firms through out pittsburgh who were let go because projects simply couldn’t afford to be built.

    Two years ago or longer the AIA Pittsburgh chapter created the under-employed and un-employed architects group. People needed to think that it wasn’t something they did or didn’t do that caused the loss of a job. While Idealism is nice, along with romantics and all the warm fuzzies, it often times leads to a client going elsewhere.

    I’d love to be idealistic and romantic. But I need to pay my bills, help put my kid through college and keep the house I live in in good condition just in case I need to sell it because I can’t maintain it or make the mortgage payments.

    I did enjoy the time I spent reading your thoughts. But now I need to get back to reality.

    1. Will, I truly feel sorry for architects like you. It’s also architects like you, that can’t see beyond meeting their own needs and “responsibilities” that has gotten architecture to the point where all clients are looking for is “enough to get it done”.
      You’ve missed the point entirely that we can have BOTH without sacrificing clients or fees. You show me a client that doesn’t want to get more for their money from an architect….I can’t even finish because we all know that doesn’t exist. Idealism and integrity in architecture isn’t an unaffordable luxury, it’s the added value that architects like Lee and I offer to our clients because we believe in the value of ALL of our projects irregardless of what the client needs to “get it done”.
      The apathy that you ooze in your comments is almost insulting to those of us who still value our profession and strive to elevate it and push us all forward.

    2. Will, I’m not really sure how to respond. I truly mourn those who’ve lost their jobs in this recession, but I might add that those of us with one person offices with no work are the same as those who are unemployed, but we can’t collect unemployment.

      I believe you didn’t read my post carefully enough because your conclusions are inconsistent with my statements. This is where straw man arguments arise. I do appreciate your comments.

  5. Heena kokel says:

    i would say being ideal in some contradictory situation is not really possible thus i can take ur thoughts from “idealism is an attitude” to “architecture is an attitude” as per which he has to b on a constant struggle of balancing two ideals !!

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