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)