what defines you?

I don’t have answers. I am not putting forth a strong opinion. I am listening, so speak.

For those of you with your own practice or those of you who have an role in the direction of your firm, some of the most important questions to consider as an architect are “what will define you” or “what defines your practice?” In other words, do the projects you get or the projects you choose set the course for the work you’ll get in the future? Will you be known (or remembered) for certain types of projects or a certain type of architecture? Should you refuse to take on any project that will not further your goal to get to wherever it is you wish to get?

Is this sound career advice or merely an ideological polemic? Is it even reasonable?

I’ve come across these questions a few times in the past nine years with varied advice. Quite frankly I have no clear answer and no real assurance of what to do with these questions. To me, the question makes a series of faulty assumptions. First, it presumes that the practitioner has some magic control over every project, every client, every contractor and everybody that works for them. It extrapolates the observation that the selection of prime projects (enjoyed by established star architects) is a privilege that is available to the remaining 99.5% of architectural firms. In other words, it presumes that all architects can choose all of their work like they’re sifting through the magazines at Barnes & Noble. Are there choices? In some cases there are. Sometimes the choice may be no; sometimes one should say no. Sometimes it has to be yes because people have to eat, pay bills and pay their staff. How do you think super large firms survive? What I don’t understand is how can one afford to pursue the elite projects if there are not other projects to fund that effort? The reciprocal of that is how do we find time to pursue great projects if we are tied down to ordinary projects?

Does this mindset of being choosy eliminate the “service” part of our profession? Does it perpetuate the potential elitist attitude that is already prevalent in our profession? Will our evolving profession tolerate architects that will only accept commissions that fit their strict profile? How does pro bono work fit into this model?

I discuss this often with colleagues and other practitioners with no common answer. However, most do not turn down work at face value. They seem to get it done knowing it won’t be published or show up on their website. It just keeps the doors open and they don’t talk about it. Let’s remember we just went through a major recession. The last I checked a third of us are walking the streets with NO work. Does it help if we look through our black rimmed glasses down our long noses at ordinary projects? Am I being unreasonable? Sure, I’d prefer to focus only on projects that excite or interest me, the ones that I can put in my portfolio, and the ones that will give my firm visibility. Am I contradicting myself here?

The belief has been (or is) if you choose to do mundane or banal projects it will only breed more of the same. One thing leads to another and you wake up in the proverbial architectural gutter. Your reward for designing a great bathroom addition is another bathroom addition. What I want to know is how much control does the architect have over this…really? I heard one architect suggest once that one should only work on projects or competitions (real or imagined) that align with one’s interest and work a side job (i.e. waiting tables) in order to pay the bills. This should go on until one scores a significant commission. Is this good or realistic advice?

Now let’s think through this a minute.

What about if what defines us is what we’ve done with the projects that we accepted or the commissions that we were fortunate to receive? Is it more impressive to make something remotely interesting out of a banal project or design wild projects that are not real and only exist on paper? Any architect that can make the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear ought to be congratulated, awarded and given more work…right?

Good work breeds more good work. Right? Winning local or national awards ought to get needed visibility which ought to lead to more work, more interesting work right? Is getting published another step on this path to success? How does one get published when the architectural magazines have such strict taste? Can the Pritzker prize winners remember the early years? Can they tell us what they did to get to where they are now? How did they position themselves? How did they support themselves? Do you need a rich spouse?

Look, who doesn’t want to the proverbial “atta-boy” every now and then? Don’t we all have somewhat similar aspirations? I am starting to doubt. I’m not judging you, except serve your clients well. I still want to know how much control we have. How does a young small firm score the prestigious commission? Is it luck or is it smarts? Even if we score the cool project, should we turn down the other projects…even if they’re for a good client? What am I supposed to do?

What will define me? I suppose you will.

photos are from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)

what defines you?

5 thoughts on “what defines you?

  1. My goodness. Did you eat some bad chinese last night or something? 😛 This is like the Jerry McGuire Manifesto.
    I don’t think “answers” matter so much as “actions”. I like your description of the advice you received once near the end about only taking the prestigious projects that strictly align with your design sensibility and working at “something else” to pay the bills. This struck an ironic cord in my life because I do this. Only I work for an architect while pursuing outside projects to keep my creative juices flowing. Though these projects are not glamorous and I make very little money at them (obviously not enough to strike out full time) they each offer interesting challenges that make me a better designer and ultimately a more valuable architect – both to myself and any future employers.
    We’ve each got to make our own way in architecture. For some of us, who have little or nothing to lose, sticking to a hard and fast set of ideological principles can be done because the sacrifice for them is worth it. For those of us with more personal responsibilities, like husbands/wives and children, this is simply not practical.
    However, every project, from the mundane to the magnanimous, should be done with integrity, with pride, and even with a little panache. While it’s true that “typically” one bathroom remodel will lead to another, you never know when one bathroom remodel will lead to a new home – perhaps even one you’d want to put in your portfolio. Take chances where opportunity is given. You might be surprised by the outcome.

    1. J – thanks. i’m going to take in whatever comments come in and consider this further. i have more opinions than i shared, but i need to hear others on this one more. btw – no bad chinese food last night, but my brain does visit a lot of weird territory.

  2. Adrien says:

    Almost sounds like you are offering the architects’ version of Catch-22: Get the big, prestigious project when you’ve made a name for yourself; you can’t get a big name for yourself until you’ve done a big, prestigious project.

    In my view we each define ourselves. The vision to which one aspires and the principles which they follow to get there define a person or a business. I believe not everyone aspires to be a starchitect, most want to do the best work they can, and let it speak for them. To sum up my opinion, you define yourself. Your work reinforces that. Clients come to you because of how you’ve defined yourself with projects of many sizes – the bathroom addition of the complete new home.

    Would you rather have a client who provides a big, prestigious project but doesn’t like your principles and wants you to do the project another way? Or, would you prefer a client with a modest project that embraces and shares the principles you have?

  3. I would say that the relationships we choose set the course for our future work more than the work itself. Of course the two are related, the work comes because of the relationships. Relationships are how most of us get work, and the nature of these relationships determines the bounds of the work we are able to do.
    I’ll give an example of what I mean: Architect ‘A’ early in her career was offered work by a big box developer and found this work to be profitable and steady. That work developed into more work and now this architect does big box developments across the state. Say this architect now wants to try her hand at some avant-garde residential. Her options to do that kind of project are limited because she hasn’t spent the time to develop the relationships that lead to that kind of work.
    But that isn’t your question. I feel that your question is more along the lines of how you come to terms with doing work that doesn’t fit within your ideological framework. And that my friend is a question that only you can answer…
    As for rejecting work – no, I would say don’t reject work, but do consider rejecting relationships.
    I’m interested in your response to my thoughts.

    1. Part of what initiated my question has to do with how much control does one have over the type of work that comes their way. I believe you’re accurate in stating in comes down to the relationships we make. I also wonder what other venues like competitions or RFP’s have in broadening one’s chances at new types of work.

      I think in the end, we want to have control over our own definition and not look back after a lengthy career with any regrets.

Please leave a reply, and consider sharing this with a friend.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.