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)