endless tease of perfection

For those of you who know an architect, you understand our self-inflicted pursuit of the utopian concept of perfection. We are infatuated with possibilities rather than solutions. The reason we never complete our work but simply “stop working” is merely symptomatic of our inveterate process of considering what else our design “might be” rather than savor what it has become. Many architects have learned to shed this behavior, selling out, as some may indict them. However, it is more likely they lead happy productive lives while the rest of us wallow in self-inflicted torture working to improve something that is likely to be eliminated by the client or contractor for some reason far from our grasp of understanding.

In his book “Architecture Depends”, Jeremy Till explores the concept of contingency in architecture that would be well served on us if we would stop long enough to consider it. He writes in his introduction “architecture at every stage of its existence – from design through construction to occupation – is buffeted by external forces. Other people, circumstances, and events intervene to upset the architect’s best-laid plans. These forces are, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the direct control of the architect. Architecture is thus shaped more by external conditions than by the internal processes of the architect. Architecture is defined by its very contingency, by its very uncertainty in the face of these outside forces.”


I suppose this begins in our education process where we are tacitly if not overtly directed to spend countless hours working on endless iterations of ideas in pursuit of the ultimate solution, sometimes at the risk of developing a lesser idea into a richer work. Till writes, “architectural education does everything it can to disguise its autonomy and resultant stasis. Briefs for buildings are set in the “real” world on “real” sites, empirical data are collected, engineers are sometimes spoken to, and famous architects are brought in to review the work. But these activities really do nothing to disturb the artificiality of the whole process.” Nowhere after our education is this mandate formally lifted, but day-one in an office typically takes care of this in some type of informal initiation into the profession. Just rip off the Band-Aid already.

Recently I’ve found myself frustrated over the endless change a project takes on especially during construction. Clients will unilaterally make changes for shallow reasons disguised as budget cuts or some other illogical reason dismissed as legitimate. The end results have not strayed in a manner that the public might sense, but in ways that affect architects similar to how high frequency pitches affect dogs. Why do I do this and why does it bother me? Who is serving whom? Without a client and a contractor, my ‘ideas’ remain largely that apart from some ink on a piece of paper. Isn’t something built better than paper architecture?

What I believe sets us architects apart from…everyone else, is we are more interested in the idea than the realization. I love to see things built and I love the process of construction often more than the building’s completion. However, I too am fascinated with concepts and ideas especially as they relate to potentiality. The “Idea” if we look at it like Louis Sullivan did is what drives us to reconsider and incessantly overwork thus, taking us up to the deadline. It is rare we can take our clients at face value, but we need to reinterpret their simple wish for a building as a philosophical pursuit. I can partially blame Sullivan for this when he wrote in The Autobiography of an Idea “that every problem contains its own solution, and the task lies in the accurate statement of the nature of the problem.” I am guilty of this whether a vice or a virtue. Like a moth driven to a light bulb, I must reconsider the simple program given to me by my clients and ponder the real problem they’re asking me to solve. I am not saying this is irresponsible or a wasted endeavor, merely an idiosyncratic behavior of the architect. Perhaps it explains why we’re so melancholic and frequently wear black clothing.


Where do we go from here in today’s culture and our economic Pompeii that has likely changed our profession indefinitely? Can we go on with the endless pursuit of perfection or should we begin to embrace architecture for what it really is and its real value to the public? Does this warrant a change in architectural practice? In Part Three of his book, Till writes that this is “a move from the idea of architect as expert problem-solver to that of architect as citizen sense-maker; a move from a reliance on the impulsive imagination of the lone genius to that of the collaborative ethical imagination; from clinging to notions of total control to a relaxed acceptance of letting go.” He goes on to say “[a]rchitecture’s dependency is finally seen as an opportunity and not a threat, with the architect working out from contingencies of the given situation and using their embedded knowledge, skills, and imagination in an open and curious way in order to contribute to the making of new spatial possibilities.”


Should we embrace this new paradigm? Have you already? If you’re not an architect does this cement your stereotype of us? Is asking us to avoid the perfect and allow contingency to shape OUR design trying to alter our DNA? I don’t know. I’m having a hard time at it. When I celebrate the projects I’ve been fortunate to see built, I still catch myself envisioning the elements deleted or altered. At times I also rework parts of the design in my mind as if it’s still sitting on my desk as a chipboard model feverish working to the deadline where the professor says “stop.”

Call me cursed, what about you? 

photos are from annaisphotostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

endless tease of perfection

12 thoughts on “endless tease of perfection

  1. Kate says:

    This need to seek perfection in your creation. . . Isn’t this what artists in any medium also face? I myself am a fiction writer and find that I can never leave my work alone. I must force myself to set it aside and to call it done, even when I feel it isn’t. Otherwise, I might continue to return to it for years. Like your model on your desk, I find ways to continue working with the idea.

    The editing process, which I happen to believe in, is different from yours, however. An editor never asks for changes or cuts because of budget limits or other contingencies. Most often, their suggested changes help refine, or perfect, the piece.

    1. Kate, you are entirely right about editing and ANY creative field. I just didn’t want to call anybody other than architects weird. With the little writing I do in comparison to you I can slightly understand how editing and reworking the written word can challenge you trying to say the right thing to capture whatever your idea is. However, I can only attest to architecture experientially. I could never write a novel or any other creative written work. Having only one creative discipline in my life to haunt me is enough. Thanks for commiserating, sharing, and reading.

      1. Kate says:

        Just to be clear, I wasn’t taking umbrage to your stance, just making a comparison. Thanks for the clarification.

        Your post made another point, which I have been thinking over since last night. . . this relationship with the consumer that architecture must have in order to build. At first I thought, well, writers don’t have that problem. . . but they certainly do! Any artist who offers his or her work to the public is now vulnerable to the public’s criticism and taste. Your question about how much to capitulate is a good one. I have no answer at the moment, but I’ll be thinking this over for a good while to come. Thanks for your blog.

  2. Enoch Sears says:

    Interesting food for thought. One thing is certain, that drive to explore and achieve ‘perfection’ can be a benefit to the client because it means the architect is expending more creative energy than he/she would otherwise. And creative energy is the only thing that makes the built environment a fun place to be…carry on my friend.

  3. I constantly wage the battle between awareness of my definition of perfection and the clients… no surprise, they typically are not in sync. As long as one of the definitions is met, I consider the project a success. If the client finds the project perfect for them, well than I believe I succeeded on some level. Granted, it may not be perfect in my eyes, but that’s part of what makes us architects.

    As architects we always seek perfection. However, the only place to find it is in the next project…(sorry I got distracted, my dog was chasing his tail, what was I saying….)

    However, if the client thinks the project is far from perfect, well, that’s another post.

    1. What’s hard to explain unless you’re an architect is the “perfection” we seek is this utopian vision to be sought or perhaps a place like Nirvana to be reached. So we incessantly work at it not until its complete, but until time runs out or our fee whichever comes first. My question is simply does this state of perfection exist? I doubt it, but I’d like to think my quest (akin to Monty’s Python’s Holy Grail quest) does help the client ultimately, but can be a bit comical along the way.

  4. Ted Rusnak says:

    Somewhere in the back of my addled mind I have read somewhere that perfection is to be sought but can never be achieved.
    All your questions and observations have answers but only for the individual answering them. And those are as varied as the individual. Would some of your questions been answered differently had you asked them 50 years ago?
    Like you I have had projects come to completion creating a pleased client. Little do they know that looking at the final product I was thinking that if I had made this detail change or adjusted that or eliminated that or had used a different surface treatment it would have been almost “perfect”.
    Ah…our calling and its’ inherent frustrations. (Wouldn’t have it any other way!) T.

  5. Wm Finnerty says:

    great subject, especially the louis kahn quote that i fully understand from my education experience. i found quite often my teachers did not understand my questions, but when i was able frame my question properly i had found the solution myself.

    ……and timely subject as i am in lock down pushing out a permit set (the interior details will have to wait) and still can’t help myself from testing alternative solutions even when the client is perfectly thrilled.

    moving forward into today’s process ……. i refer back to one of my favorite architects (and precedent for my thesis) herman hertzberger’s philosophy of constructing a framework for individuals to personalize and complete, giving it a richness that a single creator could never accomplish.

    thanks lee, now i’m refreshed and can get back to the production of architecture

  6. As both an architect and a homemaker I find the ideas of perfection (utopian ideal) and reality constantly collide. The picture perfect images we aspire to last mere moments when faced with the reality of children, dogs (!), work, day to day life. This is the same with the original design process or concept and the ultimate building that is produced. Architecture is not created in isolation – it is a collaboration of a team – the client, the architect, the builder, the inhabitants it is intended for. As I have grown in my profession I have gradually learnt to see that my role as an architect is to start with the vision (yes – perhaps easily described as utopianism) but then work with the skills, talents and thoughts of the people around me to enrich and develop the building. A conceptual framework is the a good way of describing it and if it is strong enough to hold the input/daily lives of others as well – it is a solid framework indeed. Yes we need to know when to stand firm on an idea or a detail, but also sometimes we do need to let go – just a little….and allow that random element give life to the work!

    1. Well said, and in less words than me! I like when you said “architecture is not created in isolation.” The architecture that is built is the result of all of these people and forces at work. The “perfect” architecture that has been altered in the process doesn’t exist. As in the original Greek definition of Utopia, it is also “no place.”

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