architects’ architect?


***warning*** If you ask me to respond again to this question tomorrow, my answer will be different.

I read an interesting article recently, that was shared by a good friend of mine, where the author posits that there are architects, that are largely appreciated only by architects, whose architecture is primarily “about architecture.” He goes on to call them the architects’ architect. Now this writer gave his own definition to the term, one which has no objective definition, nor is it a term that’s frequently used. Therefore, we’re talking in the realm of subjectivity – yet it remains a fascinating topic I couldn’t resist.

My visceral reaction was this is a Utopian theoretical discourse that ends up in circles yielding nothing but architects flexing their minds defending a position that has no right answer. However, in the mind of an architect and in my efforts to share what we think – why not?

As usual, I find myself asking more questions than developing answers. Let’s pause a moment to ask a few very important questions.

  • Does this matter or does anyone care?
  • Can this architect exist?
  • Does my choice need to remain a secret so it doesn’t immediately disqualify them?
  • Can one become this later in one’s career – like a convert?
  • Can one start this way, but become disqualified somehow?
  • Must we agree on the rules?

20161130_093139.jpgNow, there’s no purpose in a point-by-point rebuttal of this article because I can allow this author to have his own definition without consensus from any of us. That’s the joy of this conversation despite the apparent contradictions to his requirements (for which he somewhat relents after acknowledging his idealism). I can accept a few of his criteria, but I either must allow for a broader definition or concede that this person cannot exist.

Therefore, I’ll agree on a few terms, at least for today.

  • Architect who is a passionate seeker of something more than delivering a service to one’s clients and wishing for more than the making buildings.
  • Architect who is a humble individual focused on one’s work, understanding that there is valuable learning by doing.
  • Architect who has been afforded the opportunity to be inventive on a self-selected narrow path.

Is there such a rare individual out there who is artistically driven, blessed with the time to give each detail the proper attention while having enough experience to understand materials in both a technical and artistic manner to compose them brilliantly – while not being disqualified by being too commercial, well-known or owning a smart-phone? It makes one wonder, now doesn’t it?

20161130_093218_001.jpgAs a solo-practitioner, I am (or was) headed in the right direction for this honor on that basis, but it seems impossible that an architects’ architect can practice architecture as a means of earning a living while achieving this status. This person must have some alternate form of income since the very nature of getting paid for one’s art will distract them and lead them to eventually disqualify themselves from this prestigious award that cannot be appreciated or shared without the awards committee rescinding the designation. In other words, if you post a selfie after seeing another architect tweet a comment about your published work, well, you’re out. Good work will be noticed and eventually published, and then, you’re going to need to join the rest of us in the back.

How could a master with this type of experience ever get known in the 21st century to gain even one commission that would yield this result? We cannot survive (i.e. eat regularly) without some form of promotion or marketing. Perhaps we can imagine one practicing (several decades into their career) with a ‘word-of-mouth’ reputation where conventional marketing is unnecessary. However, does one disqualify oneself on the path to being able to practice in obscurity? Word of mouth comes from everyone knowing one is that good.

You’re thinking this is certainly rare, but not impossible.

Architecture is something we ‘practice’ and it is also a profession. Therefore, to be good, one must practice – in other words, one must have scores of opportunities not only to design, but see one’s work – built. This requires carefully working (and relying on others), communication and…clients willing to pay for this! Even though repeat work is quite common, it is rare to find a client that acts like a benefactor, willing to afford endless latitude to an unknown idealist so they can design and oversee the construction of their creative works so many times to allow the perfection of the assembly of materials and systems into works that captivate the layperson while still stimulating the heart of the architect?

Where is this client? I need to meet them.

Architecture that is only about (or mostly about) architecture will probably be perceived as elitist and undoubtedly go unnoticed by the public – which seems to go against larger ideals embraced by most architects. Music can be about music because although it affects all of us, it is still art. It does pay the bills for many, but we don’t inhabit it and there’s no liability for getting it wrong except for being condemned to play at rib-fests and invited to be a part of reality TV.

20161130_093111.jpgI can accept architecture that is so cerebral that it is fiercely debated by architects and misunderstood by the public. What must be acknowledged is if this work is public or one that is readily accessible permitting anyone to visit and form an opinion, then how can this architect attain our mighty status of today’s discussion? If it is too conventional, the architect dismisses it, if it is too self-referential or enigmatic, the public is displeased or ignores it.

Perhaps this architect’s architect somehow finds rare and unique residential commissions or some type of monastic structures located in unknown regions only used by select groups who are savvy enough to appreciate the merit. It has a benefactor owner that not only wants, but demands an overworking of thought and detail while having access to builders who live under the same sky as the architect where time is a non-issue, a volume of work is unnecessary and cost is not an issue. One simply cannot post images of it on their web site afterwards. I sense a guilt of circular reasoning.

Allow me to digress, utopia comes from two Greek words – ou (not) and topos (place) – get it?

Look, pardon my sarcasm and hyperbole, but there are architects out there (alive – no less), that fit MY definition of an architects’ architect, but I’m not sharing. I have lower standards. I have come across champions out there (through the evils of social media and the web) that are somewhat obscure, working with regular people, going largely, but not totally unnoticed by the glossy mags and architect awards, who appear to impact the lives of everyday people for the common good. Their work matters; it is good by an architect’s standard. They’ll likely never make a history book, nor will they ever appear in a student’s analysis project in architecture school. Yet, in my definition there is little room for being an elitist (at least by the main and plain understanding). Maybe they wouldn’t be the average architect’s architect, but they can simply be my architect’s architect.

At least that’s what this architect thinks and thinking is what really matters.


architects’ architect?

2 thoughts on “architects’ architect?

  1. Graham McKay says:

    Hello Lee! I I think your starter three-point definition nails it quite well, especially with your third point. One of my choices, Kazuo Shinohara, was a university professor who drew a salary from the university yet received commissions (but not fees) as he ran his practice from within it. It was a very unconventional arrangement. But most of all though, I liked your accompanying [architects’ distraction] tweet. My gut feeling is this is true. Even if architects’ architects never existed, we’d have invented them. Nobody needs an impossible ideal to live up to so there must be some vicarious pleasure to be gained by entertaining the concept of the architects’ architect. Believing someone is out there “living the dream” saves others the bother of trying and helps sustain a possibly unhealthy system. If this is true, then today’s self-aware media heroes have the same function as the architects’ architect once did, even if nothing else has remained the same. I think we should get back to work now. =)

    1. Graham, thank you for taking a moment to respond. I needed to talk about architecture again. There has been too much noise in the US lately. It’s a healthy distraction even if it yields nothing. I’m eager to read more of your writings. I’ll be diving in soon.

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

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

You are commenting using your 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.