What is an Architect, Really?

What is an Architect, Really?

In all honesty it’s a fair question. Of the major professions that require a license to practice, I would venture to say architecture is the most unclear. Lawyers. Doctors. Therapists. Engineers. When you think of these occupations, I’m sure you have pretty good idea what each does. Yet, when you think of an architect, well that’s when things become a bit ambiguous. As you read this, begin to think of your pre-conceived image of an architect. I’m almost certain it would be either a person who “draws” buildings or a person who “builds” buildings. Both descriptions are diluted half truths and both are part of the problem plaguing the architect today. But I’ll save that argument for later. For now, it’s best we start by detailing what an architect is and does. “Allow me to re-introduce [ourselves]”

Players wanna play/ Ballers wanna ball/ Rollers wanna roll....
— R.Kelly

Etymology reveals much about words.The word ‘Architect’ originated in the Greek language as Arkhitekton. Arkhi- means ‘chief’ and +Tekton means ‘builder’, translating to “chief builder”. The Latin progression of the word, Architectus, means “master builder” or “director of works”. Notice there is no mention of anything relating to drawings or images. This suggests that architects have ancestral roots in building things rather than drawing them. This was the universal understanding of an architect’s role for many millenia, a master of building things.

The monuments of antiquity were built from a combination of skilled and slave labor. This painting shows skilled Egyptian craftsmen quarrying, shaping, and transporting stones as well as making mud bricks. These ancient tradesmen were some of the first 'architects'.

Ancient  monuments were often the visions of rulers and their "master builders". Their were no drawings. The masterpieces we have today are the results of building trail and error. In fact, architect Imhotep built several failed pyramids before erecting the Great Pyramid of Giza, One of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. Architects in these days were infact builders and coordinators of skilled tradesmen.

Today, architecture can be very difficult to grasp by most people because it is a convoluted and subjective profession. It took three years of undergrad before I even began to understand what I was actually doing. Unlike many other professions, architecture is not a precise endeavour. There is never one concise answer. There are always many possibilities. It is an artistic expression, but it is also a scientific investigation. It is practical, but it is also allegorical.

Merriam-Webster defines an architect as “a person who designs buildings and advises in its construction.” But, even this definition is a bit vague. For example, ‘what does designing a building consist of?’ or ‘How does one advise construction?’ Interpretations like this are misleading and fuel the stereotype that all architects do is “draw” and care for the appearance of a building. This could not be further from the truth. The aesthetics of a building are indeed the most enjoyable part of the job. But beauty is one of many things architects must consider when designing and is often a subordinate to other matters functional, economic, sustainable and regulatory.

Design is the cyclical process used to satisfy any problem. It consists of two streams of thought: Analysis and Execution. Analysis is a cognitive state where information relating to a problem is discovered and collected. It is a divergent action. Execution is the act of making educated convergent decisions based on the analysis. It is the process of doing and testing possible solutions. In order to refine and improve that solution(s), proposals are thrown back into the design loop and analyzed again. The process repeats itself until the designer feels a sufficient solution is reached that satisfies all defined analytical criteria.

The architectural design problem is complex. Architects apply the design process methodology to each phase of a building’s production, improving it one issue at a time. There are many pieces of information that must be gathered before initial solutions can be proposed. The architect’s legal and moral duty to the general public is paramount. Upon becoming a licensed professional, the architect has a legally enforceable duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the general public and building users. This requires that architects be knowledgeable and competent in a catalog of public health and safety restrictions, building codes, fire codes, energy codes, mechanical codes, ADA regulations (American Disabilities Act). FHA laws (Fair Housing Act requirements), sustainability codes and more. Regardless the project, architects are completely responsible for upholding this civic mandate.

One of the first things architects do is try to decipher what a client wants. We question and interview our clients, teasing out all important project requirements and turn them into design guidelines.Then the analysis continues. In addition to life safety issues, architects must know property rights and zoning ordinances statutes. Architects will often deal with special areas like historic districts which apply more design constraints. We will also gather information from analyzing surrounding ecology, climate, infrastructure and utilities, determining how a building will fit and function on a site. The architect is an estimator, economist, and time manager making sure projects can be built within budget while hitting schedule benchmarks. After all pertinent information is uncovered, design solutions of space and visual beauty can finally be proposed. But the aforementioned analysis remains the filters the design must constantly be tested against, to produce a successful solution.

But the most significant role of an architect during the design process is the task of coordinating consultants, engineers and contractors.Here I believe is where the architect’s unique training is invaluable and irreplaceable. Why is it the architect’s job to coordinate and organize the work of other competent professionals? Are not these other disciplines just as intelligiable? Indeed they are. But these are specialized disciplines that focus on one aspect of the work. Structural engineers concentrate on structural matters. Civil engineers are concerned with infrastructural matters. And so on and so forth. Their training is one-dimensional. They are by definition and by formal training, “specialists”.

Note that this diagram is assuming basic formal education and expereince as a baseline for these criteria and is not relfective of the certain nuances and additional knowledge that obviously exist between these disciplines. Skills for the architect are reflective of my education and training in route to becoming an architect. 

The role of the architect is not that of a specialist. Our training consists of all the previously mentioned disciplines, and some. We are trained to foresee the entire system rather than one individual part, making us better equipped to lead the development of the entire project. Architects coordinate all the separate building sciences into a comprehensive whole, directing how the disparate parts visually and physically fit into a given space. Space. This word gets to the real essence of architecture. The ability to visualise and think spatially is a trait deeply embedded in the psyche of an architect. Architects ‘create’ and move space around - as if space itself were an object - to accommodate all the different restraints and components associated with producing a building. We do all this while simultaneously crafting how a building will look and be experienced by its users.This sort of spatial “wizardry” along with a multi-disciplinary training is what distinguishes architects from other designers, professionals and construction disciplines.

So what is an architect you say? An architect is a generalist; a “jack of all trades” so to speak. Architects are concerned with the artistry of a building, but also the science of a building. Architects are coordinators and orchestrators. Architects are creators. Architects have an innate ability to manifest buildings and spaces in the mind as concepts and metaphors first, and through the design process translate them into reality. Architects are leaders, galvanizing many entities to achieve a single goal.

Think of the architect as Doctor Richard Weber, from the popular TV drama, Grey’s Anatomy. Dr. Weber, is a general surgeon. That means he is very proficient in a variety of surgical procedures across many surgical fields. He can effectively participate in cardiological surgeries, neurological surgeries, cosmetic, trauma and orthopedic surgeries as well. This makes him extremely valuable to the surgical team and the hospital. It makes him indispensable. Which is why Dr.Weber is the Chief of Surgery for the entire hospital. It is Dr. Weber’s duty to be concerned with all fields of surgery in order to ensure that the hospital as a whole thrives and succeeds. What better person to lead a comprehensive surgical program than the person who is most knowledgeable in all forms of surgical thought and procedure, regardless the specialty.

Richard and Owen_Final.jpg

In the same way Dr. Weber directs the complex workings of a hospital, so too does an architect direct the vast complexities associated with designing, constructing and maintaining a building.

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Each of these are books that i have personally read. They each offer basic lean-start up business information relevant to any market, but also business information specific to an architecture practice. I personally recommend each of them for young architects as well as the curious entrepreneur. 


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Prelude: What is an Architect, Really?

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