Prelude: What is an Architect, Really?

Prelude: What is an Architect, Really?

Do you know who I am?....I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very Important. I have many leather bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany
— Ron Burgundy
(Image Credit: Creative Commons)

(Image Credit: Creative Commons)

So this guy walks into his favorite neighborhood bar, Leonard is his name. Leonard approaches the counter, takes a seat at the industrial design inspired stool, and nods to Reggie, the owner of the spot. Reggie is working behind the bar tonight and Leo is one of his favorite customers. Pleasantries are exchanged - what up doe - and then Reg brings Leonard his usual drink order. When Leo finally finishes checking Twitter on his Iphone he raises his head and notices a very attractive woman sitting in the bar stool next to him. So he does what any single man would do that situation. He tries to spark a meaningful conversation, on the fly, without coming off as a creep. A few corny yet endearing jokes later, they’re both laughing. She’s smiling and executing the love tap on his shoulder to perfection. After explaining to Leo that she’s a private practice lawyer, she asks him what he does for a living. He sets his drink down, adjusts the lapels on his blazer, looks her in the eyes, then confidently replies “ Well’ I’m an architect ”. Her body language approves as she shakes her head positively and her eyes widen in amazement as if she’s now staring at Ryan Gosling. Her immediate response is “Oh wow, that’s impressive. You must can draw really pretty pictures and do well for yourself”. Leo hears this and becomes furious. He aggressively stands out of his bar stool and yells at the young lady, telling her that she an idiot and knows nothing. Leo shouts at Reg to put the drinks on his unpaid tab and storms out of the bar vigorously.

Hmmmmm.......that's weird. (Image Credit: Dhiru Thadani)

Ok scratch that last part. Let’s be honest. I’m sure Leo probably swallowed his pride, continued the conversation and eventually got ‘dem digits’. But if Leo is like any real self-respecting architect, I’m sure he was disappointed to a certain extent. I know I am when this happens to me. Responses like that happen too often. It’s even more frustrating when I begin to think of all the time and sacrifice it took to become an architect: 7.5 years of school, 2 bachelor degrees, 1 master’s degree, $200,000 dollars in tuition, 7 licensing exams, and 5,000+ intern hours all for a public perception of my profession that is equivalent to a 3rd grade art class - and with the same amount of professional respect. At this point in my life and career, I can’t help but chuckle about it. But as I reflect and ask critical questions of myself and the practice of architecture, I am confronted by some tough realities. Exactly how would someone outside the world of architecture know what it is we do - like what we really do? Where would they go to get such information? Have architects effectively educated the public on why what we do is so valuable to their lives, or have we just assumed thay know? How would people know how we work and how we’re educated? Would that not be good for business? Wouldn’t that improve relationships between designer and the public or clients? What more do people have to base their opinions about architects than the images and “pretty pictures” they see of our projects plastered on the internet? After all, we design objects and spaces with the specific utilization of people in mind (or at least we should). Shouldn’t they at least have a basic understanding of what we do aside from being able to ‘draw really good?” Are we too self-absorbed and ego-centric? Is that a bad thing? Are we more concerned with our buildings than the people that will use them and is that bad thing?

Image Credit: Creative Commons

If architects weren’t arrogant, they wouldn’t be architects. I don’t know a modest good architect.
— Architect and Historian, Philip Johnson

After spending a few months wrestling with these questions and the negative answers I was concluding to, I realized that a major part of why architects are so devalued in modern culture is the architect's own doing. Over the last few centuries we have built a reputation for ourselves as overtly arrogant and unrelatable people. Sometimes this reputation is desereved and sometimes it is not. The average person either has no idea what it is we do or an incorrect assumption of what we do.  We are often portrayed  in popular culture incorrectly and the architects that rise to "Star-chitect" status usually give the rest of us a bad rep.

This is Frank's building.............

This is Frank's building.............

I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do
— Architect and Sculptor, Frank Gehry
.......and, this is what Frank think's about what you think about his building.

.......and, this is what Frank think's about what you think about his building.

 And so I was moved to write this blog series entitled, “What is an Architect, Really?” In it I will touch on a variety of topics and will try my best to debunk some of the mysteries and taboo related to architecture and role of the architect. I will also offer personal criticisms on the current practice of architecture as well as suggestions I feel will advance the profession and bring it into the 21st century. Most importantly my desire is to educate you - the one’s who didn’t spend years in school studying architecture - the future clients and consumers of architectural products and services. Hopefully as you become more enlightened and aware of the intangible value architects bring to the built environment, it will produce better cities, strengthen the relevancy of our profession and ultimately fortify the mutual respect and relationship with you - the people. Now with that being said, let the story begin.

NO I.D. my mentor/ Now let the story begin
— Kanye West, Big Brother

The narrative for this series is divided into several sub-topic sections and will follow the following outline. I’ve included a lil’ precursor to briefly explain each section and where I’ll be taking you on this journey...

1. What is an Architect, Really?

Wood Framing a corner. (Image Credit: Myself)

Lawyers. Doctors. Therapists. Engineers. When you think of these occupations, I’m sure you have a pretty good idea what each does. But when you think of an architect, well that’s when things become of bit ambiguous. An architect is a generalist - a “jack of all trades” so to speak - responsible for both the artistry and science of a building. We see buildings and communities as a complex network of parts and systems, that need to be properly coordinated to produce beautiful and functional structures. The architect, for thousands of years, has been tasked with managing the complexities associated with designing, constructing and maintaining the man-made environment.

2. Value of an Architect

Architects bring tremendous value and worth to each and every stage of a project. But our input and expertise is often reduced to a mere line item on the balance sheet. Architects are not a cost nor a liability. We are an insurance. We are directors and managers. But most of all we are an investment that yields financial and sentimental dividends. Why? Because we have just as much interest, if not more, in seeing the project completed as designed as the client does. We insure that happens.

3. Becoming an Architect

Myself, and a mentor talking and analyzing a project under construction. Image Credit: Myself

This is more of a personal account. I had no one educate me on the steps necessary to become an architect. All I knew is I wanted to be one. Before college, I hadn’t done any research and as a result I made a lot of early mistakes. Eventually, I got on track and have enjoyed a budding career in architecture and urban design. But the mistakes could have been easily avoided. The intent of this article is twofold: to educate clients/consumers of architectural services on the tremendous amounts of time and money it takes to become an architect; and second, to be a general guide for kids who have an interest in pursuing architecture as a career but don’t know where to start and how to begin. You’re welcome.

4. The Business of Architecture

I cannot stress enough that architecture is a service based business, just like lawyers, doctors and other licensed professionals. People rarely gripe when they pay for these services yet, the established perception is that an architect’s time, skill, and knowledge are not deserving of compensation equivalent to their professional counterparts. Architects are expected to offer their skills for a discount, or for free and are constantly fighting for payment. Creativity in all forms suffer from this stigma. In addition to not knowing what we actually do, possibly an architect’s value is overlooked because the process of working with one is a vast unknown to the majority. It’s time to explain the basics of how we work.

5. History of Architecture

Since architecture became a “thing”, it has always been intimately connected to the cultural values of human society. Architecture in its most basic form provides shelter for human beings and their activities. But architecture as we have come to know it can trace its beginnings back to humanity’s most significant cultural achievement - agriculture. Agriculture gave humans a reason to survive in one place. Instead of chasing food, we could now raise and grow our own. This more stationary lifestyle required a new and more permanent architecture. Agriculture marks the birth of modern civilization and cements the relationship between architecture and culture. Architecture would continue to develop this way throughout the course of time.

6. History of the Architect

Tightening through-bolts on a wood beam and post connection for a full size model  prototype. (Image Credit: Myself)

Architects historically were focused on the ‘art of building’ instead of the ’art of the building’. Architect, comes from the Greek word Arkhitekton, meaning “chief or master builder”. For thousands of years an architect’s main association was in construction and making, not drawing. Drawing as a popular medium did not appear until the 15th century with the inventions of modern paper and pencil. The marriage of designing and building is at the cornerstone of what an architect is. If an architect can’t build, then by precedented definition that architect is not an architect at all.

7. Today's Architects Aren't Architects Anymore

Architects of the 21st century have become mere amateurs when compared to their predecessors. Over the course of 300 years architects have managed to relieve themselves of key attributes and responsibilities essential to the architectural profession. As a result of this, the role and relevance of the architect in today’s world has been called into question, as other professions, many less qualified assume the duties, responsibilities, and liabilities that architects fail to.

8. Reclaiming the Role of Architect

 I am going to end this series with a very open ended topic: How to re-claim the role of Architect. I do not assert that I have  the answer to how architects go about reclaiming their role in society. I can only offer opinions based on my observations, experiences and the teachings of history to be my guide - to be the architect's guide, society's guide. What is true, is that there is a problem within the architectural profession. The word 'architect' itself has even been adopted (without resistance) by other desparate disciplines, further diluting the prestige, relevancy, and original responsibility of the architect. It seems that the word can mean just about anything these days. If I have explained anything in the previous essays, it is that the architect has a critical role in the representation and evolution of human culture, a role that should not be taken lightly nor prostituted.  Architects often find themselves pushed to the outer realm of decision making by those with less qualification, training, and expertise. In a broad sense, the architect as a leader in the formation of the built environment has lost tremendous respect and regard. This is reflected in our role, duties, and our compensation.  Although I do not claim to have the solution, I believe the solution will be found by getting back to the core and essential basics of the discipline. The essential things that architects have been doing for over 4,000 years. So, with the intent to educate and dialouge I submit to you my thoughts on how architects can take back their profession in a modern world.  

Check out some of our other great STUDI materials and products related to this topic as well as some affiliate products!!!

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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