I recently got into a discussion surrounding architecture with some heavy hitters and some interns of a few very well-known award winning international arch firms here in Beijing. We talked about Architecture and what you get out of it being an architect. Are you really changing lives, improving society or are you merely just a cog in the system allowing your superiors to feed you mindless work for the rich? I interrupted and questioned why we talked about being architects at all, why were all our conversations that night centred around the belief that without us everything will fall apart?
Personally I have been asking myself a question for quite some time. "Is it possible to go from being an Architect to an Entrepreneur". I often wonder why it’s so difficult to really step outside the realm of architecture and why It’s a scary thought to leave the profession completely in pursuit of something else. The reality of it is, I think Architects would make great Entrepreneurs, yet most stick to the dream of working for a big name firm and getting ideal projects so that they can proudly place into their beautifully designed portfolio.
I have a few character traits for architects which I wanted to share with you before we go any further.
'Architects', what are they? how do they operate, and what are the qualities of architects that define an architect.:
- Architects are problem solvers
- Architects are creative thinkers
- Architects are critical
- Architects are visual
- Architects are tech savvy
- Architects are cultural
These are just 6 generalisations of qualities architects may hold. Of course some may possess all of these traits, some may only possess one. It doesn’t matter, for the sake of the article let’s agree that this is what most architects display in terms of skill sets, interests and character traits.
With all of these qualities one can see the value in having an architect as an entrepreneur, but still I don’t often see many making the transition, myself included. I’ve tinkered with the notion of stepping out and have previously attempted to do so with moderate levels of success, yet I still find myself working within a corporate architectural environment even though I’m living in one of the most exciting places in the world.
Here are a few, let's say observations which i believe results in young architects being locked into and subdued within this one field..
1. "We're Taught This Way"
The methodology of architectural education is more or less antiquated, outdated and at times a little sadistic. Young architects are given the opportunity to design a potential project based on a brief written up possibly the night before. They end up spending countless hours devoted towards this imaginary brief, mixed in with a lack of sleep a bad diet plus if you're the rebellious type a cheeky cigarette here or there. Eventually coming up with what can be a very emotionally attached and personal project, only to be criticized by the lecturers and tutors in an “Apprentice style” exchange regarding their work. This type of pedagogy can be found in most architectural institutions around the world and as it may have worked in the past, personally I think it is extremely demoralizing for any young architect to go through. One can deduce that from this format of education, architects can build a thick skin to unwanted opinions, but from my experience, most architects are extremely stubborn when it comes to criticism. It’s a defense mechanism they’ve learnt via 5 years of “Architecture Idol”
2. "Is it Art or is it a Profession"?
Given the history of architecture, the way young architects perceive this profession is heavily romanticized by films and anecdotal stories possibly told by their relatives. The appeal of studying architecture is often attributed to the notion that we are basically white collared artists. However unlike our artistic cousins, stability comes in the form of a job for us, mix that with the glorified pursuit of potentially being categorized as a "Starchitect", it's no wonder young architects put a lot of passion in their work. I myself attach great significance to the study of spacial functionality mixed with the arts, the x factor which gives a space that creative edge compared to a space which lacks artistic thought and provides no story. Unfortunately, society views us in a different light. To them what we go through, can be described simply as architectural elitism, very few people are interested in the reason why you decided to go with steel pilotis; "It was 1 of the 5 points of "Le Corbs" principle". They are more concerned at how much it’s going to cost rather than the meaning or story behind the idea. I remember during a critique, one of my peers was posed a question about his project, he responded with “Listen, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it”, cue the music, because we thought it was a win for the architects….... it was not. The reality of it is, you either manage to market and sell your work properly, or you’ll end up in a position questioning the very nature of why you got into this profession.
3. "What Architecture School Missed Out"
For all the educational developments young architects go through, the study of business is rarely taught or taken seriously. Young architects step into the world after graduating, full of hope, or simply just happy to have left. They are then left with a choice to either work for a company, or ……. well that’s sort of pretty much it. As you may have heard most end up working for a company, receiving in what can be described as a very 'modest' salary. After school, you will often hear the phrase "I hear X is working for X", "they are working on X project" money is rarely discussed. The lack of financial and business education is quite alarming. For an industry who's survival basically relies on business, it’s staggering to see so many young architects unable to file a tax return or tell the difference between a contractor and a full time employee, i know i only learned how to write a fee proposal in my 3rd year out of school.
In saying that, starting a business is generally something young architects do aspire too. Not because of money, “god no, I mean we’re all in this for passion not for cash”. The train of thought which hardcore architectural purists will forever maintain, (note that most purists who truly believe in the idea that money is irrelevant in terms of design, generally come from a upper / upper middle class, not so dissimilar to some artists). I often here from my friends. "Man I was at the office to about 2am the other night”, "yeah i'm going in this weekend", “Oh but yeah it’s fine, I mean I’ve been through longer overtime". This is possibly the only profession where you aren’t paid an overtime and somehow mentally train yourself to be okay with it. Call it comradery, call it dedication to the profession, the reality of it is, Philip Johnson was right, “Architects are nothing more than just high class escorts”. This very nature of giving more to the profession is deep rooted in all young architects. In actuality, escorts definitely make more money than architects. From the moment we entered our first lecture in Architecture, it was us not society who pushed us into the world of architecture elitism. An old lecturer of mine asking us, "Who's studying architecture for money?" clearly no one responded, i mean we're above money. We're architects. "If you are here for money then leave". We refuse to accept or listen to anything else, we create our very own architectural bubble from the very beginning. We look down on our friends who chose a different profession, we group ourselves into a little society of architects and believe any other profession was simply not important. Interior designers were considered curtain pickers and Landscape architects; well, just glorified gardeners. This was our introduction to architecture, and it’s one of the multitude of reasons why we refuse to believe there is an alternative way.
The reality of all of this is, is young architects have an amazing amount of skill and qualities which makes us extremely versatile. Most renaissance era, architects where considered polymaths, but because we’ve been trained to believe there is no other alternative, and how “archi talk” can pull anyone into an argument about Van Der Rohe being more significant than Le Corb, or how "My firm is more well established than yours", we tend to lose focus on what we're actually good at with the insignificant discourse that we're surrounded with. Architects have also decided to push away all responsibilities, what once was the role of an architect, now is given to a project manager, or a drafting technician, a BIM manager or a 3D Renderer. We are currently confined to this idea that as an architect, my sole function is to only engage the right hand side of my brain for designing spatial experiences. The rest of the insignificant work i pass on to sub contractors. Ironically it is because of this mentality, our role and status as professionals in society have been reduced dramatically. Most architects like to think they are in charge, but the reality of it is, only an exceptional architect will be in charge.
I must interrupt, the purpose of this article is not to dissuade young architects, but to discuss the evident issue of why architects are so stubbornly incredulous that there’s no other alternative.
There is a lesson here for myself, it is my belief that young architects should be aware of the narrow minded discourse surrounding architectural elitism. You can be an architect and a chef, you can be an architect and a reality TV star, you can even be an architect and a Rapper. Architecture is a fantastic pursuit, but it doesn’t mean you need to limit yourself to this field only. The world is becoming more and more complex, and it’s evident that innovative thinkers and thought provokers are necessary if we are to progress as a profession. If you can throw away 15 hour days for a company on a building that’s not yours, you can sure as hell do the same for yourself. It is my firm belief that architects will make fantastic entrepreneurs.