My mother forwarded me this Dezeen article from a week ago. It was oddly coincidental, because at an office happy hour just a week before we had talked about the tricky balance, which all architects strive to find, between being productive and being creative. In fact, it is famously sensitive and controversial, especially when discussed between colleagues or professional peers. Imagine how easy it is to get competitive with each other about who works hardest in the office. Imagine how treacherous it could be for a CEO to discuss a firm’s compensation structure with a competing firm’s CEO.
What left me scratching my head was that in spite of having heard so many smart, successful people chime in on a well-trodden subject, there are still a couple of inner contradictions which haven’t been reconciled. So I’m going to try something new, and risky, for this post. I am going to express my frustrations with these contradictions.
The first contradiction: architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.
One of the most pervasive misconceptions about architects is that they are in the creative field. This is a misconception carried by architects themselves. We are often mythologized as kin to the plastic arts: siblings of sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, and dancers. But these relationships are most often collaborative flights of fancy, theoretical at their root, often a financial loss if developed, and vastly over-represented compared to the professions that architecture truly does engage with. Those professions include finance, macroeconomics, civil engineering, transportation engineering, real estate law, community activism, project management, logistics, etc. In my view, the moment you include gravity, money, or politics, you lose the ability to call yourself a sculptor. When there are concrete things at stake, there is naturally less time and space to be creative. You must spend much more time being organized, going to meetings, calling consultants and manufacturers, putting drawings and specifications together, all the rest of it. Schedules, budgets, expectations in general are almost always the first things established in at the outset of any architectural project (or any transaction, really). Looking at your average NAAB-accredited curriculum, however, these basic skills are largely absent. What, instead, do undergraduate curricula spend their time and resources training aspiring architects in? From my experiences at The Cooper Union, most of this time is spent alone in the studio, struggling to teach yourself how to compose meaningful project narratives and draw meaningful drawings. Many a late night I left the studio to wander the other rooms of the Foundation Building, and visited my artist friends, whom I discovered to be doing exactly the same thing. What’s wrong with that picture?
Here’s the list of accredited architecture programs in the united States, according to The National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). Follow some of the links for curricular information, and you get an idea of the paucity of management training in your typical undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program.
- Academy of Art University, San Francisco, CA. Only 3 credits of Professional Practice in Semester 9.
- Auburn University, Auburn AL. Only 3 credits of Professional Practice in Semester 8.
- Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL. Only 3 credits of Architectural Practice in Semester 8.
- Rice University, Houston, TX. Only one course called Professionalism & Management in Architectural Practice, taken in 4th Year. Extra credit, though, goes to including a required “Preceptorship” program, a.k.a. summer internship.
- Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA. Only one required course, called Practice & Ethics, in 4th Year. Extra credit goes to having a course called Interpretation & Argument in 1st Year.
- Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Only 3 credits of Professional Practice in 4th or 5th Year.
- Finally, my alma mater, The Cooper Union in New York, NY. We were taught 2 credits of Construction Management in 4th Year and 4 credits of Professional Practice in 5th Year. I remember how crestfallen I felt knowing that those subjects, which were a curricular afterthought, would end up dominating our daily lives when we would become architects. Now I see it more as a blessing.
What would I rather have been doing at times when my creativity (on which my education as an architect hung) was unresponsive? I would rather have been putting together a simple Gantt Chart visualizing my priorities from now until finals, or speaking with a professor about job prospects, or collaborating with classmates on political activities. These other things focus not on creativity, but skills which require you to be organized, especially with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in offices spending most of my time on the phone, sending emails, and attending meetings. This the second contradiction which haunts architecture: the absence of “soft skills.”
The need for soft skills is painfully under-emphasized in the profession. Partially because they are difficult to represent in a drawing by a 20-year-old student. So, the seeds of ignorance are sown in school, and harvested in offices. If most of an architect’s daily work involves communication and management, this becomes a recipe for failure. The “starchitect problem,” when seen in this context, is kind of a natural result: architects found themselves under-equipped in the office environment, so they grasped at a set of “skills” which would set them apart from the engineers and cost estimators. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on vague, subjective, or false notions about creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the professionals sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.” You still get a lot of that these days.
You might say, “Hey, Ivan. Ease off. Management isn’t something you can just teach. It’s a life skill. You learn it through experience.” Sure. But then, you can say the same exact thing about writing. We certainly don’t tell students, “We’re not going to teach you to write, because it’s a life skill. You’ll just pick it up by doing other things.” This laissez-faire attitude masquerading as liberal education is one of the root causes of late-night culture.
One day, I left the office and called my mother (SAFA, ABRA). It was 6PM. Her immediate reaction upon getting my call was “What, you’re not in the office?” We quibbled. I said I was proud that I managed to leave work in a timely manner. She said “Be careful, they will fire you.” She was only being overly cautious, of course, but she couldn’t grasp the notion that I would finish my work by 6 and leave by 6. To her, design should not have a timer attached to it. It stunts it, it prevents the best design decision from being reached. Personally, I cease to be creative after lunchtime. Most of my creative work happens in the morning when I feel fresh, and afternoons are spend organizing, scanning, and documenting the quick ideas I threw down. But aside from that fact, I had to say some words to my mother that I hadn’t ever said before. “Design is never finished…. my life is more important.”
My mother also suffers from the classical notion of architecture-as-art, or proto-starchitectitis. She is always telling herself: “I need to stay to finish this design problem. When I figure it out, I can go home.” I have news: nothing is ever finished. This is the contradiction I don’t understand. The people that stay late are typically the ones who defend architecture-as-art dogma. But the late-night mantra, which calls it a “design problem” implies that design has a concrete answer. It isn’t. In that sense alone, architecture is like an art: it is never finished. A design is finished only when a person decides it is. Whether that decision is made at 6PM or 12AM is entirely their choice. And I know there are exceptions to this rule, but most people become weary after dark, and the later they stay, the more energy they have to spend to just stay sharp, and the slimmer chance they have to be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.
Now, I don’t want this to become just a criticism of my mentors and peers, I want to offer an encouraging suggestion. If you suffer from late-night syndrome, why not make yourself a plan, every day? When you come in to the office, spend 15 minutes writing out a to-do list. You can do this on Microsoft Word or Outlook or Excel or Wordpad or whatever you wish (I prefer creating a calendar item in Outlook, then setting reminders so it pops up later). Then, sometime between lunch and 3PM, go back to that list. If you haven’t completed anything, single out one that you can realistically finish before 6PM, then do it. To help you choose, consider what your supervisor or client will be most focused on (higher-ups are always weighing priorities, so it’s best to address the top priorities first). Lastly, when you finish that thing, don’t forget to go home! Don’t stay on your computer clicking away groping around for problems to solve and drawings to make more perfect. Go home. Even if it’s 5:30. Enjoy your life. Get some sleep. Come to work on time tomorrow and set another plan for that day.
Most importantly, give yourself honest standards, when working on things alone, or when preparing for interactions with others. I believe that the benefits of high-caliber collaboration are also paid internally, to an individual’s expectations of their own abilities.
Also remember that I’m pinning this on everyone: the leadership and the juniors, the managers and the designers. We have to do better to both manage our own time and set an example for others. I am confident that no “stagnation” will happen as Patrik Schumacher fears, because hours worked is not always correlated with productivity and innovation. There is a point of diminishing returns. We have to start earlier in teaching architects that their profession involves incessant interaction with other trades and professionals, and make sure that they are using that interaction as an opportunity to manage their own time. We have to stop giving empty validation to those who stay late, and stop judging those who leave early. I am NOT endorsing a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), all I am saying is that I would love to see people meet short-term personal goals more effectively. If more architects can reliably deliver projects at optimal (not maximum) productivity, it should allay clients’ and investors’ fears, cultivate a healthier work environment, and force starchitects and the offices they run to go exinct. The result will be both high-quality work and an empty office at 6PM. And the best part: neither of those will be a compromise.
I’m calling on deans around the country and NAAB to expand professional practice and management in their curricula. Or perhaps I should start my own Academy of Architectural Practice & Management: AAPM.
Wait. Something like this already exists. Vonz’s Law holds. God bless Michael Riscica.