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The Restaurant Model

December 22, 2010

The other day a local AIA chapter executive lamented to me “Our culture is so crass, people seem to expect ugliness. If only our culture knew how beautiful things could be….”

In effect, that executive was stating that it is a character flaw in our society that allows the profession of architecture to be so undervalued that we have lost at least 30% employment over the last three years. Of course macro economics play a big role in any profession’s rate of employment. A December MSNBC web article noted that architecture has suffered the greatest damage in the current recession of any of the professions.

Who or what is to “blame”? I do not think it is our culture’s high tolerance for ugliness. Clearly if architects designed more than 5% of the houses in the United States, more housing consumers would understand the direct relationship between value and cost in a home, and perhaps this latest nightmare recession might have had less horrific impact.

But a 5% market share in residential design reveals that our product is not competitive in a world where cheaper and even free alternatives for our design services abound. How does any profession or any business create demand? I don’t know of any that have tried to reform culture as the AIA chapter executive hoped.

Clearly what architects have been offering consumers, especially housing consumers, has made us more vulnerable to the impact of economic mood swings than any other profession requiring an upper level of college education and a license.

After 32 years in the profession, I think we should follow the restaurant model. There’s never a lack of competition for places to go out to eat. And clearly restaurants push the “style” in their food product just as there is a great variety of subjective preference in the styles of buildings despite Modernism’s pre-eminence in education and journalism.
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Just like aesthetics, there is safe traditional restaurant fare that is familiar and bankable and there are edgier, more risky, dining experiences. Restaurants succeed and fail with an even greater volatility than architecture practices so why would I be asking us to think about the profession of architecture as analogous to that of a successful restaurant? I advocate a paradigm that seems to escape the vast majority of architects I know.

A restaurant can have the greatest food imaginable, its presentation can be absolutely exquisite, the ambiance of the room might be deeply comforting or excitingly edgy. But many restaurants fail on a very basic criterion: Service.

If your table isn’t ready at the time of your reservation, or if the waiter simply disappears and it takes twenty minutes to get a menu, or if your courses are separated by long pauses of awkward empty plates, no matter how good the food is and no matter how wonderful the ambiance is, you probably won’t go back a second time – especially if that restaurant costs more than the alternative competing restaurants.

Restaurants and architecture offices ultimately provide a product for their consumers – a building for the patrons of architecture, a meal for the patrons of restaurants. But both professions can only provide their product via a personalized service. Without service that meets the demands and expectations of their patrons, the great product of an architect will often go unbuilt and the potentially exquisite product of a chef will be uneaten.

Architecture is taught as product design. We are a fine arts community. Our ability to cut through preconceptions can be innovative, shocking, and transformative. Unless our egos are healthy enough to listen, respond, adapt, and engage with our clients, what we offer them will often go unnoticed. Some of the best designs fall victim to a tone-deaf design process. Too many architect derived designs have become the tree falling in the woods that no one hears, the one hand clapping or any other metaphor for unrequited opportunity – and the fault is neither in the stars or cultural aesthetic illiteracy.

Clearly what most architects offer our clients is superior to our competition in every way, except, all too often, how we create that superior product. Without a level of service that makes the design process transparent and engaging for those who are using and paying for the product of our process, the odds of actually building what we design becomes a crap shoot.

As most of us have come to realize, it’s referrals that create job opportunities and those who use our buildings spread the word of how our services are worth the time, effort, and cost that so many perceive not to be worth it, even in good times – but excruciatingly so in a recession.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. But if the pudding arrives late, and you ordered pie and the waiter declares you should want the pudding – there are many other places where you can have dessert.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. george russo permalink
    December 24, 2010 11:01 am

    The perception (reality?) of hiring an architect for residential purposes is that cost is prohibitive for MOST of the consumers. It’s not surprising that only a 5% market share is realized.

    Side Note: I know it’s your blog and you can write about whatever you want- but enough with the food/fat references. I don’t care what your waist size is/was or how old you are- I’m interested in your opinions on design and architecture. Happy Holidays. Don’t eat too much!

    • duo permalink
      December 24, 2010 11:26 am

      not as fat is a series – a separate stream for those wishing to drop in – had many positive comments on it – but it, like the rules and finding home are distinct so those interested can avoid the parts they are not interested in

  2. Jerome Morley Larson Sr EAIA permalink
    December 27, 2010 4:06 pm

    I’ve said this before and nobody understood – so I’ll say it again because it is true, and sooner or later, a reader will understand.
    With an architect, the homeowner has a chance to live in a work of art – without an architect, there is no chance.
    With an architect, the diner has a chance to dine and the workers to serve in a work of art – without the architect, there is no chance.
    When we start selling art, we will compete, in fact, there is no competition for who else but the artist can deliver a work of art?
    With the architect, the city has a chance to be a work of art, without the architect, there is no chance (with the possible exception of San Francisco).
    The only definition of good architecture that matters is if people like living in it – and they will only like living in it if it is a work of art.
    Years ago, in the 70’s, I designed a lot of garden apartments for developers – my fee was a months rent when all the other architects were charging a weeks rent as fee – when these tough builders asked me why my fee was so high, I replied “all mine are rented” – I never lost a client to the cheaper architects – but they made more money than I, because they pulled an old drawing out of a drawer – but I lived in each unit I designed and made each one a work of art and designed each site as works of art and even these many years later, when people find out I had designed their home, they volunteer “we like living here” – which, of course, is why all mine were rented.
    It is an easy sell.

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