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The Brutal Truth of Architecture

August 27, 2018

I spent the weekend creating a talk that extends a seminal truth I have defined this year. On the heels of a birthday, the death of dear ones, completely new teaching venues and a torrent of writing – lately on history, I have a hard conclusion: That the passage of time, History, is as Undeniable as Gravity. This is a brutal but benign Truth.

Not just in architecture, but in all things human. We are the only animals that know all our histories end here, on this planet, with death. The facts of survival that all living things use to survive are with us every day – we must eat, sleep, live in health and we age. But humans also “get” the meanings and potentials of all that came before us, and have the minds to live the hopes and beliefs that seem limited to us.

But if you have hope, you also have disappointment.

First thing this morning I lost the opportunity to work for a family I have worked with for almost 20 years on 4 separate projects. They had me look at a new place to work on in an emergency basis the minute I returned from my one week off, and then: Thud. “No.” Not to getting their getting the new home, but to me as their architect for the 5th time.

They hired a great guy, who will do a great job. Of course familiarity does breed contempt. But I know why I was not right for the job. I am perceived to be not good with the aesthetic of the house they bought (Mid Century Modern). But, but, I do that…


But that was not the reality I was left with. All architects are validated (or not) by a wide array of “Go/No Go” decisions. I know these clients, they know me. I am careful about cost. I know how to build things. I have a staff for a timely execution. The one misfit, (beyond, perhaps the extraordinary qualifications of the architect who will be doing the work) was, well, “Style”. I often do things like this:

Not any “style”, but extreme attention to making things with context, cost, and yes, zesty expression in the hopes of those who live with these built things.

For some these things are way too “Modern”.  But for these beloved clients, ironically, I am too “Not Modern”. The architect who will do the project is equally experienced and responsible and staffed, but is simply not anywhere near the openness to the “Traditional” sensibilities I inveigh on each project. What we have done with this family was loved by them, affordable, published, and acknowledged to be, well, beautiful. But it was Crafty, as the house was (in an edgy way.) This new home is fully “Modern” (it even has a flat-roofed part that terrifies me).

But I, and many (many) architects are judged on all criteria, not just the “friend” part. I work for many (many) who know me and trust that my work can contour to their values and the context of their home and hopes (like the Mid Century Modern home at this piece’s beginning.)

What I do lives in expression, thought, context – these places have bandwidth. I am part of the architecture world that cares to address that bandwidth, rather than preach a Canon. There are benefits to this mindset. Zoning can be said to be defining History to control the Future. I use that history to create rather than copy the objects Zoning often prescribes. (A little like a “Modern” or “Antique” house.) So I do not reject what the code prescribes, so I can be seen as “Traditional”:IMG_5226But, others see these buildings as, well, “Modern”, too. Often unacceptably “Modern”. But, here,  they are loved by some enough to be extended.IMG_5222

But each family, or client has a history too. I fully try to live into their hopes in the buildings I help them to create. This I know I have done, almost every time.


But I fail, sometimes. We build 50% more of the jobs we get than our completion. This % is of those who try to do more things, so need more money to create, rather than copy. We build 75% of what we start – and my competitors have privately revealed they most often build around 50% of the jobs they get retained to design. Perhaps self-serving, I think it is because most see buildings as objects. I see them as the result of a human collaboration of those who use them, those who build them, and my efforts to connect those two in design.

It works, mostly. Back in the day when this NY Times article was published almost 25 years ago, we were hired by 40 people who saw it:IMG_3585

But over 700 people called me (it was before the Internet). I was about 1 for 15 in the world that lives in built things rather than embraces the human act of creation that leads to building. Now the average of those who contact me to those who hire me is more like 1 for 4. It makes me feel good to think any number build nothing, but that means I fail to get the job 75% of the time.

Each non-job hurts, because I am a human and thus I hope.

Expectation, entitlement, and “correctness” are simply part of the human act of creating anything. I am 63, I have built 800 things, been paid or contracted to design over 1,000 things. But each rejection, non-starter or blown opportunity hurts. Too much.

I am not alone.  Two other good architects competed for this job, but I got it. “Traditional”? “Modern”? Those distinctions were simply wrong for this project. I fed off the 1955 parent building, and it met the budget, the Zoning boards, and the hopes of the Faithful. It was not copying and it was not rejecting – it was new and evolving:


So in a place of “Yes.” and “No.”, for the last 34 years , and I can know that the loss of hopes and expectations is backstopped by their realization in other places. I come home to this, not “Modern”, not “Traditional”, but it fits, like a glove, and I know what I can do can have meaning beyond “Style”:

And I then return to work to meet my 1,000th-something payroll…

And see the jobs I did not get…a brutal truth of necessary judgment that I cannot rationalize, let alone feel betrayed by. I just feel the truth that I just did not “fit.”

Not easy.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2018 9:15 pm

    It’s the constant ‘am I good enough?’ ‘I’m not good enough’. ‘Why didn’t they like me?’ that takes years (decades) of reflection to come to grips with .
    I’m still not there.
    The art you birth is amazing, even if it never meets wood.

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