Architect: Building a Case for Success


Success (Photo credit: kevinthoule)

An interview questionnaire once asked, “How do you define success?”. My answer defined success as the number of times we fail but get back up again. Since that time, the question has long been in the back of my mind – what is success, really? Recently, the question came up in an unexpected way.

A friend and ‘virtual colleague’, Bob Borson, wrote an article with a controversial stance about the work of architects. In his post, he asserts that the work of an architect “doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built”. Having met Bob, I am confident that his intentions were never to malign or minimize the work of others. I believe that the spirit of the post was to point out that ideas are simply that – ideas – until they are realized. The realization of an idea is what gives it importance, and without that end result, the impact is never felt.

I understand the concept of the statement, but I also understand the frustration and resistance that has occurred since the idea was presented to his audience. So many architects and almost-architects felt slighted when they read that statement. As well meaning as the words may have been, the question resonated to their core, causing them to question their very purpose. “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built.” Does that mean everything they’ve worked for – their education, their work experience, their professional examination and volunteer hours – was all for nothing? Can we be so easily marginalized based on the number of structures we can point to?

On one hand, the statement revolves around the idea of being effective in the workplace. It is logical to say that if one does not produce results on the job, the position will be given to someone who can. None of us would last long at a job where we couldn’t perform the tasks required of us. The idea that ‘it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built’ easily fits into this framework and no one would argue that results are important when considered in the context of a paying job.

On the other hand, the statement also speaks to the question of ‘what makes an architect?’. This idea treads on controversy and ruffles the feathers of many. According to the English language, many of us are considered architects. According to the legal constraints surrounding the title of architect, only the completion of an accredited degree, required exams and lengthy experience requirements make one an architect. The definitions are easily referenced from the likes of NCARB and Webster, so perhaps the idea of ‘it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built’ pertains more to the quality of the architect, rather than his mere existence. Separating architects into ‘real professionals’ who get their work built compared to their lesser counter parts who only doodle and dream seems more likely the motivation behind the concept than simply defining what an architect is.

The statement quickly divided the audience into two groups, one rallying behind the concept that built work defines the architect and validates one’s career, while the other group cried foul and claimed that the process of creation was just as important as the finished product – definitions of architect aside.

I restrained myself from joining the debate, not because I didn’t have an opinion but because there wasn’t a clear argument for either side. I found myself waffling, waning and justifying both positions. It finally occurred to me that we were asking the wrong question. We are not asking “Does my work matter?”. At the root of the statement, ‘it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built’ is an inquiry into the fundamental way we define success. We are not asking if a built structure matters more than the drawing that helped construct it. We are not arguing that the years of preparation to obtain an architectural license are invalid. We are simply asking, “What defines success?”. If we can answer this question, we’ll be able to answer with certainty whether a built project is of significant value, or anything we do for that matter.

I believe there are two ways that architects define success. One school of thought subscribes to a somewhat archaic idea that architects are a type of Renaissance Man. This way of defining success relies on the holistic ideal picture of the architect: a person proficient and knowledgeable in all things. A Renaissance Man would be versed in history, philosophy, art, and music. He would be able to debate his peers, give profound speeches, and blend seamlessly into social functions. He would have a balanced mind, able to determine mathematical calculations and structural requirements while easily conjuring creative and artistic solutions for a given problem. The Renaissance Man’s success lies in his breadth. The number of talents he possesses is a measure of that success. Conceptually, this standard provides us with a relative measure of success. If one person exercises all of their talents but only has a few, he is just as successful as the man with many talents who is still learning to master them all. Using this model we are able to achieve varying levels of success, and we all strive for more even if there is no ultimate limit or goal.

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

English: Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Red chalk. 33 × 21 cm. Turin, Royal Library ( 15571). NOTE This image is in red chalk. Do not revert to the black and white image. Deutsch: Kopf eines bärtigen Mannes, sog. Selbstbildnis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I use the model of the Renaissance Man as my measure of success, I am doing very well. I have been blessed with many talents and excel at many things (though not as much in mathematics, admittedly). I can’t point to a single building and say “I built that”, relying on no one but myself. However, under this school of thought, a built project is only one small portion of success. Generally speaking, I could claim to be ‘successful’ based on this model – perhaps even more so than some seasoned architects.

The second school of thought revolves around a much more segmented and compartmentalized framework for success. This concept suggests that success is narrowly defined in a single category or department. One can be a successful businessman or a successful designer. Success is derived from titles and positions, based on specific tasks and roles that are fulfilled. A person who draws buildings on paper would be considered a successful draftsman, while the person who oversees the construction of the same building is a successful contractor. Each role is defined narrowly and separately, allowing participants to collect any number of titles while maintaining the purity of each. This concept of success provides for a more absolute definition of success and the standard excludes anyone who does not meet the requirements. Only the final result is judged, and the journey towards the goal is of no consequence without the final product.

Under this concept, I could define myself as a ‘successful draftsperson’ or a ‘successful artist’, while I could not define myself as a ‘successful architect’ because I have not yet met each legal requirement prescribed for that achievement. Upon completing the requirements for each title, I could add it to my collection of accolades, and the number of titles I possess would point to my level of success. Those with more titles would be viewed as inherently more successful than those with fewer.

The distinction between the two helps us to recognize the ways in which we define not only success, but ourselves as human beings. Unfortunately, Americans (and especially architects) define themselves by what they do. The old adage, “You are what you eat” is not far off from how we feel: we are what we do. Ingrained in us from the time we are children is a sense that we are defined by, judged by and valued by what we do. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” subtly and slowly devolves into “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”. Our society and culture has conditioned us to define success, value and purpose by our careers. The first question after learning someone’s name is, “What do you do?”. The way we make a living has become so essential to our being that we forget that we have significance outside of a career. Couple this blindness to value with the recent economic crisis and it quickly becomes clear that the masses of unemployed architects are not just searching for jobs, but for their identity. If they have been taught to define themselves as ‘architects’ but they are not practicing architecture, what does that mean for who they are? The legal constraints of utilizing the term ‘architect’ further muddle the sense of identity, and all that’s left is the education, work experience and professional licensing efforts. When those last bits of remaining identity are threatened, there is push back.

How does one have purpose without identity? After years of educators promoting the idea that architects are held to a higher moral, ethical and artistic standard, what does it mean when someone says, “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built?”. If we are actively pursuing the lifestyle, tenants, goals and requirements of an architect, then how could those steps of progress suddenly be of no value based on a single end result?

The answer begins with detaching ourselves from our careers. We must separate our identity of self with our definition of career success. We are not what we do. We, as human beings, have inherent value and worth outside of our careers. We have purpose beyond the realm of architecture.

For some, this may be the first time they’ve heard that they’re valuable beyond what they can produce. In a capitalist society, this notion is foreign and even abrasive to some. How can anyone be valuable if they don’t produce results? The answer is because you are a living, breathing, thinking work of art. Never during the course of the debate was it argued that the process of creation was worthless. No one can contest that an unrealized concept has potential if given the right circumstances and support. In the same way that an idea simply needs the right environment to grow into reality, we too require the right environment to bloom. Within each of us resides a deep potential for greatness; with the right circumstances, environment and encouragement, we will all grow into something more beautiful than we can imagine.

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we now understand that we are not defined by what we do and that we are of inherent value with a grand purpose waiting to be uncovered, how will we define success? It seems trivial to pin our success to either a single project, or to the process of creating it. It also seems arbitrary to define success in percentages, by how much of our potential we’ve met and how much we still have to go – as if the measure of a man was set in stone. Defining our success based solely on positive accomplishments discounts the journey and ignores the failures that are required to discover and pursue success. What if titles, achievements and perfection is not success? What if success is merely what we learn from our failures? What if success has nothing to do with us at all, but has everything to do with others?

By changing our focus outward, we realize that success can be measured in the lives we touch – the way we impact others for good, the lessons we learn through relationship, the improvements we make when we have no upper limit. Suddenly, the original question seems trivial as we realize that everything is significant when the impact on lives is considered. From the faintest smile to a firm handshake, it all matters. Does that make you a better architect? Perhaps not; but that isn’t how we define success. If I am to be judged on the merits of impacting the world, I’m doing my part – but I still have a long way to go. We all do.

The real concept was never, “If it doesn’t get built it doesn’t matter”. The real heart of the matter is this: how will you define success and how will you achieve it?

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  • Jakexj9000

    EXCELLENT Article!

    I believe that the statement of “it doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built” makes a value assumption which must be questioned…

    The foundational concept asserted is one of purpose.

    The same purpose would have to be universally established and agreed to in order to determine if art “counts”: Is the purpose, to the individual performing the act, to:

    (A) make money

    (B) inspire/instruct/express/change culture/make a statement/advance the world

    (C) perform a needed service

    (D) completely without any form of purpose (which by the way is not required for the activity to be legitimate); it is performed merely because one finds it an enjoyable activity, such as whistling

    I think that one cannot argue in terms of absolute, as purpose is legitimately defined by each individual in a different manner according to their values and beliefs.

    And I would assert that perhaps the act of creation might take on different roles, or even multiple roles, at different times and in different situations in one’s life.

    I leave you with the following quote by Andy Warhol, and a link to a crude but interesting perspective on the purity of creation:

    “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” 
    – The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975). 

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you’re right. If all that matters for determining the value of an architect is whether they have built work, what do we say to the architects whose work has: been built but leaks can causes millions of dollars in damages/repairs, is built but is such a horrible solution that it is torn down years later, is built but was such a poor solution that it breeds crime, is built but was over budget and behind schedule, etc. etc.? If the only way we determine an architect’s value is by the number of structures they can point to, we have a lot to consider when we ask ‘what makes an architect’? According to the licensing laws, architects exist to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. If they have a built structure but it fails in any of these regards then can we really say that getting it built is all that matters? I don’t think we can. A multi-faceted profession cannot be so narrowly defined and qualified.

      Thanks for the input!