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I Architect Like I Parent

Agent of hopeSo I was in a project meeting recently and the discussion was veering off on a tangent. I was letting it go until I felt that it wasn’t coming back. So I stepped in to guide the client and contractor off that topic and onto the subject of next things to be done. As I was driving home I reflected that I am not usually the bossy, take-charge guy in meetings. I like to let the discussion flow to see what solutions come out. So why was I doing it here? The reason was because that’s what my clients needed. Left to their own devices they would talk around the little things and then not be ready to move on to the next thing that actually needed to be done.  Part of my role on this project, I realized, is to be the metaphorical grownup.

As I spend more time being an architect, I am finding more and more places where the skills that I am developing elsewhere in my life apply. I shouldn’t be surprised really. It makes sense that I would act professionally the way that I act personally. Previously I had thought that these skills were limited to things I learned in school, from my time as a programmer, or in my many volunteer activities. Today I added parenting to that list.

When we had kids we made many conscious decisions about how we would raise them. We put them in Montessori school to give them a foundation in learning skills. We used attachment parenting techniques. We use Non-violent communication techniques to resolve conflicts. We are, by definition, authoritative parents. Our goal is to teach our kids how to be grown-ups. So we spend a lot of time on skills, and talking about feelings, and all of that.

So how does this translate into the architecture profession?

One place it shows up is in how I listen to, and guide the conversations that I have with my clients. I honor and name the emotions. I am always seeking the unmet need that lies beneath, because once you find that, you can start to truly solve their problems. I try to put the problem on one side of a line, and my client and me on the other side, so that we are working together to solve the problem. I don’t blame. I don’t dictate solutions (usually).

But the other place it shows up is in how I manage my clients. An authoritarian architect will be demanding but unresponsive. A permissive architect will be responsive but undemanding. An authoritative architect will be responsive and demanding. I truly want my clients to not need me as much when I’m done. And that can only happen if I allow them to develop the skills needed to manage their work. Being responsive means that I provide what they need, not what I think they need. Being demanding means that I set expectations for them that I strive to hold them to.

Not every client needs or wants this. And I’ve found that with demanding clients I don’t feel as much part of the team as a service that they use. And I’m working on how to be a leading architect for my clients who need the guidance as opposed to the walking alongside architect that I am much more comfortable being.

Some Thoughts on Architecture School

I recently finished reading “One L” an autobiographical recounting of Scott Turow‘s first year at Harvard Law School. In the Afterword he discusses his thoughts about law school after spending many years in practice – and what he says is strikingly similar to the discussions around architecture school and its role in the profession.

He makes the argument that law school isn’t lawyer school, that it doesn’t exist to teach students what it means to practice law. Law school is about training legal scholars – teaching them to think like law professors. The judicial opinions of cases are studied, not the briefs or arguments from counsel. Students don’t spend time discussing the remedies that the law can provide, or how it can be applied – issues that are fundamental to law practice. However, since many professors have never practiced, expecting them to teach fundamental skills is pointless. Those skills are best learned from those who use them every day. The downside, Turow concludes, is that

“… while the students learn about the capacity of all arguments to be undermined, they are taught nothing about the ends to which that skill is meant to be applied. Little about the profession is held up to them for scrutiny – or admiration. The result is that the powerful minds of the law faculties bypass the opportunity to contribute more directly to the formulation of the ideals of the profession, and students depart having undertaken little refined reflection on the complex values which guide and inspire legal practice.”

Turow does feel that it is important for law school to spend time thinking about the law, and to explore its historical development, policy rationales, and its fundamental assumptions about our culture. What he wants is for the schools to apply the same focus to the profession, much like medical school has courses on public-health.

I am struck by the similarities between his description of law school and my experience with school. I think the statement that architecture school isn’t architect school is great. And I agree that part of the role of architecture school is to expose the students to the larger world and history of architecture. The apprenticeship of a graduate is still an effective way to learn the skills of the profession – though the effectiveness can vary widely from firm to firm.

I wonder how things would be different if the minds of architectural school faculties turned towards the profession and studied it as much as we study the Renaissance.  Certainly there are a number of practitioners that are advancing the profession, but not always through in the rigorous methods of the academic.

For me, personally, I feel that the separation of the architectural education into school, internship, and examination suits it well. I never got bent out of shape that school didn’t give me office skills, or that internship didn’t provide me with everything that I needed for the ARE. They are separate things, and while they overlap some, they seek to instill in the aspiring professional the various parts that are required for practice.

Finally, Turow captures perfectly the internal conflict of the practicing architect when we must be our clients “unhesitating advocate, the keeper of the client’s deepest secrets, and also someone who must call to the attention of a court controlling authorities that damn his client’s position …” This professional duty to both client and society is something should really be the focus of more time than it usually gets in either school or the office.

I Learned So Much at the AIA Convention – Now I Need to Change Things

I just got back from the 2012 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Washington DC. The weather was perfect, and the sessions were extremely valuable. The two that stand out were on disruptive innovations in architectural practices and blogging.

The blogging session was very funny because it had Bob Borson (Life as an Architect) and Jody Brown (Coffee with an Architect) but also very informative because they recounted the process that led them to blogging and the lessons they’ve learned. The two big ideas, and they are both things I need to be sure that I’m focusing on, were 1) make sure your blog has your personality, and 2) don’t expect the blog to generate work. I will certainly be keeping those ideas in mind as I blog.

The session on disruptive innovation was affirming and invigorating. Affirming because the presenters thesis is that the next phase of architectural practice will be to design solutions to problems, with designing buildings as a sub-specialty. When I first started working for myself, I had determined that what architects did was solve problems, so this was great to hear. The invigorating part was learning about how disruptive innovation works by entering a market at the lower end, where the larger players don’t want to go, and then growing from there. His example was MP3s, which is a crappy format for music, so big players like Sony didn’t want to touch it. And they ended up late to the party. My innovation is the Personal Architect model, where I work with clients on very small problems, so small that most architects wouldn’t bother to go after them. My hope is that these small problems, and the relationships that develop, will grow into a solid body of work.

Looking forward to the next convention and what I might learn there.

What Architects Do

Two weeks ago I volunteered for a fourth grade career day at my son’s school. I’ve done a few of these before, but only as a guest in the classroom. This would be my first “career fair” with a whole grade and lots of other parents. I enjoy these events because I enjoy educating people about what architects can do versus what people think architects do.

That morning I packed up my collection of interesting drawings, my portfolio, and some paper and pencils so they could make drawings themselves. In the gym where we were setting up, I saw that some of the other parents had brought hand-out stuff, like candy and pencils and erasers. Hmm, I thought, I’ll have to do something like that next time. There were lots of parents there (like, almost 40) with a fair range of professions.

The format had groups of five to eight kids moving from table to table for 10 minutes each for a total of an hour and half. It quickly became apparent to me that there wouldn’t be time for drawing. It also became apparent that my voice would be suffering at the end of the day (and I had a market that afternoon too.)

Now when I do these career presentations, I always ask  the kids first what they think architects do. “Draw buildings” or “build buildings” are the most common answers (with some statistical outliers). And they’re right. We do that. But what we really do (I feel) is solve problems. And usually those solutions are something that can be built, so we have to draw it for someone to build.

After a few groups I had settled into a routine, where I’d ask the question, validate their answers, explain about solving problems, tell the story of the railing connection at the University of Delaware that we came up with, talk about collecting information from people to make the drawing, show them the picture of the final product, answer some questions, flip through my portfolio, and then send them on to the next table.

Out of the 60 or so kids I saw, about half thought it was kind of cool what I did, a few who weren’t really there for this, and a few that really lit up at the idea of architecture as a career. But the next week I got letters from some of the kids (I’m assuming that the teacher asked them who they wanted to write to) where they thanked me for coming out. and talking to them about architecture. Some samples:

“I think your job is awesome!” (It is but don’t tell anyone, then they’ll all want to be one.)

“I create buildings with ‘LegoTM’ but first I make the colour scheemes and blue print. The drawing of the library was my favorite.”

“I like how you told me how you fixed the U.D. railing. When I wasn’t looking at your station I kept lookinging at you station because of the drawing.” (I’m not sure what that means either.)

I don’t want to get all maudlin here about kids are the future and all that. Most of these kids won’t become architects and that’s fine. I don’t do this to recruit, but as a way to slowly lower the perceived barriers to access that society and the profession has created. And so that some day, they’ll think that calling an architect first would be a good idea.