Architecture's emotional demons

August 11, 2010

My old friend Stanley Stark, one of the top guns at HLW International in New York, emailed me the other day: "Rob: Some notes I took on an evening I spent listening to architects, psychotherapists, and behavioral consultants muse about, and frequently bemoan, the practice of architecture and the inherent contradictions of their career choices. Interesting stuff."

"It's the first time I'd ever heard a discussion about the personal demons, the emotional content, of being a practitioner," Stanley told me, describing an evening last March when more than a hundred mostly mid-career architects gathered at the William Alanson White Institute in Manhattan.

"Architects tend to have very strong egos. They're solitary, focused on themselves," he went on. "Everybody is trained in this heroic model, the creative genius, the straight line from Michelangelo to Frank Gehry," when in fact practice is much more team-oriented.

Most architects are trained to believe they are unified, holistic personalities, able to "do it all." But when they join a firm, he said, the inherent "caste" system forces them to choose more limited career paths — to be "the creative genius" who sets the tone, "the rainmaker" who gets jobs for the firm, or "the producer" who gets those jobs done.

"In a sense, everyone's an expert. They all have an expert view, almost egalitarian, when you think about the training they've had, but the caste system seems to trump that egalitarian nature of the profession."

But the emotional demons don't stop there: "Fundamentally, architects find themselves in a power relationship — among themselves, with contractors, other experts, clients. The need to be acknowledged as right is very strong."

This attitude can destroy relationships with clients. "Architects are not client-centric," he said. "They have a hard time looking at problems through the eyes of their clients. That takes humility, which you only learn through experience. Principals are afraid to relinquish anything, especially their relationship with the client, because the psychic reward you get from the client is very difficult to share with anyone."

So, Stanley, any lessons from your big night out? "It made me a lot more sensitive about giving young people opportunities. It also reaffirmed to me that architecture is a very conflicted profession. You're dealing with a marketplace that values genius when, at the same time, it's about teamwork. Buildings are not built by geniuses — it's a team effort.

"Not a lot of time is spent on the emotional content of the workplace, the stress," he concluded. "It's not just about skills, it's about our ability to function as leaders and shepherds, not just for junior staff, but also for your peers in the firm.

"Managing the inherently conflicting agendas that designers and architects face is critical to the performance of your organization," said Stanley. "I'm not saying everyone should leap into group therapy, but you need a safe harbor to be able to discuss these issues so they don't become career-threatening."


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