|Louis Kahn, who had a lot |
of personal drama, standings
inside his most magnificent
Well, about half of us have failed to heed this calling and have managed to carve out a comfortable work-life balance in this profession, usually by foresaking design responsibilities for dryer technical roles. The less individual input and investment the task requires, the more likely one can go home at a reasonable hour. Construction administration, which takes place near the end of the project (where the architect's involvement is most limited), and consists of following an automated routine of answering emailed inquiries and checking shop drawings, is especially helpful in getting one to leave at 5pm. Similarly, I often notice that our consulting engineers also enjoy this luxury, delivering the bare minimum drawings and happily pasting in stock solutions, without making any effort to consider alternatives or out-of the box ideas. Those who are happy with this arrangement don't seem to envy the constant late hours spent by designer-types preparing the perfect competition entry with piles of sketches, models, renderings and gallons of coffee. After an extended period of doing roles that require such different amounts of time and energy, those who work to live no longer understand those who live to work (I strongly suggest reading a related post here).
It seems that among all professions, architecture is one of the very few that has to confront, albeit uncomfortably, such opposing mindsets about how to balance work and life. Half art, half science, sometimes a completely non-profit endeavor and other times a strictly commercial service--architecture is torn between being a life-long, semi-religious vocation for some and just a day job for others. This split seems widen the chasm between who speaks publicly for the profession and those who don't due to their preference for a quiet private life. The kind of architect we tend to admire--one who does a competent and honest job within a 40-hour workweek, spends time with family and is involved in private social clubs-- is not the one sticking his neck out in public forums, masterplanning committees, speaking to the press, or teaching the next generation of designers. Interestingly it's the kind of architects we love to hate--aspiringly philosophical and frequently ideological, a lover of grand urban schemes at the expense of private welfare, self-centered yet unaware of it-- that dominate unopposed the overarching public discourse on architecture even as they labor 100-hour workweeks.
This was especially brought to my attention with the personal interactions I've been fortunate to have with a number of high-profile architects in recent years. The roster includes a couple of people who worked under one of the twentieth-century's greatest masters, another one having designed the world's tallest buildings, and others who have won numerous prizes and are published in the most prominent magazines and books. These individuals are generally regarded as leaders in their field, visionaries in every sense and will be remembered as pioneers by their peers. Yet, when I spent time with them, for all their accolades and admiration, they came across and as extremely tired from stress and frustrated. At first these traits lent these individuals a refreshing humanity about them, but over time I came to understand that these traits were symptoms of an overall melancholy that afflicted all of them. You could see on their faces the huge sacrifices they had to make to earn their coveted reputation--the decades-long exercise of pulling all-nighters and lost weekends and their inability to stop doing it, knowing that to maintain relevance they will have to keep working as long and as hard as ever before, where 'burning out' happens on the day of their death. These people can't imagine ever retiring.
Unsurprisingly, a trail of wreckage in their personal lives usually accompanies their rise to professional acclaim. Stories of late and short-lived marriages, bitter divorces, custody fights, much younger girlfriends/second wives, delayed parenthood with nanny troubles, or the wackiness of permanent bachelorhood are common with this set. For those who do have children, they will admit to not being able to be there for them. Outside of the office, their life is mired in precarious personal situations, and they obviously feel most at ease working. They proudly reminisce of the times they would practically live in the office and chide those who weren't willing to stay as long, rejecting the reason that it was important to have a life outside the office. Though these kind of architects are at their core well-meaning, even charming, their justifications in how they had to make insufferable demands on their staff reveals a slight psychopathic tendency, even as they themselves are largely blind to such a diagnosis.
Shouldn't we disregard these personal failings and judge these individuals solely by their works? After all, none of us are perfect and it is part of human nature to be fallible in all kinds of ways. Such personal tensions and stress is a normal part of a creative life, and have always been, so why does it matter?
It matters because what these architectural visionaries do eventually affects everyone else and how we live. They rarely ever reap the financial benefits of their ideas, and they continue to play second fiddle to their clients, but at some point we will ultimately have to deal with, without ever being asked, the built manifestations coming from these people's minds. One could easily go through life completely uncultivated, never having to see a painting, listen to music or read a book. For those who are cultivated, we can freely choose what we want to see and experience and vice versa. The one thing that doesn't give us much of a choice is the built environment that we are forced to live in. Though our built environments are the result of a good-faith attempt to rationally organize what should go where, the look and feel of a place, what our senses perceive, is the work of a designer, both architects and urban planners.
|Louisville Museum Plaza by REX/OMA.|
A new viable paradigm for urban life or
a giant middle-finger to the Midwestern
way of life?
As visionaries they are steadfast about living in a way that conforms to what to the images they conceive in their heads. If they design projects that consist of mixing uses in a large superstructure regardless of functionality, you can bet that they live a life where all their needs are met within a few blocks. If they imagine a future where people grow food on the sides of buildings, you can be certain that they practice locavorism with a tenacity that disregards the expense, energy and time such a lifestyle requires. You will see them argue that their daring design for a speculative condominium tower that caters exclusively to wealthy customers is actually a a coherent response to impending crises of overpopulation and environmental destruction. They will point to their recent museum of contemporary art in an opulent emirate as their heart-felt contribution to enriching the cultural life of the community. And that multimillion-dollar private house expresses their commitment to a model for sustainable design for all. These visionaries are men and women of conviction, in spite of the contradictions.
To such criticisms, the architect will cheekily reply that they intended to make it a bit uncomfortable so that that spectators would stay alert and pay attention to the performance, or meditate on whatever thematic function the architect really cares about. And what they really care about is that it furthers "a conversation about architecture in the city".
|Re:Vision Dallas imagines a future of|
farming on the sides of buildings and
tolerating the drones of inefficient
wind turbines--Pretty, but it won't work
What does this all mean? It means that much of what they come up with, no matter how enchantingly beautiful, will not work very well. Some of their projects will fail gloriously. Almost all of them go wildly overbudget. Hopefully their ideas go no farther than a charming rendering. They gravitate to where their ideas don't have to be tested by reality. They are safe from failure when they take on projects in which the opinions of financial risk-takers or end-users doesn't seem to matter too much, like cultural palaces and university buildings. But In every other situation, where profitability of development matters and the everyday lives of users is enhanced in real identifiable ways--beware of certain architects promoting ideas of "rethinking" and "re-envisioning" at your own peril.