Saturday, July 05, 2008

Archi-Types: The opposite personalities and cultures in the architectural workplace

In social situations there is often a tendency to tie the personality of individuals to their job. It is not uncommon to hear of someone being described as the lawyerly type, or the analytically scientific or engineering type. To label a person a good businessman is to endow that individual qualities of persuasiveness, risk-taking, salesmanship and above average pragmatic financial sense. Doctors are often characterized as having extraordinary intellectual and analytical skills that are then supplemented with human empathy. What are the social assumptions on personality type of a architects?

To answer the question is to remember what my assumptions were before I decided to commit to an architectural career. Sine there weren't any architects in my family, all I had to go on were things like television shows, architecture magazines and books. On the one hand, there was Mike Brady of the "Brady Bunch" who seemed to never be at work in the studio (a consistent trait among all TV and movie architects), but who seemed to be a credible everyman and decent father figure. On the other hand there were the somewhat flamboyant appearances of the cape-wearing Frank Lloyd Wright, the thick horn-rim glasses and big bowties of Le Corbusier, I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. Then there is the most famous architect protagonist in literature, Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead who becomes the embodiment of a true philosophical hero, while also being kind of uncompromisingly stubborn and emotionally vacant.

By the time I began to take architecture courses in college, I started to notice visitors at the crits showing up in a sort of uniform that entailed black dress shirts or turtlenecks, black slacks and distinctive (and usually black) eyeglass frames. I was told that this look derived from Greenwich village in New York, but by the time I went to grad school it became apparent that some architects dedicated themselves to that look while others looked indistinguishable from your typical engineer or contractor. It was at that point that I realized there indeed were a variety of personality types in architecture, and, whether unfair or not, what they wore revealed quite a bit about their cultural and professional orientation, the level to which they valued how they were to be perceived by their peers.

There are those laymen who perceive an architect to be a sort of artistic-minded snob, at times pompous, idealistic while peppered and exhuding an aura of self-importance. Other laymen share the favorable, albeit naive, view of the TV and movie architect, a balanced individual who is grounded in the reality of construction but also elevated by his concern for beauty and the power of abstract ideas. This makes it convenient for the architect to be a protagonist in the story, since he isn't brought down by the negative cache of a slick businessman, a greasy lawyer, or a socially awkward engineer, nor does his work has any ability to drive the setting and story line like that of a doctor. Ever wonder why they never made a drama series about an architecture firm? There's nothing dramatic or sexy about drafting and model building like there is performing surgery, empathizing with patients or dating young medical residents at a hospital.

As most who have been around an architect should know, we are seldom quite like the way we are portrayed in showbusiness, nor are we quite like those guys who show up on Charlie Rose's late night talk show or that are being ridiculed in the local news when presenting an outlandish scheme for the city. To those who have known architecture students while in college, they are a relatively bright segment of the student population that tends to spend entire days and nights at the studio with little to no time to party and socialize. They often feel exhausted and embittered by the countless hours of work, and become even more so when they begin their professional career and notice their former classmates earning much higher pay in other jobs that demanded less time in school to prepare for. For those who don't know an architect personally, we are perceived as earning good money, since what else is one supposed to think of such sharp dressers? The truth is, for every sharp dresser there are just as many more who don't mind wearing plad shirts, kakis and even jeans and who prefer to drive a pick-up truck or korean sub-compact.

That is one of the good things about my profession: there is a lot of room for a wide variety of personalities. The very nature of the job dictates this, in which not only is it expected that we generate an idealized design concept for a building or a group of buildings, but also that we produce a highly detailed graphic manual for the construction of that concept. There is an obvious element of artistic thinking, rational problem solving, as well as modes of communicating that are both highly abstract and redundantly specific. It is quite rare to find one person good at all of those things, and the complex set of skills required to complete a project from start to finish encourages individuals to specialize, especially as a firm grows larger.

The more people specialize the more difficult it becomes for specialists to communicate to each other. When one person spends their day sketching on trace, modeling on a computer and rendering pretty perspectives, the last thing on their minds is the headache involved in how the mechanical louver servicing an electrical meter room will interface with the building envelope. Likewise, haggling with engineers, contractors and the client over unseen construction issues can isolate someone from the quality of the overarching architectural expression. Over time these opposite experiences reinforce a person's mature worldviews, with the artistic/conceptual oriented worker (designer type) dwelling on what is possible and what reality ought to be, while the detailed/construction-oriented worker (technical type) is reminded daily of the grinding reality on getting anything done right.

A deep, almost subconscious, antagonism takes root between these two personality types that, while mostly controlled under cordial relations, can boil over when an intractable problem occurs during a project's development. Often the designer type will argue in some degree to the idea that "this wasn't supposed to happen" while the technical type answers by stating "did you really know what was going to inevitably happen when you decided to design this?" In spite of the respect that each has for each other's knowledge and talents, they also share a little contempt for each other's weaknesses: the technical type's lack of concern on big ideas and beauty tends to annoy designer types, while the designer's lack of knowledge for how things tend to work and go together and the unpredictability of how things happen on site tends to frustrate the technical type. These contrasts of viewpoint lend to a caricaturization of the personality type: At one end, there is the flippant designer, a person who seems constantly aloof from reality, a real dilettante when it comes to construction and someone who resists giving specific answers to detailed questions, but would rather pour their energy and vast quantities overtime getting the fuzzy rendering to look just right. At the other end, there is the grouchy technician, whose stock answer to any design proposal seems to begin with "that ain't gonna work", and gets extremely irrate at last minute design changes since they would rather be out of the office by 5pm to go golfing/fishing, boating, etc.

Although the above is an exaggeration, it serves to clarify a frequent cultural rift in American architectural offices. The two sides will coexist, as they both rely on each other to provide services to the client, but to those working within the workplace, one's experience and professional goals will be deeply affected by the surrounding culture. And they are, in my view, subcultures to the extent that they possess consistent patterns of shared interests, outlook, and ways of relating to people. Over time I've observed where new recruits were coming from, their personality traits and what their roles in the firm became. New employees are usually selected according to their skills and aptitudes that may match what the firm may need at the time. If it's more technical heft that is required, they will choose someone who at school never bowled over the critics, who likely went to an architecture program that emphasized detailing and construction materials and methods. If it's more design prowess the firm wants, they tend to look for graduates who have stunning portfolios of school work, who have done internships at well-known (preferrably foreign) boutique firms, who went to schools that encouraged more concept-driven projects (or who were one of those rare design prodigies in an otherwise meat-and-potatoes architecture program). New recruits are then trained to assume greater responsibilities in the areas of the practice for which they have been chosen, surrounded by older employees that impress their values on them.

In spite of the desire to match needs and wants in a firm, many individuals find out sooner or later that their goals and interests have changed. The young technical type discovers he has a knack for highly creative conceptual design, while the designer type begins to find it difficult to tolerate his continued ignorance of construction detailing and technical coordination. In such instances, a firm may be flexible enough to accomodate to the changing preferences of their employees, choosing to hand such people assignments as a way of retaining them. Often, though, there is little choice but for the employee to leave the firm, hoping another firm will cater to his new-found goals. Since the architecture career can be characterized by lots of moving around from one firm to another, where an architect stays the longest says a lot about his values and cultural affinities. In the American architecture marketplace, firms often have proud reputations as either edgy design firms that cultivate young designers to become the next vanguard or technical firms that are known for their solid working drawings and capacity to execute in volume all sorts of functional building types. Ideally a firm should be both, but one seems to get the attention of the architecture journals, while the others are invited to teach technical workshops at conferences.

As the opposite patterns of culture emerge in the profession, it's difficult not to generalize the people who are part of either side. Designer types seem to have often grown up in established metropolitan areas, or if they are foreign, were part of upper-class families who were encouraged to follow a traditional and respectable profession. Their upbringing and education seems to have placed much attention to cultural history, philosophies and bourgeois sensibilities (there are, of course, numerous exceptions where the most brilliant designers come from the middle of nowhere, ie. Frank Lloyd Wright). If one didn't come from such an auspicious background, it is nevertheless necessary to go to places that promote an artistic community or contain a rich cultural and cosmopolitan character. The emerging designer-type must travel at some point, and as extensively as possible, and even better, find work in these culturally rich environments (Frank Lloyd Wright at Louis Sullivan's office in Chicago, for example). These experiences stimulate the young designer to explore further, and inscribes a pattern of thinking and problem solving that is global and receptive to new ideas (the drawback being that they tend to forget the tried and true.) Once a person is atuned to this way of thinking, it becomes quite difficult to go back and enjoy the more mundane (although just as important) responsibilities of architectural practice.

For those who excel and prefer the more mundane and fundamentally important responsibilities of architecture (and who form the core of billable services that makes architecture a viable and paying career), travel and exposure to more cosmopolitan sensibilities is not too high on their list of priorities. The technical types I have worked with in my career come from all over, most of them sharing middle class suburban and rural backgrounds, and were exposed early to construction-related hobbies. They see their profession not as a cultural undertaking but rather as a job that they happen to do, something they care to do well and accurately within the given time constraints of the workday. Executing a project as best as possible, in spite of all the obstacles that is the construction process, is what counts the most, since what is on the working drawings and specifications will be what is actually built, not what is on the colored rendering and cardboard models. They leave their work at the office and engage in hobbies and activities often unrelated to buildings. While they are quite knowledgeable in the techniques of construction, they often neglect the study of architectural history and contemporary design trends, while ignoring big ideas and big names in the field.

Such knowledge would require extra time away from the office, something designer types often make the time for. The most talented of designers seem to live and breath architecture, devouring publications, absorbing new published projects and revisiting historical references to mine old ideas to better understand current ones. A few will even enter unpaid architectural competitions, producing mountains of colored perspectives, models and other drawings, all done during afterhours at home. It is essentially working for free, and the odds of winning so unlikely that there is no evidently practical reason to do such a thing. What motivates a designer type isn't financial reward, but rather having the chance to create something dramatic and beautiful (with the added media attention being an additional bonus). Participating in competitions or extracurricular design charrettes more importantly engages the designer type with the major theoretical discourse that affects architecture and planning at that point in time. Lessons on how to make walkable cities, formulate sustainable planning strategies and understand contextual design responses are the result of these often laborious exercises. A designer type will also work hard to refine his (supposedly) unique stylistic signature, which is often influenced by their work experience at boutique high-design firms. It is not uncommon for the designer type to agree to work for little to no wage for a world-reknown architect, whether it be Peter Eisenman (who I've been told pays nothing) or UN Studio and countless European studios (who pay barely above minimum wage). From the point of view the designer, the calculus depends not on financial reward, but on architectural wisdom coming from a master. It also lends an added pedigree to a designer and further ensures future positions at the top of a firm's designer totem pole. To designer types, architecture is similar to a priesthood, foresaking worldly wealth in order to devote more of their energy towards the profound spirituality of building design.

The technical types view the above as nonsensical. Instead, the technical types are practical and economic types as well. They are atuned to the bottom line and structure their tasks around the project budget. They do not hesitate to be matter-of-fact about feasability in general. They are careful planners, and they see no practical benefit in spending a bohemian existence working as a virtual volunteer for a boutique experience. There is no time to waste in building a career and a modest lifestyle for their hobbies. Technical types are quite balanced and relate better to laypeople outside, who they are most likely to befriend (and be married to) and helps reinforce a very grounded sense of perspective. In contrast designer types, in my view, have a tendency towards skewed perspectives which has the potential drawback of supporting misguided policy prescriptions and design solutions. Unfortunately the inherent intellectual indifference of technical types give the designers the megaphone in representing the interests of the profession as a whole. The practicality, balance, and wiser understanding of realities on the ground that technical types possess in vast quantities could do much to temper the destructive side-effects that result from designers' blind loyalty to unexamined ideas.

Oh, and by the way, the designer type tends support the politics of the left, while the technical type is often a conservative. Knowing this and other aspects about the two personality poles that define the profession, you can get a slightly better idea of what is it about contemporary architecture you might not like.


Landon said...

Which type tends to blog? Does either one dominate that column of links on the right of your page?

This is an elegant compare and contrast essay. It could appeal to a lot of people because the designer and technician types, with their mutual need/love/hate relationship, can be found in a lot of job fields... and marriages...

Thanks for letting me know what to look and ask for when I apply to arch firms.

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