Friday, January 28, 2011

Visionaries, Unlike the Rest of Us: How to understand elite designer architects

Louis Kahn, who had a lot
of personal drama, standings
inside his most magnificent
There's a common French expression that turns up everytime the topic of conversation turns to the differences between a work and leisure-centered lifestyle: "in France, we choose not live to work, but work to live."   Most people indeed want and do find work that lets them 'live', in which one can spend precious time with family, friends, and hobbies.  And yet there are certain professions where this ideal is a non-starter, such as my own. To put it simply, architects who care about design excellence frown upon those who innocently seek a work-life balance.  They don't see practicing architecture as a job that occupies eight hours in the day only to forget about it when they come home. Rather, one should live to work, be passionate about what one does and take as much time necessary to do it well. Architecture demands it!

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).