Paul Segal in conversation with C and JQ. Recorded February 14th, 2014
In Dana Cuff’s book from 1991 called The Story of Practice she outlines the mindset of a typical architecture firm. One of the things she starts
off saying is that “architecture is a dialectic between art and business.”1 With that as a starting point we are suggesting that the idealism within
schools, the profession and media tend to subjugate business as a means to realize the art. So the building or object is the ultimate goal, making the business merely a means of achieving that goal. There is a huge series of problems that stems from this way of thinking.
PS: OK, first of all, the notion that it’s a dialectic improperly implies that the two are opposite and not mutually supportive. I have a very strong view that the business, the art, and the service are three components that are mutually supportive and reinforcing rather than competing with one another. I don’t think that you can do good design if you’re not running a good business. Good design relies on the time and resources to explore alternatives and do research—a good business supports that.
JQ: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of service, although it gets kind of complex. In that model the service is really a client-and-architect relationship, but the architect can also be considered a public servant.
PS: Well, you are a public servant because you are franchised by the state and by the public to practice. A license is a franchise to practice, something that is inherently about public health, safety and welfare. Service is a little different from business per se and involves ethics and responsibility. Service implies independence, and one of the greatest things you are offering as an architect is the advice you give to clients that is strictly for their benefit. That only happens by you being totally independent. Service also implies reliability, meeting schedules and budgets. You’re not going to have a business if you’re not providing service. It’s like a three-legged stool. They’re not competing with one another, they’re supporting.
C: Perhaps we should back up and identify what we see as one of the biggest aggravations and then how we traced that back to some of the causes. A particularly oppressed architecture employee is the temporary hire, someone who works fulltime but only for a short period, for very little wage and long hours in a somewhat abusive atmosphere. And the reason…
PS: It’s called exploitation, which requires two parties: the exploiter and the exploited.
C: Yes, but the exploited is framed…
PS: And it happens because both are doing bad things. So the exploiter is breaking all kinds of laws—if they are hiring someone and calling them a consultant so as not to pay them.
JQ: Well even aside from that there is this whole class that is not even acknowledged or covered in the AIA compensation surveys. The bottom rung is “Intern 1,” someone who is salaried and on a supposed career track in the firm.2 But there is a whole group of young architects who work jumping from office to office almost on a project-to-project basis with no benefits.
PS: It’s terrible for them, it’s terrible for the profession. I am violently opposed to this, and it seems that the firms who do it are typically young, ambitious firms that are exploiting the even younger and more ambitious architects. It’s a bad mix. The firms are doing illegal things that people should blow the whistle on. But we certainly shouldn’t provide the other side of exploitation—being exploited.
C: One of the reasons we have identified that leads to this consensual exploitation is that people will sacrifice economic capital and endure these conditions in order to gain cultural capital with the recognition of having worked at a prestigious firm.
PS: Ok, let me give you another point of view on that. I ran an office for forty years and I got hundreds of resumes all the time. I know the firms that don’t pay people. Every practicing architect knows them because they hate them.
It’s unfair competition, but that’s another matter. If I see a resume and it has one of those firms listed on it, I throw that resume right in the garbage pail, because I know that applicant has no self-respect and has no ability to watch their own wallet. If they have no ability to watch their own wallet and stand up to people, how are they going to protect my clients from very tough contractors and so on? So you may think it looks good on your resume, but I think it’s a real black mark.
C: But these are the same people that Columbia invites to the lecture series. These are the idols that are held up to us.
PS: And you guys make the mistake of not being out there picketing when those people come here. I have said to the dean many times-and I will say to the new dean-that we make a big mistake giving our credibility and prestige to the very employers who are hurting the people we are responsible for helping. Why are we giving them our prestige? We should shun them, and the students should be out there picketing and throwing eggs!
PS: Don’t throw eggs, that’s against the law, but picketing is alright. Why aren’t you guys picketing? You’re a bunch of wusses. Until you guys learn how to stand up for yourselves we’re all in trouble. It’s a downward death spiral that you are contributing to!
JQ: It isn’t just relegated to architects at our stage of career. It scales up all the way to the top.
PS: Absolutely, but if you all boycotted the people who abuse you, that would cure them. You’re not going to cure them of their bad habits by buying in.
JQ: We see this as a result of attitudes that trickle down from the top. It starts at the top with this charette ethos that Dana Cuff speaks about. Basically that good architecture isn’t possible within the fee, time, budget…
PS: Well, look I…
JQ: Hold on, I am going to quote it actually. This charette ethos “can be seen as reaction to and rejection of the client's control. By working without pay or longer than is reasonable to create a building, beyond the client's subsidy, the architect asserts some independence and at the same time justifies decisions that might go against the client's wishes. In a sense, the architect comes to ‘own’ some part of the project.”3
PS: Boy, anybody who believes that I could sell them several bridges! I mean that is so dumb! It is beyond comprehension that anybody bright enough to get into this place would buy into that nonsense. Let me just address a couple things. You’re right that it begins at the very beginning, and it probably began before you even came here.
Maybe we just preselect a bunch of naïve people who are born to be suckers, I don’t know, but then we process it all the way through in the following ways. First of all, you guys get suckered into being unpaid interns or “consultants” without no benefits. You get totally cheated and put into a liable position in a lot of ways, which you’ll learn more about. It then goes on into the profession. That same attitude is why the profession, or a good chunk of it, is in the mess that it is in. Why do we do competitions? This is a total sucker’s game! There are a lot of people teaching here, and everyplace else, who try to convince you that you have to make a choice: you can do great architecture and starve, or do garbage and make some money. This is totally contrary to the way the rest of the world works. In every other part of the world the people who do things well get paid better.
JQ: And this is a split that goes all the way back to Vitruvius, who makes the distinction between the “gentleman architect” and the “architect of wealth."4
PS: But why do we live in an alternate universe?
JQ: In the same Dana Cuff article she cites a survey asking why clients return to the same architect, ranking those reasons in order. Design quality is ranked 10th.
PS: What’s first?
C: The ability to deliver a project on time and on budget.
PS: How familiar are you with owner reps?
JQ: I have worked with them personally.
PS: OK, how did this disaster occur? It occurred because we were unreliable on Dana Cuff’s first point. We totally abdicated on our responsibility of providing good service. You wouldn’t hire an accountant who’s brilliant about the tax code but can’t add. And that’s what we have been, the accountant who can’t add. We’ve said, 'Oh that’s not important, we’ll get it to you a week late.' Ridiculous! You say you’re going to have something by Tuesday you deliver it on Tuesday or you die.
C: It seems there are different aspects of architecture, and each has a different weight according to the relationship between the parties. The employee works at a firm with the aspiration to have creative control over some part of a project and assert their design sensibility, whereas a client is not as interested in the design of the building, instead focusing on the reliability of the business side of the firm to deliver.
PS: It depends on the client, to talk about any group monolithically is a mistake. But, to go back to this, really what the young architect should be interested in is not asserting their personal expression.
They should be interested in learning the craft. There is a lot about learning how to do the process so that what you want to get built gets built. That’s what should be happening after school. Forget about your personal expression! That’s what school was about, and that’s what your profession will be about later.
JQ: But those ideas are maintained vertically throughout the profession. So we referred to the stats of the client survey, but when asked what was most important for architects, 98% said that creative control and design input were the biggest motivations.5
PS: A real architecture project is a relationship. It’s a partnership. The client knows much more about certain things, the architect knows much more about other things. Think about Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk. Kahn could have never done the Salk Institute had he not spent so much time with Salk and learned about how a research scientist works. Kahn didn’t know anything about this, and that’s what a partnership should strive for, not control. What a petty, sad, pathetic little goal.
C: But, whether or not it’s morally just, I would agree with this survey that creative control is the strongest motivator. It helps understand why so many architects take moonlighting jobs. They work from 10 AM to 6 PM, and then, at 6 PM, they say, 'OK I’m done paying the bills, now I am going to work on what I want to do with my own project.'
PS: Any group that is as misguided and egotistical and sad as that deserves the failure they are getting. Not to mince words…
If you look at technology companies, employees prefer to work at places like Google and Apple because they feel like they are working on something
exciting, they feel like they have an impact on people’s daily lives. Google is famous for giving their employees a certain percentage of their time to
work on their own passion projects. So, where’s the disconnect?
C: What’s different about Google is that they are not only able to provide this creative outlet and lure new talent by allowing them work on creative innovative projects, they also pay them extremely well. There seems to be the opposite correlation in architecture, where the more ambitious the firm is the less they pay their employees.
PS: I know, it’s astounding. But Google has figured out a business model that produces a huge amount of cash. See, we haven’t.
C: So that’s the bottom line, there’s more money in tech than there is in architecture.
JQ: There are some instances where innovation has come hand-in-hand with profits. If we look at SHoP’s Porter House project, it was innovative in the way it dealt with New York city zoning, in the way they went around the façade manufacturers and did it themselves, but it was precisely because they had an equity share in the project that helped drive these innovations.
PS: If you look at the construction industry, it is the most backwards, most primitive, stupidest thing—if you ever tried to build a car the way we build a building you’d end up with a four million dollar piece of junk that wouldn’t be a tenth as good as a $20,000 Volkswagon. Right? So why are we so dumb? Here’s the ticket: figure out a better system. Figure out a smarter way to build things. That’s the brass ring. That’s the low hanging fruit. And when you figure that out, you’re going to be richer than Google because construction is the largest segment of the American economy, not information systems.
C: SHoP are also part owners as developers for the Porter House project. So they are invested in the amount of money these apartments actually sold for.6 That way of tying compensation back to the success of a project is something that we’re really interested in as an alternative model—to motivate someone with the idea that the quality of the design has the direct ability to return profits.
PS: I did a development project myself and they are very complicated.
First of all, to be a good developer requires a lot of skills and knowledge that you don’t pick up in school remotely. Raising money requires skills and knowledge, so now you’re talking about having three sets of skills instead of one—that’s a tough act quite frankly. But the other part is that very often, incorrectly, goals are not exactly coincident. A developer’s goal, unless they are not for profit, normally is to make money. Period. Not do good design unless they think it has a marketing value.
PS: So now we’re back to your media question: who is your audience and who are you playing to. If you’re playing to the average public in order to sell apartments with marble bathrooms rather than something you would consider to be more fundamental to design, it’s a conflict.
JQ: We could also briefly touch on fuseproject, an industrial design firm that similarly does what they call 'design ventures,' where the cash fee is reduced in turn for royalty or equity in the product that they’re making. I’d be interested in speculating on how a model like the fuseproject could be translated to architecture.
PS: The problem with the analogy is that industrial design can’t leak, fall down, or hurt anybody. The worst that it can do is not succeed. It comes back to doing things in a mass produced world where you design it once and it gets built a million times, as opposed to you design it once and it gets built once.
Why don’t we do buildings the way they make cars? What’s the big incentive to make buildings so unique at such a ridiculous un-prototyped wildly high cost?
JQ: It’s easy to attack that from either direction though, right? I mean Buckminster Fuller tried to do that. He was really into the mass production.
C: And so did Frank Lloyd Wright with the Usonian House.
PS: The Usonian houses were really still one-offs.
C: Ok, ok…
PS: Talk about exploitive! Not only did he not pay people, he charged them to work for him. So we should at least look at progress…
1 Cuff, Dana. Architecture: The Story of Practice. MIT Press. 1991. p. 35
2 The American Institute of Architects. AIA Compensation Report. The American Institute of Architects. 2011. P 20.
3 Cuff, Dana. Architecture: The Story of Practice. MIT Press. 1991. p. 70
4 Ibid. p 71.
5 Ibid. p 52.
6 Grossberg, Deborah. “Architects Turned Developers.” The Architect’s Newspaper. July 27th, 2005. http://archpaper.com