Talking Sense


Architecture & Art



Many in the general public have a perception of what an Architect is. They think we are rich, entitled, cost too much, flighty, artsy, at times irrational and above all a bit crazy.

I would have to agree with this interpretation apart from the being rich part. The vast majority of Architects are chained to their desks, working for someone else, working long hours and being paid a relatively low salary compared to other professions that similarly require upwards of eight years of university, five years of internship and passing nine huge exams that are harder than the Bar exam for lawyers. Even the ones that have their own firms are struggling.

I also have to agree that in order to be a good Architect we should be a bit on the edge of the world of reality in order to push the boundaries of design. I many ways we are artists that, if we are doing it right, suffer for our Art.

However a lot of the perception that we are crazy and flighty comes from ourselves and we have to own this.

We don’t talk like real people.

Many of us talk in metaphors, ideas and analogies. We talk about our work like it is a revelation of the built form, that it will change the world, that it “embodies” the “true nature” of “urban experience”. We talk as if our methods and our buildings are meant to invoke the images of a utopian world that only we can foresee and create. We talk as visionaries. We market ourselves in terms that will set us apart from other Architects. As if they are not doing exactly the same thing.

I can’t count how many times I have read or listened to Architects talk about such things as:

  • The Craft of Architecture
  • The Tradition of the Master Builder
  • “…our studio focuses on…”
  • A kit of parts
  • Fenestration and vistas
  • The Village Architect
  • Inspired by the juxtaposition of…
  • The design rational

And on and on and on….

It is no wonder that the average person has no idea what we are talking about and thinks we are a bit off our rocker.

The fact we seem to forget all the time is that clients don’t care what our design rational is, what we were inspired by, the tradition of the Master Builder or how interesting a place to work your “studio” is.

They simply do not care.

What they do care about is getting a building that meets their needs.

No client walks into an Architect’s office and says:

“I loved how you juxtaposed the hidden nature of the Canadian Shield and the embodiment of the harsh landscape with the delicateness of the human experience while at the same time paying respect to the land by seemingly floating over it.”


“I saw an expose of your design studio, sorry Atelier, and was very impressed with the unique philosophy you have of encouraging your teams to bond and learn through building Architectural sculptures on the landscape.”


A client chooses a firm to design their project based on the following:

  • The ability to get it done
  • Past relevant experience
  • Cost
  • Knowledge of the City processes
  • Schedule
  • Referral
  • and, rarely, status

Even when a Star Architect is selected for a project it is still based on the above items except that the client in those instances knows, pretty much, what they are going to get:

Frank Gehry = wavy / warped

Daniel Libeskind = angular / crystalline

Clients don’t care if you “married the Earth to the Sky” or channeled “the innate strength of the Redwood Trees previously on the site”.

One of the best questions I have ever received from a potential client was: “Do you know the difference between a left hand and a right hand swinging door?” The client was a contractor. His last Architect did not know the difference. It was a test and it was a good question. He didn’t ask me what the door should represent…

I have a great deal of respect for Frank Gehry, not just because he worked so hard to get where he is but also because he speaks clearly and plainly. In an interview some time ago he said (after giving a reporter the middle finger…) “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98 per cent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit”.

He didn’t say: “I would like to delve for a moment into the ever-present reality of the human experience and remark that 98 percent of the built environment represents a lack of understanding of the interrelationship between buildings and the planet.”

Whether you agree with him or not isn’t the issue, the issue is that he spoke in a language that people understand and can relate to.

It is no wonder people think we are flighty, artsy and out of touch a lot of the time. It’s because we appear to be talking above them in order to make ourselves sound more innovative and creative.

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