Michael LaValley is an n.y.-state registered architect, career strategist and blogging entrepreneur. His blog, Evolving Architect, helps creative professionals to channel their passions for architecture and design into successful careers.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live only as you can.” — Neil Gaiman
What is the most important tool?
When I first considered what an architect’s most important tool might be, my mind was initially drawn to tactile utensils — pens, sketchbooks, computers and so on.
However, I soon recalled an article from Mental Floss entitled “How a Blind Architect Is Changing Design.” The piece told the story of an architect who had worked for many years and suddenly lost his sight in 2008 following a surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. He did not let his handicap stop his drive and almost immediately returned to his office.
His name is Chris Downey. Downey is a San Francisco–based architect who is fundamentally changing the way that other architects interact with the profession. As he’s quoted, “I’m always careful to say I’m without sight, not without vision.” It dawned on me that this man was still an active component of the profession but had little to no use for all the tangible items that I had initially listed. I considered instead the knowledge I’ve accumulated that defines my competency as an architect. I am not my physical tools. I am the sum of my experience, both personal and professional.
The greatest tool an architect has to offer and will ever need is their own voice.
Their voice protects the public.
As a professional of the people, an architect is bound by their duty to protect the public welfare in similar ways to that of a doctor or a lawyer. While an architect does not have a formal Hippocratic Oath, they are still responsible to protect the health safety and welfare of the public according to the laws of their jurisdiction. The architect’s voice acts as the primary medium through which this protection can be formed.
Whether it’s during a design phase or into construction, the architect is the champion of the people. Even if there is something that the architect did incorrectly, as long as it may have a detrimental impact upon safety, the architect must use their voice and speak up for what is right. The public relies upon the architect for their expertise and puts in them their trust that the architect will keep them safe.
Their voice protects owners.
Oftentimes, the architect is also the shield for the owner of a project. Contracts, and their formative relationships created, place the architect into a lead role that must protect the owner against things that are out of their expertise. The architect must keep the peace during construction and provide the owner with services that are both fair and in their best interest.
An architect provides many checks and balances during construction that allow the process of construction to run as smoothly as possible for the owner. If there is a problem in the field, with submittals or with the services provided by the contractor, an architect is, at the very least, responsible for notifying the owner that there are issues.
Their voice protects design.
If there is one thing that contracts (more specifically AIA documents) aim to protect it is the design intent of a given project. The architect must balance personal design interests with an owner’s ability to use a project once it’s built. While there are many opportunities in the profession of architecture to use practice as a way of exploring new ideas, the architect is responsible for reigning in scope to create a functional building.
During the building design and construction process, the architect is given one major benefit. Once a project has been bid and awarded to a contractor, the architect is allowed to uphold the design intent of a project. Now, this can definitely go both ways, but often, it is the datum from which an architect can make many decisions during construction administration.
An architect is given the responsibility to protect their design, not out of vanity, but because it is assumed that the design intent is already in the best interest of the owner prior to construction. Without this check and balance, a contractor could conceivably do whatever they wanted to (within reason), although this does tend to happen from time to time anyway.
Bjarke Ingels of BIG presenting his TED Talk; via Dezeen
Their voice showcases their professionalism.
As a professional, an architect is supposed to act accordingly. While there are definitely exceptions to this rule (people are still people after all), most architects conduct themselves with dignity and poise. They are the advocates of the built environment, business-owners and educators.
Their voice showcases their integrity.
While people can also be sleazy and corrupt, the architect as a professional must use their voice to maintain the integrity of the profession. Just as the architect is the champion of the stakeholders in a given project, they must also use their voice to maintain a level of trust with their clients (both current and future) and the public.
The integrity of the profession is tied to the integrity of its individual professionals. The architect must continue to use their voice and speak up against what they know to be morally wrong or ambiguous.
Their voice showcases their personal story.
Every person is unique and has a personal way of looking at the world. Similarities may arise among designers of common backgrounds, but you are who you are based on millions of experiences over your lifetime that have made you who you are today.
Architects have the opportunity to tell their story through their design and through the ways they choose to interact with the world.
Rem Koolhaas presents a lecture at CAFA; via CAFA ART INFO
Their voice describes their profession to the public.
An architect speaks both directly and indirectly with the public at large. For centuries, the public has been moved by the built creations that have shaped their cities, towns and ultimately their way of life.
Most people that I’ve encountered don’t truly understand what it is that an architect really does. There is often a reference to a T square and drafting desk, but not many people truly understand the day-to-day process that an architect goes through in order to realize buildings.
An architect’s voice provides the explanation to those willing to listen about what the profession can offer to their projects and their lives. Architects bring added value beyond drawing production, and their voice tells the story of what that value is.
Their voice teaches their profession to the next generation.
Just as it is important for an architect to advocate for the profession to the public, it is equally as important that the architect uses their voice to pass on their knowledge to the following generation.
Because architecture is a profession that has risen over long expanses of time, there is much to pass on to the eager minds of tomorrow. It is up to the architect to take the time to mentor designers and future architects so that the consistency and quality of the profession does not diminish.
Their voice influences the perception of the profession.
In our current times, there are those architects — Gehry, Foster, Ingels, etc. — that have been elevated to a level of fame that is very uncommon for the typical, practicing architect. The chosen few that have been given this position are also those who have the most influence in the advocacy of the Architectural profession to the masses, for better or worse.
For better, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has been fervently pushing for the education of the public related to its architects in ways that are much closer to home than in previous generations. They are at the forefront of spreading the word of architecture and the importance of using architects from the early phases of a project through its construction.
For worse, Frank Gehry can be famously quoted for his polarizing remarks at a press conference in Oviedo, Spain, which Gehry attended to receive the Prince of Asturias Awards for the Arts.
“Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone! We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work. I don’t have a publicist. I’m not waiting for anyone to call me. I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”
Such influences obviously have a negative connotation internally, as fellow architects resent the “Starchitects,” while also breeding thoughts of vanity seen from the public eye. While the words of a single architect can not be controlled by the rest, architects in general can practice how they voice their public opinions to protect the outside perception of this profession.
Architizer’s own Marc Kushner gives his TED Talk; via TED
Their voice generates new ideas.
An architect can be a voice for change, both in the profession and the way we live. As technological breakthroughs advance our understanding of the world, the architect has the opportunity to advance, as well. Many architects of today are at the forefront of technology and design. They understand that with every new idea comes potential and positive change for everyone. It is only through the exchange of these ideas openly that the architect may push the boundaries of what is possible and bring the world to new heights.
Their voice connects architecture to other disciplines.
An architect is not alone in their journey and must rely upon the expertise of others in order to progress the opportunities of creation. The days of the all-knowing “master builder” may be over, but the splintering of trades into several different disciplines brings with it the opportunity to specialize entirely in other unique areas of practice.
Architects are no longer bound by the singular notion of how to develop and execute a building design. Specialists in 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, new materials and sustainability, to name a few, are pushing the limits of what the practice of architecture can and inevitably will be. The architect must use their voice to advocate for these advancements or be left behind.
Their voice can be in the creation of consumable media.
With the invention of the internet has come new ways of consuming information. Now architects are bloggers, podcasters, videographers and social media experts, and the list of opportunities continues to grow. We live in a time that provides the most opportunities in the history of mankind to have our voice heard and recognized. The architect must look at the field of media advancements and decide for themselves how they want their voice to be heard.
The architect’s voice is their most important tool.
It’s not the T square or the pencil, the drafting table or even the computer. An architect is responsible for both the protection of the public as well as the protection of their profession.
The road has been difficult to maintain, and the future will continue to be so. In many ways, architects are fighting to stay relevant in a world that doesn’t quite understand the gravity of their purpose and intent.
You can take away all that an architect has — all of their tools save one: their voice. When was the last time you considered your place in this profession and truly used yours?
This post first appeared on Evolving Architect.