Architecture and Ego: The Architect’s Unique Struggle With “Good” Design

Michael LaValley Michael LaValley

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.

“There is always temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others.”

— Renzo Piano, 1998


noun | ˈēgō

1. A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance

Public Perception of the Architect

There seems to be a lingering stereotype that follows the architect in the public’s perception. I get the sense that many think we’re all snooty know-it-alls that wear black from head to toe and who insist our opinions are worth more than their weight in gold.

But is that all we are as architects? I mean some of us are (just kidding), but what are we doing to change this point of view?

Architecture and ego don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes one is fueled by the energy of the other. Other times, one will take over and cause an imbalance that leads to stereotypes as described above. It’s difficult for the Architect to always make sense of this balance; difficult to say who gets to decide the purpose of architecture.

Who Is Architecture For?

Have you ever thought and wondered, “Whom is architecture actually for?” As I try to find myself through the written word, I’ve often pondered this very question.

Is it for the architect? Is it for the user? Is it for the world?

Does it matter?

It’s not an easy question to answer. One answer may lead you down the path of arguing for architecture as an art, while another may cause you to only consider the end user.

The struggle I have as an architect is not only to understand the answer to this question, but also to consider the possibility that my answer is quite likely not someone else’s. I personally strive for “good” design. What that has meant to me over my career has changed with time as the struggle becomes more defined — and I think it has changed for the better.

Architecture studio at Yale University; via Yale

Struggle 1: “Good” Design in School

In architecture school, we’re taught to basically fend for ourselves. Although there are team projects that pop up from time to time, most of our efforts to learn come directly through our own, individual studio projects.

Don’t get me wrong — as students, our ideas are filtered almost constantly through intermediate reviews, one-on-one conversations with professors and the opinions of our peers. The difference, it seems, is that school is mostly structured for competition, not collaboration. This might be because the architectural education is built, whether intentionally or not, with a two-fold purpose: Weed out the students that don’t cut it and prepare those that do for stiff competition when they graduate.

When I was in undergrad, I was really arrogant — not Charlie Sheen tiger blood crazy, but still full of myself. I knew that I was good at what I did, that I was at one of the best schools in the country because of it and that studying projects from the Master Architects of our time would lead me to greatness.

Bullshit, I say. At least I do now.

In school, “good” design meant something intangible. End users in many ways weren’t a part of the discussion, and things that just “looked cool” were praised as long as the reasoning of how the designer arrived to that solution could be remotely supported.

You could argue that school is more about learning the techniques and skills needed to understand space, represent your ideas clearly and rationalize your solutions. However, one of the major disconnects between school and the real world is that the people you design for in school don’t really exist (in most cases). There are no discussions with the person that will ultimately use and live their lives within your design. As long as the separation is there, the purpose for why we as architects create “good” design will remain out of our reach.

Ego Wins.

Famous architects from around the world; via Archute

Struggle 2: “Good” Design by the Few

I really appreciate the work of architects like Gehry, Piano, Foster and Ingels. As in other professions, a few have risen to represent the many. They are all very talented, and each has unique reasons for their architectural celebrity.

But here’s the problem. The public only sees the actions that these few are making. The average person doesn’t really know what architects do. When they see a breaking article about how an architect disregards the problems around their project, they see the architect as self-centered and unable to sympathize for the problems, unwilling to take responsibility. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the architect, but rather the inability to adapt to the rules of the 21st Century.

Our lives are now on display for all to see. And whether they like it or not, the title of “starchitect” is the public mentality. An architect with far less influence, projects that are far less political, may not have the same impact on the public perception.

“Good” Design by the few is what the public sees. Architecture that is expensive and indulgent is often all that makes it within view of the average person. I don’t deny that many of those projects are beautiful, but I do question how long we can maintain the profession when most of the public sees only the good design of the few and not the good design of the many.

Ego wins.

Via Vimeo (Killian)

Struggle 3: “Good” Design in Collaboration

We live in a world where collaboration is king. Buildings don’t just grow from the imagination of a single person, they’re realized through the discussions and dialogues with others. No longer is the “Master Builder” the only voice that dictates the form of a building. The duties of the once omniscient “Master Builder” have now been distributed among teams that specialize in specific disciplines. Engineers provide guidance in areas of expertise that complement the strategies implemented by the Architect.

The architect, in turn, looks to the client and users for their desires and needs. They then create a design that will combine both the pragmatic and the wants of the user. Sometimes, the client has a very focused agenda. There is a budget, a program and a list of what amount to demands. The relationship can be tense and uneasy for everyone involved. Bad design comes from this tension. Things are missed, opportunities are lost and the end result is a project that everyone wants to wash their hands of.

Although this may seem somewhat dire, I offer the potential to see the opposite scenario. As Bob Borson of Life of an Architect described in his piece, “The Architect’s Ego”:

“The very best projects are the ones with the best clients — the clients who are interested not just in having an architect solve their problem (there are loads of architects that can provide a solution to your program), but are interested in having an architect help them see the opportunities and potential of what a project can be that are beyond the client’s imagination.”

Bob’s point moved me because it spoke to the fact that an architect’s relationship with their client should never be adversarial. The best of what we all have to offer each other comes from the ability to recognize our strengths in each team member, their stakes in the project, and to push for “good” design that transcends your average cookie-cutter solution.

“Good” design comes from positive collaboration. There will be times when we have to push in order to get the best out of people. It’s not meant to create tension, but rather to release the potential we have to see all the opportunities.

We all win.

Image byDadu Shin; via the New York Times

Architecture and Ego

When I consider my own reasons for being an architect, I immediately gravitate toward two: to help people and to leave a legacy. While those might seem to be at odds with one another, I don’t consider them as so. This is something that I’ve only realized with experience.

I am self-aware, and I am very confident in what I know. But I understand when I’m at my limits. I use my skills and understanding to help those I work with create a long-lasting and meaningful solution in built form. The legacy I wish to leave is that I did my best to help others using my abilities as an architect and my empathy as a human being.

The notion that the architect is all-knowing is wrong. The idea that the architect should be put in his or her place from inflated ego is equally so. The balance comes from finding the right relationship between client and architect. We live in a world with real people. People with dreams, desires and feelings. People with experiences, talents and voices.

As architects, we need to reach those we can, one connection at a time.

When we work with those like-minded individuals who share our views of the world, we are exponentially more likely to create beauty and purpose we can all be proud of. “Good” design appears from the use of our expertise as architects to manifest the dreams of others.

This post first appeared on Evolving Architect. Top image by Dadu Shin via the New York Times