The Life of Architects: When Reality Doesn’t Match the Rendering

The witty juxtaposition in the “What We Design vs. Where We Design” meme reveals a fundamental truth about the work of architects.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

One of the most frequently shared images among architecture students and young professionals on social media is intended as a wry joke, but its satirical edge runs painfully close to reality. On the left side, a crisp, clean abode forms a pristine ode to Minimalism that every architect dreams of designing. On the right, a chaotic explosion of architectural equipment, models and drawings signifies the irony of creative professionals everywhere — while we strive for spatial clarity of the highest order, we can’t help but leave a trail of creative detritus in our wake.

Via The Angry Architect

This meme is highly relatable, as evidenced by the number of shares and comments each time it is posted on Facebook. There are countless reactions to the dual image; the comments section is peppered with exclamations of “this is me!”, “this is our studio!” and “my place looks just like this!” Of course, those commenters are talking about the cluttered right-hand room, strewn with cardboard, balsa wood and rolls of trace. Meanwhile, the places represented by the left-hand image — those architects design and visualize — are frequently rendered spotless to the point of absurdity.

Architects and interior designers’ penchant for extreme minimalism has been the butt of jokes since the internet began, with entire blogs dedicated to the subject. One of the best is “Unhappy Hipsters,” where lonely models lend their melancholic presence to stylish interiors for the purposes of scale and style, if little else. Virtually every scene comes complete with a single designer chair, a piece of contemporary artwork on the wall and large expanse of empty concrete floors. Only one thing is missing from these serene environments: real life, in all its imperfect glory.

Via Unhappy Hipsters

The disconnect between these carefully crafted architectural compositions and the chaotic organization of real-world spaces is undeniable, and there is justifiable concern that inhabitants’ needs are not well met when an architect strives for such a perfect “portfolio project.” Beneath these jokes lies a call for better storage solutions, more forgiving surface finishes that can age with grace and — rather than a glass coffee table with a couple of carefully placed editions of Architectural Digest — a real, sturdy bookshelf full of well-read books. Architects need real, usable spaces, and so do our clients.

Of course, there are reasons for architects to sweep things under the proverbial rug when it comes to their designs. Unlike their studios, the spaces architects propose are designed to be sold to clients, appealing to both their wallets and their hearts. What client would love a messy bedroom strewn with dirty clothes, or an office with scrunched-up balls of paper piled up on the floor? For better or worse, the rooms presented in architectural visualizations and in magazine photoshoots represent a utopian ideal, and it is up to the client to imagine what life might really look like in this space. As for the architects, once the project is complete, they will be lucky if they have even five minutes to tidy up their studio before the next commission begins.

Hariri Pontarini Architects’ office; photo by Jason Paris/Creative Commons

Ultimately, the witty juxtaposition in the “What We Design vs. Where We Design” meme reveals a fundamental truth about the work of architects. They are makers, crafters and sculptors of space. They experiment; they iterate; they test. For these reasons, their creative process is only inhibited if locked inside corporate environments, restricted by neat workflows and hidden behind computer screens. While they might spend their days designing gleaming offices and sparkling residences for clients, they do so in workshops, studios and even sheds. These spaces are meant to be messy, and that’s OK. Perhaps, though, we should begin to think more critically about how we can accurately represent real-life chaos in our work, too.

What does your architecture studio look like? Snap a pic and post it in the comments section below, or send it to If yours is special, it could get featured!

Top image: Minimalist Office via Emaudesign (left); design studio at Yale School of Architecture via Ragesoss (right)

Paul Keskeys Author: Paul Keskeys
Paul Keskeys is Editor in Chief at Architizer. An architect-trained editor, writer and content creator, Paul graduated from UCL and the University of Edinburgh, gaining an MArch in Architectural Design with distinction. Paul has spoken about the art of architecture and storytelling at many national industry events, including AIANY, NeoCon, KBIS, the Future NOW Symposium, the Young Architect Conference and NYCxDesign. As well as hundreds of editorial publications on Architizer, Paul has also had features published in Architectural Digest, PIN—UP Magazine, Archinect, Aesthetica Magazine and PUBLIC Journal.
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