You're a Terrible Architect

February 13, 2016

That was the first sentence of an email I received from a client, after two years of project changes, stalls, and billing issues brought me to the point where I refused to make another change.  The customer is always . . .  we don’t have customers.  We have clients.  We’re not a buffet.

But the email hurts, a lot.  It’s been weeks, and that sentence is still in my mind.  I still go in to the office every day.  I still motivate our staff.  I still cheer on our clients.  I still pursue new work.  I don’t believe that email.

It’s hard to insult a Calvinist.  You should hear our weekly sermons.  Whether we feel some success in the previous week, or, like this week, we feel berated and bullied by the community we’re committed to serve; we’re ready to concede that our target is High enough that even failures, by some regard, are mile-markers toward miracles.  I’m not trying to be dramatic or inspirational, though in a week like this I could use a few good clichés.

Our job is to advise our clients toward creating what has never existed.  Our job is literally impossible.  It’s not challenging, it’s not difficult, it’s impossible.  And, I’m more convinced, this week than ever, that our only shot at making something new, our only chance to serve our clients, is to embrace that impossibility.

To the client who says “build me one like the one down the street.”  I can’t.  It can’t exist twice.  It’s a different property.  Those materials have already been used.  The code has changed.  You are not the same person as that developer down the street.  We have to do a new thing.  Now – what do you want to build?

To the client who says that he wants it yesterday – he’s too late.  But it’s a good thing he’s here now.  We can make a plan, and we can start soon.  We can get ready before the next season.

To the client who doesn’t want to spend money – we have no business to discuss.   Architecture costs money.  You might have a deal with your brother for the construction budget, but I don’t.  This work is an investment for your money.

To the client who thinks money is no object – we also have no business to discuss.  I can dream bigger than you can.  If you don’t have a budget, we don’t have a project.  Lesson learned, the hard way.

This post is commentary from an architect who is having his best year yet – and still earning the scars of the previous year.  This is whining within context.  This is the testing that puts better quality-controls in play, that helps us meet deadlines and ask better questions.  This is how we give better advice.

And, as soon as we can let go of all those reasons we think we’re NOT terrible, as soon as we remember all the things we don’t yet know – I think that’s how we’ll truly get to invent something new – I think this is the route to being profoundly creative in a city that is addicted to design by habit, in a city that needs us badly.  As often as we remember how hard this job is, those are the days we can remember how to make something impossible.