Fathers Day for Architects - The Empty Seat

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old empty seat

   I suspect most of my colleagues writing in this blogoff will have really happy, uplifting things to say about Fathers Day and architecture, but I have a different, darker view… but also a way to change it for the better, at the end. See the empty seat in this long-ago photo? That was mine. But I bailed out of our family vacation at the last minute because I had too many pressing deadlines, so Wanda took Sam and David anyway, leaving me to satisfy my clients’ demands. Simply put, this profession can eat you up, and leave you with many regrets.

   The architect I worked for after graduation lamented that he felt badly about the fact that he worked so hard in the early years of his career. “I feel like I never got to know my daughter,” he said repeatedly. But when the deadlines came, he pushed us all just as hard, and the fact that we had been conditioned to long hours in school with all the all-nighters meant that it was far too easy to fall into the trap of 80-hour weeks when the deadlines came. And when I opened my own firm in 1991, 80-hour weeks became my new normal, as that’s what I averaged over the course of each early year. Eventually, that grew to a 90-hour average about the time this photo was taken, and the last three years I kept timesheets I was averaging over a hundred hours per week. So in those years, I was pretty much an absentee father, and nothing will ever give me those years back with my kids.

   Why do we do this to ourselves? Answers could range from the culture of the profession to the pressure we feel due to under-valuing of the profession to many other things, but I believe there’s also a dark underlying motivation nobody talks about: the necessity of uniqueness. For most of history, the high standard in architecture was excellence. But beginning in the late 1920s to early 1930s, that standard was displaced by a new high standard of uniqueness. If you wanted to be significant, you must be unique. I believe this was driven in part by the ascendency of Modernism and its love of the new, but also by the rise of the modern architectural press, which was seeking novel things to publish, not just the same old stuff from last year.

   The necessity of uniqueness is welcomed by the rare geniuses who are able to crank out excellent unique things in a steady stream. But it’s a recipe for failure for everyone else. Unfortunately, almost all academies base their teaching on the premise that they will educate the next Frank Gehry. So what actually happens in school is a curious dance of deception. A normal student usually did their best work when they were ripping off something a master had done. And because of the necessity of uniqueness, there was a vast store of published work to choose from. I remember the game. Whenever someone did something particularly well-executed, we all set about on a frantic search to find the original in recent magazines from which it had been plagiarized, all while the student was asserting it was a unique creation.

   There was one guy who was different; he made no mistake that he was a huge fan of Richard Meier, and ripped him off regularly. One Sunday afternoon, I remember him coming into the studio and laughing at us all… “you bunch of fools! You’ve been slaving away all weekend, haven’t you? And you’ll probably pull an all-nighter tonight to get done for the jury tomorrow, won’t you? Watch what I do!” And he sat down and in about 4 hours had produces a competent Meier ripoff. And got an A the next day. Because speaking in a known language is immeasurably easier than trying to create your own new language. Every. Single. Time.

   I believe that if we want to take our family lives back, and actually be good parents as architects, we really must discard this ridiculous necessity of uniqueness the profession has been burdened with for nearly a century. Children of future generations of architects will thank us for making this break from the recent past.

   The wisest and most effective way to do this is to seek out the most sustainable architecture of your region and begin working in that language of architecture. Much of it was probably worked out by the old folks before the Thermostat Age, so this is not something you’ll have to completely invent yourself. But if you learn why they did what they did, then you’ll be able to follow those principles to update the architecture, because some of today’s needs didn’t exist several generations ago. So architecture can take on a life of its own and live again, evolving to be the most current architecture of the day, but based on principles instead of just raw novelty.

   Wanda and I have dedicated ourselves in recent years to building tools that help others do better work rather than pushing to do more design ourselves. When you work within known languages of architecture, it is easy to build tools many others can use because we use the same “words,” or patterns, of the language. For example, we’re about to publish a broad and deep collection of SketchUp components for southeastern US languages of architecture, and another for the architecture of the Bahamas. I’ll blog on that when it goes live.

   In a world where the sharing economy is so strong in so many other realms, why should architects not be allowed to share? Let’s give up this harmful necessity of uniqueness that has caused so much neglect of our families for so long, and speak in known architectural languages. The public realm will benefit greatly but the greatest beneficiaries will be our children.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This is a Blogoff by some of the same characters who bring you #ArchiTalks each month. My colleagues’ posts are here:

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Happy Fathers Day #archidads

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
The Dad -- The Architect

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
#Archidad - A modern approach

Rusty Long - Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
Life as an Archidad

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Being ArchiDad

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
A Daddy Architects Work Life Blur and My Escape

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
ArchiDad on Father's Day

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020