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How Architects Deal With Demolished Designs

Thanksgiving is a time of reconnection, and architects inevitably reconnect with their non-biological offspring: the buildings they designed and helped create. But as with our biological offspring, what we have created is not under our control once they exist in the world.

This Thanksgiving I was with an elder, all of us in a space I helped to design, one of several she had seen firsthand. “It must be wonderful to have your designs live beyond their creation!” she said. 

That comment triggered an instant PTSD response: The gut punch of change when your creation is beyond your control. Since I have been designing buildings for more than four decades, the flashbacks to ravaged expectations were instant and scaring. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel Tokyo survived an earthquake and World War II, only to be torn down in 1968. When buildings are torn down architects ascribe it to the culture being deaf to genius, but buildings are born in our culture and our culture decides their fates. 

Two years ago, I visited a neighborhood where I designed a home 30 years ago. The story was all too typical. A lovely couple with preteen children needed a home to be with other family members in the coastal town their extended family had vacationed in for generations. I “won” the job over several competitors, and we launched into building a 1,800 square foot home on a tight, complicated coastal site, with all the limits you might expect.

And we triumphed. The home was a fantastic place, built by a terrific builder. Upon completion everyone was ecstatic The home won a state AIA Award, was featured in a national magazine, and more importantly the family was very happy in its first summer vacations there.

But, like so many families, divorce happens.

Parents are always parents and custody of children is negotiated, but buildings are fungible, and assets get negotiated without mandatory custody. And so, this home found a new owner, who loved the home, and called me. I visited, and we talked, and made some nice accommodations. 

Then circumstances changed, and another owner, then another. I helped both with resources and history, but changes were made that I never saw. When another client wanted to build a house and found a piece of land nearby, I visited my beloved. And it was not a delight. The shape was there, but the ravages of coastal wear meant new windows, a closed-in porch, new roof, and an unfortunate gazebo.

My child had grown up and gone their own way. Its genetic lines were the same, but cosmetic and reconstructive surgery made the crisp aesthetics an armature for stock applications. Sad, but unsurprised, I moved on.

Ten years before that visit, I got a call from another client I hadn’t spoken to in a decade. “Duo how are you!?” he said. “Just wanted you to know that we…well, we removed all your work from our home.” Back in the day—all of us in our 20’s—these clients and I had first made a fantastic, hip place for a young couple in Manhattan. Years later we created a nursery. Both were nationally published, one of them even making the cover of a small magazine. I knew they had more children, and needed useful space more than the art we had made. And there was an architect who lived in their building.

So I never saw that offspring again.

Another couple created a home with me, and when they became pregnant asked me to rethink the home they loved. We did, showing how 600 square feet strategically added could enhance the home and get them to four bedrooms. And we never heard from them again (or were paid). Ten years later I drove by what was once a neat 1,600 square foot home to see a massive weight gain and ad hoc implants, morphing into a 3,000-foot Frankenstein outcome, nearly unrecognizable.

Another home client loved our design. The project was three-quarters of the way through construction and found out that old college friends (terrific designers) were available to look at their interior (even though they were not available when they were looking for an architect, until after the 2008 crash, when their schedule “opened up”). And their availability meant a lovely exterior has an equally lovely, but fully distinct interior. 

So architectural marriages break up too. And regardless of the “adult” attitudes of everyone involved, there are hurt feelings. At least on my end.

Architects are human. We want to control our world beyond our skin. We somehow feel that our hopes entitle success, because we really care about what we design. But we do not design for ourselves, we create with other humans, who may resonate with our hopes and values, but they’re not us.
And those we design with change over time, or die, or simply move on. The vast majority of changes in our patrons’ lives have meant further work with those devoted client-friends in new locations. But some simply want a different architectural cuisine for their next project.

It’s hard to be the flavor of the month. But at least you are serially loved. The devotion of service can mean a singular connection in product between the owners and creators of buildings. But that devotion can instantly switch to a one-way street.

And when you’re jilted, it’s hard to mend a broken heart.

Featured photo by the author. 


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