Money and the Conundrum of Architects Who Don’t Build

If you’ve been in the profession of architecture long enough, you come to know a certain rarified subset of fellow professionals: Those who call themselves “architect,” who have a degree, and who may even be licensed and members of the AIA, but who do not practice architecture. They simply like being an “architect.”

I’m not referring to the struggling young designer, singer, actor, poet, or artist who works as a barista or bartender to pay the bills and jumps at professional opportunities as they happen. Just as with doctors, lawyers, and engineers who do not practice, teaching has always been a way to provide the lifestyle credibility of “architect” without the grinding hustle of actually designing and building things. There is a paradox to be found in those architects who don’t practice the art of building. Schools of architecture have multiplied the number of majors that are not based on the professional focus of designing buildings: construction management, planning, sustainability, and more. For two centuries the profession of architecture reflected the best hopes of our society as manifested in the buildings. But there are many who don’t want to build, they just love the identity. 

For most architects, two of the greatest unicorns of the profession are Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid. The self-justifying Artist Architect is a living beacon for those who believe that the world is for their use, to fund their version of Beauty. Almost no human can live into that model of success. Unlike Wright and Hadid, there are some architects who don’t have that fire in the belly to build things.

New directions and opportunities are growing for these “architects” who do not hold construction as the central talisman of their professional devotion. There are more paths that reject the Wright/Hadid model, non-building architects who want to be leaders in construction without designing things. 

There is now a vision for those trained in architecture to apply themselves to the urgencies of “net-zero,” “sustainable,” and “green” technologies as an independent focus, apart from the role of the design architect. Lowering BTUs, carbon emissions, and HVAC bills have their own cultural value, independent of comprehensively designing entire buildings.

In recent years, the non-building architect has also found a mission in reforming the profession itself. Combating a century or two of ossified architectural culture has become a non-building mission for many in the field. The conundrum found in reforming a profession whose value is based in construction by those who do not build much is part of rectifying a flawed profession’s ethics and values. 

But one abiding non-building architect type is the Dilettante: the architect who has no need to earn a living by practicing the profession. These devotees need not care about the technicalities of building performance, or the reinvention of the profession to address the 21st century; they just like having the title. In previous generations, academics, clerics, artists, and some architects were whispered about as having “married well”—finding spouses who can fund their non-remunerative careers. Wright, for example, was said to have benefitted from his first wife’s family fortune. 

Families, alive and dead, fund many dabblers in architecture. One role model is the exquisitely successful Hadid, who spent a decade or two entering competitions, and not much more than that, because she was supported by her parents. No need for income and money for staff. Dead, rich relatives confer comfort to future generations. So these inheritors of such wealth need not earn a living—but they must do something with their time. This may mean golf, skiing, world travel, and dabbling in design. Dabbling has the added benefit that making money at it is not necessary. The poster child for the Dilettante is Philp Johnson, who often built what he is famous for with his own (inherited) money. 

While living off of the fortunes of their forbearers, Hadid and Johnson built many buildings, some of which are extraordinary. But neither would have had the opportunities they took advantage of without their living costs and social connections being provided by their accident of birth. 

No medical doctor causally dabbles in surgery. No engineer has a hobby structuring a skyscraper. I don’t know of any lawyer who decides to occasionally engage in a court case. But many architects endlessly enter paper competitions as a way to express their love of design without the drudge and risk of actual construction. Unlike those doctors and engineers (but perhaps like many lapsed lawyers), here are those who live the social life associated with their profession—going to conferences, serving on committees, attending events—without the bother of a 9-to-5 career, let alone the terror and effort of getting things built or (god forbid) meeting a payroll. 

Everyone can conceptually understand children. But those who are parents know the full measure of what it means to actually raise a child. Anyone can critique a meal, but only those who cook truly understand the successes and failures of making cuisine. Every sports commentator has insight and perspective on the games they describe, but only those who have committed to participating can fully understand what that devotion means and requires. Similarly, if you have never been part of building something, the title “architect” confers interest without realization.

Unlike singing, or cooking, or falling in love, or buying a car, building anything requires long-term vision, planning, and a great deal of money committed in principle without a guaranteed outcome. The roller coaster of the boom/bust construction industry constantly tests the devotion of architects who design and build, and the terror of extreme investment becoming dust has made the profession of architecture carry different truths than its academic study. 

Our central value as architects—building beauty—may become less visible because of all the other noise surrounding architecture. Whether ethically sourced or not, can there be fine dining without chefs?

Featured image via Gratis Graphics. 


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