Raffles Boston demolition

The Unique Pain of Architects: Letting Go

If you’ve been an architect for long enough, you’ve had your heart broken: You don’t get the job you interviewed for. Projects fall through—or they get put on hold. Or you do get the job, design it through bidding, but the budget blows up, and you’re kicked to the curb. Doctors lose patients, lawyers lose trials. But architects can successfully do their jobs, create great architecture, and completely fail in our mission to be part of our built environment. 

But there is a worse fate. And it’s one every architect who has built something experiences: Not only do you get the job, but you complete the building. It’s a triumph of effort, will, and devotion. The client is thrilled. Maybe you win an award or two. And then, years or decades later, it’s torn down. 

People change, so their buildings inevitably change. The business term for this is churn. Almost every building has an invisible expiration date attached to it. But for the creator of the original place, knowing that doesn’t make the sting of its death any easier. Instead, it feels like you have lost a loved one, often without being able to say goodbye.

This kitchen appeared on the cover of a national magazine — and was gone a decade later.

I remember feeling punched in the gut when a client called to let me know that a New York loft, whose kitchen was a cover project for a national magazine, was being gutted—by them! (Even worse: “We used a guy in the building.”) Another project, an Architectural Record “Record Bath,” which used 8,000 swirling custom tiles in six shapes and eight colors, was ripped out, a decade after construction, when my client sold her home and moved back into the city.

When the client for this bathroom moved, the bathroom eventually left this world.

Those projects met untimely deaths. But then there are the zombies, still living in this world, but altered beyond all original intentions. These projects become the living dead of our broken dreams; our best hopes, defiled. 

This year, we helped a young entrepreneur create a public entry. It was carefully designed, and then approved by two boards. I went to see it while it was being built, and what we had designed was not there. Fulfilling the fears generated by a long-unpaid bill, the elegant jewel that we originally drew had been built to look like a squat hut over the front door, sad and ugly. I resigned from my role in the project, and immediately emailed my resignation to all those city officials that had given approval to the project. I am also resigned to never getting paid.

Those willful mutilations are perpetrated by the incompetent or the indifferent. But a more tragic end of any architect’s best hopes is the inevitable toll of time. It may heal wounds, but it surely wounds many wonderful designs. There are a million things to overcome to get anything built. But no one can overcome time. 

The brutal reality is that every creator loses control of their creation the minute someone else owns it. That is the risk of creating anything subject to market forces and client whims. Still, it breaks your heart.

A stark example of how users own what you create happened more than 30 years ago. I had designed a little spec house, purchased by nice people, who wished to add on. I gave them some sketches, hoping to evolve the new design. And then: silence. A few years later I finally saw it. That sweet little home I had designed had a bedroom popping out of its roof like a huge, cancerous growth. It hurt.

Last month, I was visiting a site for a home we’ve been commissioned to help create in the same neighborhood where I had designed a house almost 30 years ago. The reunion with my old architectural flame did not go well. The home was frozen in my mind, a profile pic of its 1992 reality. However, my encounter with this long-lost love object, like most dates in the digital age, betrayed that mental profile.

Twenty-eight years and three owners later.

When built, the home was featured in several magazines, won a Connecticut AIA award, and was a delight to me in my early career. But coastal aging is hard on a building. (The skin of a sailor shows the effects of the sun and salt water.) Everything was changed: carefully composed windows had been replaced with stock units; new elements such as roofing, A/C condensers, walls, and awnings were rudely tacked onto its once-proud presence.

You’d think that a 64-year-old architect with 800-plus completed buildings would have a better perspective than I do. But, as with any parent, my children are always the innocent beauties they were at birth. My human sons now have beards and questionable clothes, but they will always be those newborn delights to me and their mother.

Change is hard for architects, too. When our designs are changed, it is like a sweet child turned wrong. These corrupted efforts never stop hurting. It is the unique pain of betrayal. 

I should get over it. But I never will.

Featured image: Demolition of Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences, via Curbed Boston.

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