Architect as Leader: A New Model of Collaboration

This article was written for the AIA Blog Off on the theme “What does architect as leader mean to you?”

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be last of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45 The Holy Bible

“The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.” – Howard Roark’s Courtroom Speech, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Could Ayn Rand’s protagonist Howard Roark have been cast as a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant with equal effect? The thought is laughable. It was not happenstance that Ayn Rand cast the protagonist of her seminal work, The Fountainhead, as an architect. Ayn Rand’s architect archtype’s reveals a widely held stereotype: the architect is the genius, the master-builder, the artist.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark

Howard Roark, (Gary Cooper?) Architect

The Architect as Creator

As architect, Howard Roark personifies the genius and creativity of humankind. He is the starving artist struggling against the base nature of humanity. It is his genius, and he alone, who will save us. In Rand’s world, the architect does not exist to serve, but to be served. The architect claims leadership by virtue his innate creativity and natural talent. Roark’s masterful courtroom speech summarizes his stance:

“No work is ever done collectively, by a majority decision. Every creative job is achieved under the guidance of a single individual thought. An architect requires a great many men to erect his building. But he does not ask them to vote on his design. They work together by free agreement and each is free in his proper function. An architect uses steel, glass, concrete, produced by others. But the materials remain just so much steel, glass and concrete until he touches them. What he does with them is his individual product and his individual property. This is the only pattern for proper co-operation among men.”

Roark believes that great works are the result of the individual, not collaborative effort.

According to Wikipedia, “An architect is a person trained and licensed to plan, design, and oversee the construction of buildings…Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, which derives from the Greek arkhitekton (arkhi-, chief + tekton, builder), i.e., chief builder“. The words oversee and chief reinforce the stereotype of the architect as leader.

This definition of architect as overseer and chief-builder is not without historical precedent; the list of architect master-builders is long and illustrious. The first recorded architect, Imhotep, Queen Hatshep of Egypt’s chief architect, was raised to the level of diety two thousand years after his death. Next we hear of Ictinus and Callicrates, architects of the Parthenon, the masterpiece of Greece’s golden age. The list goes on: Vitruvius, author of the Ten Books on Architecture, Andrea Palladio, the muse of Venice, Sir Christopher Wren, the bourgeois English architect, and Daniel Burnham, American architect and Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius was so refined he was said to be able to whip out an amazing perspective rendering in the few hours before a client meeting. The list reads like a who’s who of history.

The Masterwork by Callikrates - The Parthenon of Athens

The Masterwork by Callikrates – The Parthenon of Athens

Can we escape our history? We architects are haunted by the image of the architect as the king’s trusted confidant. The concept of master-builder is dear to our hearts, and more than a few of us wish we could bring back the golden age of the architect.

This tradition of the ego-centric architect is reinforced by the classical Beaux-Arts training of our modern architecture schools. Although “studio” seems to connote collaborative, it is anything but. The collegiate architecture studio pits the ego of the professor against that of the student. A jury review, the central pillar of architectural education, is a solitary and lonely enterprise. In typical review, a young, inexperienced student faces down 4-5 experienced, degreed and respected academics. From a young age modern architects are trained to defend ideas in an adversarial environment.

The widely held concept of ego-architect is revealed clearly our infatuation with “starchitects”. Adoration of Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, and the Pritzker Prize elevate the architect to an entirely different level. We have our modern saints. In this world, the architect is no longer a professional, she is something more. In Rand’s vocabulary, she is the “creator”.

The traditional project delivery method of design-bid-build reflects this bias. Architects are critisized for designing a project in a vacuum, without outside input. How dare you tell me how to do my job!

Given our training, given the enourmous pressure of the public psyche that highly esteems our role, is it a wonder then that anecdotes abound of the architect’s ego? Ask any contractor and I’m sure you will get an earful of stories.

A Different Future

A re-evaluation of our place in the world is long overdue. The world has changed. The children of today value collaboration over egoism, “we” over “I”: two heads are better than one. We have realized that great works are the result of combined effort, the result of many individual hands. Individualism leads to tyranny. Cooperation brings peace and freedom. Collectively we can achieve more than we ever can as individuals.

The success of Google, Yahoo and other companies has molded the psyche of the current generation. We have access to vast amounts of information, for free. Social media and the internet has changed the definition of collaboration.

How are architect responding to these changes? Some have no difficulty casting off the burden of the past and forging a new path based on collaboration and synthesis. Young architect Oscia Wilson of Boiled architect models this path well. In my recent interview with her, Wilson describes her collaborative approach to architecture. In her view, employees are seen as partners to be valued, not commodities to be bought and sold. Salaries are transparent. “I want my team to be transparent on projects. So internally we are 100% transparent with other financial information, strategic goals, even salaries.”, she says. Even the name of her firm was chosen to convey to potential clients that, “we’re not pretentious high in the sky architects who are going to design something you can’t afford…hard boiled, like…hard boiled on the streets of New York”.

Wilson draws her inspiration from the relatively young project delivery method of Integrated Project Delivery. In contrast to design-bid-build, this delivery model positions the architect as a team partner and facilitator, as opposed to the team leader. Every team member brings skills and valuable perspective to the table, and each is respected for such. In this model, when one member profits, all profit. When one member loses, all lose.

Another colleague, friend, and emerging professional, Kiel Famellos-Schmidt, has defined his professional path through collaboration. Under San Joaquin Valley AIA President Paul Halajian, AIA, Famellos-Schmidt started a popular architecture and opinion blog in Fresno to influence the local discourse on the built environment. Leveraging the platforms of the web and social media, the blog has stimulated thoughtful discussion on topics ranging from California’s High Speed Rail project, to an on-going plan in downtown Fresno to re-develop Garrett Eckbo’s Fulton Mall. One blog post resulted in the preservation of a historic facade that would otherwise have been demolished. As further evidence of Schmidt’s commitment to and belief in the power of collaboration, he devoted time and money to becoming certified by the National Charrette Institute.

Architect as Leader

So, what is my view of architect as leader? To me, and many of my generation, leader is a charged word conjuring up images of serfs and vassals. I shun feudalism. I want to work in a collaborative environment where each team member can leverage the specific strengths of others without fear of recrimination or pointing fingers. I value participatory design where focus groups are more than token gestures of appeasement to facilitate buy-in. To me, the architect leader follows Christ’s suggestion that the leader is the servant – or better said, the facilitator.

The ancient definition of architect as master-builder as exemplified by Imhotep no longer has a place in our society. We are not a society of monarchs. Technology is changing rapidly and old methods of business are changing with it.

I realize that older and more experienced architects might chuckle at my youthful idealism. I respect the hard work and amazing talent of those that have paved the path for me.

I suggest that we regain the pre-eminence of architects by innovating in new models of collaboration. This is my definition of Architect as Leader. Teach architects not only how to work in a team, but to super-charge a team. Teach architects not only to work with others, but to bring out the best in others. Teach architects not only how to resolve conflicts, but to prevent conflicts. Through helping the team we inadvertently help ourselves.

By giving up our ego, we save ourselves, and our profession. Architects are a nimble, imaginative, and passionate group. Together we can be the architects of a collaborative future. Now that is something of which even Imhotep would be proud.

Can we refine ourselves after millenia of precedent? Tell me in the comments below.

About BusinessofArchitecture.com

Enoch Sears, AIA, started BusinessofArchitecture.com as a resource for architects who are seeking information about marketing for architects and web design for architects. Sears is a licensed California architect, author of the book “Social Media for Architects”, and curator of the website BusinessofArchitecture.com. On BusinessofArchitecture.com Sears helps small firm architects run a more profitable practice by sharing winning business and marketing strategies. Enoch interviews successful architects and brings their stories to the video podcast on BusinessofArchitecture.com. Sign up free for Business of Architecture Insider here:

Enoch Sears
I am a licensed California architect who loves researching and sharing about running a great architecture business. I founded Business of Architecture to help solo architects and small firms run a better business so they can have the peace of mind to focus on creating great architecture.
Enoch Sears

@businessofarch

Solo architect? Get the work you want. Marketing and business info for architects. Author of 'Social Media for Architects, FREE download: http://t.co/tQnt6ENDxv
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One Response to Architect as Leader: A New Model of Collaboration

  1. Rick June 4, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Enoch
    You are dead on-and I am one of the “older, more experienced” Architects- You are the ones you have been waiting for-
    http://www.k4places.com/blog/

    Rick

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