Episode 089

The Art of Architecture vs. Business with Thom Mayne FAIA

Ruth Danielle LuiskingJan 1, 2015

Thom Mayne FAIA is one of architecture's most highly regarded and recognized architects. He is the founder and Design Director of Morphosis, a global, interdisciplinary architecture firm known for their uncompromising and iconic designs – from single family residences to large urban environments.

He is the 2005 Pritzker Prize Laureate and the winner of the 2013 Gold Medal of the American Institutes of Architects.

Today on Business of Architecture, Thom Mayne shares his thoughts on art, architecture…and the business of architecture.

In today's edisode Thom Mayne shares his thoughts on:

  1. The art and business of architecture
  2. Architecture as a pure form of expression
  3. How risk affects design

This interview is on iTunes. Subscribe above, and be a hero! If you know another architect who would benefit from watching this video, share away using the social share buttons.

Show Notes:

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Enoch: This is Enoch Bartlett Sears and this is your show, Architect Nation or, rather, Architect Family because you truly are my family. I love having you here with me every week as we talk about the business of architecture.

Now, my mission here is simple and that’s to help you succeed as an architect and as a designer. I invite you to join me here with over a thousand weekly listeners as I go behind the scenes with successful architects and others to learn their best tips and strategies for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice.

To get insider tips and secrets on running a great practice, visit http://www.BusinessOfArchitecture.com and create your free account. As a member, you’ll get access to resources that I don’t share on the website including the “Business of Architecture Report” which is my email newsletter with tips for building a profitable practice.

Now, I’m pretty excited to share today’s episode with you. Every podcast host or interviewer has a dream of bringing a big name on to the show. Today, for the first time ever, I’m releasing an interview I did over one year ago with one of the titans of modern architecture. Today’s guest is Thom Mayne, leader of the world-renowned architecture firm Morphosis.

Now, he’s here with us today on the Business of Architecture to give us thoughts on practice and the Business of Architecture. Today’s episode is a short one. It’s only about ten minutes long and the audio quality is worse than I’d like.

I interviewed Thom Mayne at the 2013 AIA Convention and I didn’t have the benefit of a studio environment, so I apologize for that. But, what lacks in length and sound quality, I think it makes up for in content. You’ll find Thom Mayne’s reflection on the business of architecture to be interesting and thought-provoking specially since he’s one of the leading architects of our age.

But, first, I want to give a special thanks to Matthew Moreno and the iTunes listener with the handle “c2e1000” for leaving reviews on iTunes. I’m going to read those out here.

Matthew says, “I’ve been out of school for only a year and I’m always looking to learn more about the architectural profession. I recently passed my CDS section of the architecture registration exams and realized how little young architects and students know about the business side of the profession.

That’s why this podcast is invaluable. It provides us with the sit-down discussion that we’ve been looking for to questions like: “How do I start my own firm?” or “What can we do differently as a profession to demonstrate our value and get paid for it too?” This is a must for anyone looking to open their own firm or are interested in the business side of the architectural profession.

Thanks, Enoch.”

Well, thank you, Matthew. I appreciate you taking the time to give your thoughts, and congratulations on taking your AREs and getting the CDS section out of the way.

I also want to take “c2e1000”, is the handle here on iTunes, who says, “Enoch Sears is an indispensable part of any and, certainly, my small architectural practice. Enoch asks great questions to his guests who are well-chosen for their knowledge and passion. Then, he asks the follow-up questions that delve deeper. Enoch and his guests teach me more about the business end of my practice than I ever learned in school.

I started listening, maybe, nine months ago, and now I’m making time to catch up on the previous fifty or sixty shows.

In summary, the show is first rate for three reasons: 1. Consistently great guests, 2. Great dialogue, questions and follow-up questions, and 3. Enoch’s low-key, professional yet casual manner.”

Hey, thanks a ton for that. I really appreciate that.

If you do enjoy the show, please head on over to iTunes. Leave a review there and I’ll make you world-famous as well here on the Business of Architecture podcast.

You can also leave a review on Stitcher which is an awesome app that I enjoy using. You can find Business of Architecture there as well.

Now, if you know someone that you think should be featured on the Business of Architecture or, perhaps, you have a great story that you think would be a good fit for the show, drop me a note at enoch@businessofarchitecture.com. I’m looking for more guests that have more interesting things to share with the Architect Nation here on the show.

Once again, if you have any connections with someone you think should be on the show or you have a story that you want to tell and be on the show – that would be great.

When you’re interviewed on the show, there are a couple of benefits. I’m going to put a link from my website back to your website, which is going to give you some SEO juice, plus, you’re going to get added exposure, and, of course, you’re going to be exposed to the thousands of Business of Architecture faithful.

Now, I want to thank the sponsor of today’s show, of course. You’re very familiar by now, if you listen to my show, with BQE Software. They’re the developers of ArchiOffice.

Architects from firms large and small are currently using ArchiOffice to help make their practices more efficient and their projects more profitable. So, go check them out over at http://www.ArchiOffice.com

On to today’s show and my interview with Thom Mayne, FAIA. We discuss how business relates to architecture or, perhaps, it doesn’t relate, in this case. I’ll let you be the judge.

Thom: You realize that architecture as a business is… I’m trying to think who would you relate it to in other businesses, probably only cinema, in that there’s this big divide between the business of architecture and the architecture as a cultural act – the art of architecture.

You can say that with cinema. You can say that with, probably, television. Look at what happened with HBO on the last “x” amount of years that has put on really edgy, very high quality programming after the networks who just seem to die over twenty years. It’s about business. It’s about marketing because television sells ads. It’s not about the program, it’s about the advertising.

So, to begin with, you’re dealing in this complicated territory that the profession divides. Of course, you’re talking to one of the people that are interested in architecture as an art form, so my departure point would be either Corbusier or [00:06:51 maybe I’m going to talk about my architecture training or it’s going to be too shop, or ARP], etc.

Business is business. Architecture as revenue-producing is complete secondary. I think that’s confused a lot of people because then they’ll say, “Oh, the artists aren’t dealing with money.” To run a practice of architecture as an art form, you absolutely have to have the ability to keep your eye on the ball. It’s absurd, right? It’s an extremely tough notion of keeping it alive. You have your studio that is your playpen. It’s the place where you could explore and invent ideas, etc., etc.

So, it’s not that it’s an either/or at all, it’s just that it’s not the priority, the priority is the work. I started my practice when I was quite young. I was twenty-eight years old. I’ve always focused on the work. At the same time, I happen to have a magic weapon. My wife has been my financial person during the crucial years as we developed over twenty years. It’s not that I didn’t have somebody. It was incredibly sophisticated running a business – specially today.

I entered the market when architecture became global, so my first work was in Austria and Japan, etc., and Canada. It represented some really sophisticated financial dealings in terms of practice that I had to have had help from.

The difference is your whole approach to practice. My total 100% concern is my work. It’s simple, not complicated. If I was a painter, I’d be the same way. If I was a sculptor, I’d be the same way. If I was a film maker – absolutely.

I look at “One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest.” If I remember right, it took ten or fifteen years to find somebody to make the film and ended up, of course, one of the major films of the twentieth century. I identify with that. It starts with the quality of the thing, and you do the best you can to develop a product. Now, I’m using your language.

Enoch: Yeah.

Thom: You develop something that speaks, it has a voice, and it addresses issues that represent your focus on the potential of architecture of interacting with society, socially, politically, culturally, environmentally, urbanistically, infrastructurally, etc., and everything else is secondary.

I have no interest in wealth. That’s not unprofitability. At the same time though, it’s not either/or. I take care of my people. If you look at my office and ask people, I take care of them. I’m a realist. We have to make a living.

Architects get paid ridiculous amounts of money and they’re all educated; I get people from the best schools in the world. It’s an absurd, obscene profession in terms of business, really. That’s one discussion.

There’s another conversation about the profession. I entered in the seventies when architecture was being run by lawyers.

Enoch: What do you mean by that?

Thom: They were doing less and less work and they’re producing more and more generic… They were trying to get rid of risk. That’s what’s absolutely killed the profession. I think, what’s happening now is that with competition, with the digital environment, with BIM, we’re getting more and more involved in construction, in building, which is taking on risks. Again, if you were to look at people who are interested in making a living – no risk, no fees. It’s absurd to think you can bail out on risk and have a profession.

Enoch: So, you’re a proponent for taking a risk?

Thom: Oh, absolutely. For me it came naturally because I started with small projects and we built our projects. I’ve always adhered to the European model, or maybe in Japan, where the architect is a builder. You’re on the site and you’re making decisions.

In fact, you’re eliminating risks, that’s the whole point, because you have the intelligence of understanding constructional processes and all the alternatives, each of the systems as they act intricatively. Why would you want someone else to start that?

You have a team usually working from a year or a year and a half on a design including your whole engineering group. If you’ve already done that, why would you want somebody doing that [Inaudible 00:11:33] contractor? By the way, would you think the construction group would get people that are more knowledgeable than architects that have to translate these things? I say, absolutely not; of course not.

Anybody coming out of a school the top of the class wants to work for an architect. You’re looking at somebody you’re going to move down the food chain. Maybe not know because what’s happening now with the 3D stuff, the sophistication with construction is going way up and there’s to getting to be parity. You’re working with sophisticated contractors and it’s the same kid out of Cornell, out of Harvard, out of Yale that now has opportunities to interact within a much more complex environment. That’s hugely positive, what’s taking place in the practice right now. Makes sense?

Enoch: Yeah.

Thom: You’re sharing risk essentially.

Again, we’re in a culture that’s so risk-adverse. It’s a much more difficult culture to build buildings than it is in Europe or in other places in the world. It seems to be at the forefront of a lot of conversations, which in itself is a question mark.

Has anybody done a study that says that there are, somehow, more problems in construction in this country than there is in other countries? I would say, absolutely not – probably the opposite. There’s an extremely sophisticated technical knowledge here. It’s in the air, whatever. It’s the way our culture operates. We have such a litigious… It’s the power of law in this country. It’s part of our culture that we have to live with.

Enoch: That is the end of my interview with architect Thom Mayne. I’m interested in your thoughts on our conversation. Head on over to http://www.BusinessOfArchitecture.com to leave your thoughts on this episode, or leave a review on iTunes and let me know what you got out of this. You can also drop over on to the Business of Architecture Facebook page and leave your thoughts on what Thom Mayne shared about the Business of Architecture and his career in design.
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ABOUT

ENOCH SEARS

Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.

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