Unapproachable

By August 6, 2021 architecture, business

Once in a while I am reminded of why people don’t see architects as approachable. Very rarely am I reminded of that twice in the same year.

At a new project meeting in January, the contractor thanked me for coming and then dropped this little gem:

“Most architects I meet won’t do work for common people.”

I almost fell over. Common people? Really?

Turns out most architects this contractor reached out to wouldn’t entertain working on a small residential project. Not that this client’s budget was small. However, other architects felt the amount was small enough to not warrant their time or effort.

Which rocked me back a bit on my heels, until I started thinking about how we are perceived by a lot of people, from clients to contractors to vendors. And the contractor’s comment started making sense.

When my partners and I started the last firm in January 2008 (I know – good timing), two of us came from an industry where being approachable wasn’t something you considered. Architecture was an art form and was supposed to speak for your skill as an architect. I heard the comment from several architects that to grow your business, you only had to do good work. And that work would bring you more business.

Except we learned in a recession that doesn’t really work for a new firm, especially when not many are building or renovating. To grow meant being involved in our community, networking with other professionals, and making ourselves approachable. All ideas that prior to 2008 would not have been well-received at most firms but for us, and now for Spotted Dog, have a high priority. Especially this one:

Be approachable.

Which brings me to the second reminder of the year – an architecture forum post that popped into my inbox this week:

“I think the Times should be very embarrassed.  They have just published something called THE 25 MOST SIGNIFICANT WORKS OF POSTWAR ARCHITECTURE.  Of course any list like this is silly.  And we can always quibble about I.M. Pei or Eero Saarinen’s absence or The Kimball.  But to leave out Frank Gehry is inexcusable.  Most significant?  You don’t have to like Gehry or his work but you cannot deny that he and it changed the course of architecture.  Really, one hopes someone higher up at the Times issues an apology.  If you want to be the newspaper of record, you do not let historical gaffes like this stand.”

I wasn’t sure where to start when I read this. Do I express my disbelief that the writer thinks the New York Times should be embarrassed or issue an apology? Do I point out that for someone who thinks these lists are silly, he seems to be upset over nothing? Or do I just call him out for how pompous he sounds?

As this was a forum for young architects (architects licensed 10 years or less) within the American Institute of Architects, I would have preferred a more positive take that encouraged some discussion on the architects and architecture included in the list, instead of just a complaint of who was left out. Many young architects are just that – young – and are still at the start of their careers. This could have been a great learning opportunity. Even I found buildings and architects on the list that I had never heard of, even after school and 24 years of practice.

On the plus side, this was not a public forum, so only people within the AIA who were subscribed to it would ever see the post. Were this available on one of the more open architecture forums, I’m not sure how people would react. Would this just reinforce the idea that architects are for the elite? That we are a bit full of ourselves? That we are unapproachable?

In full disclosure, I did respond on the forum, and based on our respective comments, we clearly could have gone ten rounds about Frank Gehry. However, conversation was kept to a minimum and as civil as possible. At the end of the day, I do need to be mindful of what I’m saying. And if we run into each other at a future conference, maybe we can pick up the conversation.

Assuming he thinks I’m approachable.

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