So I’ve finally made it to the final year of the architecture program. And now that I’m here I’m not sure that I’m entirely comfortable about it. I’m starting to realise how little I actually know and how much more I’m going to need to learn, not only in the year ahead, but in the few beyond that. Sure, architecture is a life long learning process, but the curve is much steeper in the first few years. At what point will I have learnt enough, or done enough to allow myself to become arrogant?
I’m being a little facetious I guess, but there’s a justified perception among people outside of the profession that architects are in fact arrogant.
Years ago, when I was first planning to start the architecture program, I mentioned it to a colleague who was married to an architect. She said to me,”Are you prepared to become really arrogant?” I must admit I was a little taken back by her comment. But since then I’ve wondered about it, and have observed the architects I meet to see if in fact this is a characteristic of the profession. To a certain extent I believe it is.
I suspect it’s because the work that architects do is assessed and critiqued in a very subjective manner. If you accept that “good architecture” is difficult to define, that there are myriad opinions and beliefs at play in determining what we consider to be good, how does the practicing architect maintain a healthy state of mind? We would always be questioning the value and merit of what we do. Instead, we seem to form a very strong set of guiding principles that as individuals we can hold on to as those that determine and define good architecture. As long as in my own mind these principles are clear and strong, then any criticism levelled at me and my work can be happily dismissed if it doesn’t conform to those same principles.
This of course can be perceived as arrogance. In many cases it is.
Over the past few weeks I’ve observed some ridiculous arrogance in the various things I’ve been reading. Ridiculous comments about other people’s work, and grandiose statements by architects about their own work. The worst of these come from people who as a result of youth, inexperience and even ignorance, have not yet established any kind of authority, any kind of expertise, the kind that begins to blur objectivity and subjectivity. The worst of these ‘offences’ comes from students and recent graduates. Pull your heads in guys, you don’t know enough and haven’t done enough to be offering opinions in the way you do.
Of course we are trained to be critical. We need to be critical, of our own work and that of others. But it’s sometimes as though finding fault in other people’s work is the pinnacle of architectural criticism. There’s no room to identify positive and good aspects of what a person or practice has done, this is simply weakness. And when it comes to built work, it’s as though budget, client, and contractors don’t exist. The the final built work is, in all cases, the uncompromising vision of the architect. Few architects are ever given the budget to do what they think is best, rarely do we have clients who are willing to allow us to pursue ideas to their absolute fulfilment, and contractors, who themselves are business people, are unlikely to follow an architect’s ideas to their desired conclusion where there are simplifications and savings to be made.
Arrogance doesn’t work well in reality. It just makes us look like fools. Especially when we’re ignorant and naïve. The best alternative to arrogance, I believe, is humility.
Over the last few months I’ve been fortunate enough to be working in, by Adelaide standards, a large architectural office. I am surrounded there by some excellent practitioners, and some excellent work. Immersed in that environment, I have felt like the ignorant fool that I am. I may have gained a lot of knowledge over the last few years at uni, but if I wasn’t before, I’m now acutely aware of how little I know of the realities of architectural practice, of the business and politics, of the interpersonal relationships and so on. It’s been a timely experience for me, and I’m glad to have been put back in my box at the point when I might have been tempted to jump out of that box, climb on top of it, and yell my Gospel at the world.
In this my final year at uni, I shall endeavour to be humble in my approach to discussing other people’s work, and will always qualify statements of criticism such that people understand that I’m not claiming to have the ultimate opinion, the divine knowledge of what is good and bad. Perhaps 20 years from now I’ll be in a better position to be critical, but in the meantime I’m going to just enjoy what I do, and hopefully enjoy what others do too.