architecture and integrity: oil and water

A little while back I finally got around to watching The Fountainhead (1949) with Gary Cooper as Howard Roark and I remember finishing that movie nearly in tears…well, not nearly. I’m a bit of a crier…my wife thinks it’s funny. But that’s not the point.

The point is INTEGRITY in architecture. Not just as a profession, but as an art, as a passion, as that thing that makes your blood pump and your spirit feel alive! Do we have that anymore? Sadly, it seems more and more clear that we do not. Howard Roark was a man, a architect, who refused to give in to the status quo. He refused to sacrifice his art, his craft, his buildings to the whim of pop culture or the mob mentality. He dared to stand up, to stand out. And he suffered greatly for it, but in the end his clients kept coming back and eventually he won the respect of his peers who were too cowardly to do anything not in line with what others felt “should be”. We need more like Howard today.

In an economic climate that can be described as nothing better than “dismal” where we’re experiencing upwards of 30% unemployment in our field and everyone is fighting tooth and nail for their next client…well, things like integrity, pride and self worth are the first things to be thrown overboard to keep the ship afloat. And quite frankly it just pisses me off.

Architecture should not suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune like the stock market or the rest of corporate america. Our work, our craft, is not and should not be a commodity to trade to the lowest bidder. But it happens more and more, architects trying to undercut other architects’ fees in order to get a client that will only haggle for a lower fee on the next project.

Instead a resurgence of integrity not only for our profession but also integrity and responsibility for our projects, our designs, our creativity, that which we bring to the table is priceless. Instead of the cut-throat, winner take all mentality, what would happen if architects instead pooled their resources and talents in order to best serve the client and best serve architecture? How many more projects would we get based on real quality of design AND construction than simply trying to chase that next magazine cover or developer with “an exciting new project” (i.e. another salt box apartment complex with no character or thought involved)?

I see lots of us out in the blog-sphere decrying the woes of our profession, and that’s all well and good. I hear even more touting that we should “take back” our prestige, etc. But it’s a lot of talk. I’ve made the call several times to any architect reading this to step up, to help, to be the leadership for a new generation of architect that is truly passionate about a profession and an art that DOES have the power to change the world one building at a time.

One of my favorite quotes is by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Will anyone out there answer the call? There are a few, and you know how you are. We need more.


24 thoughts on “architecture and integrity: oil and water

  1. I’m with you Jeremiah. And I guess even in this difficult times it’s better to drawn a line in what you do and stick to it. The ones who like it (AKA your public) will come back for more and eventually spread the word. But, as happened to H Roark, it may take a while. The road may be difficult but the end can make up the hardships of the journey. We should focus on the goal and not on the difficulties. That said, is not an easy task…

    • Henrique, thanks for your comments. I appreciate you chiming in on this issue. I think what frustrates me the most is the level of apathy in our profession. There is a complete lack of excitement in many of the architects around me. Case in point, I’m currently working on a residential project, a renovation, and the contractor and “interior designer” *drips venom* have, in my opinion, screwed the project trying to save a couple bucks (which ultimately never does as we all know) and the owner is ill-equipped to properly visualize the mistakes the interior designer and contractor are trying to make. And unfortunately I’m afraid when push comes to shove, my boss will not have adequately advocated for the design integrity of this project and the homeowners, the clients, will have gotten a product of greatly reduced quality and little savings in money.
      We need to stand up for our projects, stand up for our clients (even when we’re standing against their judgement) and really advocate as Architects rather than as simple service providers. We’re providing a service, but we’re also providing environments that people will hopefully use for years and years. There needs to be a higher standard that we set for ourselves.

  2. I recommend everyone see the new interview with Steven Holl on ArchDaily today. It speaks to this issue. He talks about being idealistic in every project we do.

    • Just got done watching it. What a different sentiment than the interview with Eisenman! If only we could all get in touch with our inner Starchitect and maintain that level of dedication to our work. Thanks Lee!

  3. I got your article trough Lee’s blog, but I did not see the movie, I will look for it.
    But I am not with you! Stop complaining! What makes you not to bid even lower and design the best building in the world? “Ooooh! We are too good so we have to be expensive!”. This is ……
    Can you design a 50% more cost-effective building for a fee 300% higher? NO. Do you cherish the Architecture? What stops you make great designs for less money?
    You know what the problem is? If we are continuing to say: “I provide quality, so I am expensive” is the same with “If you don’t pay me as much as i want, I will provide you poor design.”
    We love the free market, but only if the free market loves us back! If the market is high, we just love it! We get the cash, design a lot, we are happy! If the market is down, our services are underestimated! You know what? They are not underestimated, they are not needed anymore!
    We contributed to the largest bubble ever. Worldwide! If my English didn’t betrayed me, I am from Romania. We were more and more eager to design more, larger, useful! We were part of it, we encouraged it, we supported the bubble!
    Now we are paying the price. We might be not important as the banks are to be bailout by our governments.
    I think we should study the mirror and try to figure out what we can do, what we do and how we can improve ourselves. We might be able to find out new resources to design more cost-effective, better and faster. We should reinvent the architecture starting from this crisis’s learning. Or we are doomed to just sit and wait for the new bubble.

    • Octavian,
      First, I appreciate your comments and I agree with your premise that we, architects, contributed to the waste and abuse that has been so prevalent in society for so long. But unfortunately you’ve missed the mark on my point. This is not about money. This is not about glitsy prestige, or power, or influence or Starchitect-dome. This is about architecture and architects cheapening the profession by the kind of backbiting tactics you see in big business.
      Further than that this is about the profession having turned its back on itself. Architects no longer seem to help each other, but instead try to outdo one another. And in my opinion that only works to devalue architecture. It’s a disservice to our clients and it’s a disservice to future generations of architects coming up through the ranks.
      Architecture was once a proud and noble profession. I know that sounds hockey, but I still believe it. We truly were master builders and we commanded a great deal of respect from others in the industry. There was a sense of fostering the next generation, a duty to pass something on of value. Today that is gone. Today we’re in a hoarding mentality. Those few architects lucky enough to have created a little pile for themselves are guarding it at all costs. They see it as a commodity to trade for cash. I think that’s a little disgusting.
      My point is that architects should be pooling together in order to stave off exactly what you rail against in your comments. The clients of the world, big and small, have spent so much time chasing the fast buck, and we’ve enabled them along the way don’t get me wrong, that we are left with a bloated stock of buildings that does not respond in any way to their environments, has little value once it’s intended function has run it’s course and is nearly un-adaptable to future needs.
      When architects step up to pool together once again as professionals then we, as a group, can affect the change that is needed. It’s not to make more money, it’s to make better buildings, to better serve our clients and to foster a new generation of architects with a profound respect and love for their profession.

      • Your response is even better than mine on my blog. This attitude is becoming more prevalent as I read about and discuss architecture elsewhere. It’s not healthy and I think we partly to blame.

  4. Remember, my country had a communist government, where the buildings were not made for profit, but for the 5-years plans (another 100.000 residential units, another 150 schools, another 20 hospitals, another 100 administrative buildings). The result was that the quality of both the buildings and their design was more and more poor. In the late 80’s, the constructors couldn’t make a straight plastered surface anymore.
    The profit, either you believe it or not, provided more and more quality buildings. It was a problem that we, the architects, were not prepared to provide at least reasonable quality designs, because of the lack of experience during the 50’s to 80’s! The last 20 years of architecture market experience allowed to more and more architects design better and better! The cost it was another stock of poor design buildings.
    The architecture is not an art. The architecture is too much economy to be just an art. We can’t design the way VanGogh painted, without selling.
    We can get the respect you want for us, providing cutting edge and cost effective design. We can’t continue to criticize our clients for their money oriented set of values, being upset on the other hand that our services are not financially well rewarded. This way we are just hypocrites!
    The respect and the prestige can’t be demanded, but earned!
    I am not bothered by the individualism of our profession, because when it is needed we always get and provide help from and to our colleagues. Luckily the architecture is a team profession, and we need each other.

    • Octavian,
      I think you’re still misunderstanding my point, as you’re actually arguing with me rather than against me. Perhaps this is a mistranslation due to a language barrier. I’m not sure. In any event, you bring up an interesting parallel between your communist country and my democratic one. In both instances greed and corruption have ruined our architecture and architects have been complacent and complicit in this decline. We continue to fight and prostitute ourselves to the lowest bidder, taking on projects of increasing liability where we are unable to provide a level of service that our projects require simply because the proper fee is not there. Greed has permeated our culture no different than your country.
      What you have to understand here is that I am arguing against this. I am arguing for an end to the individualism of our profession in favor of an increase in overall building quality. Because our system, as is, is failing us. We need to move in a more cooperative direction otherwise things will continue to decline and our fees will continue to decrease until we are simply unable to serve our clients.

      • Hi Jeremiah!
        There is no misunderstanding.
        You say that:
        1. The clients’ greed is dangerous.
        2. Our (architects) greed means lack of integrity. You understand by the architects’ greed the habit to bid lower than “integrity” architects.
        My point is:
        1. If you, as an integrity (righteous) architect can’t design because the architects lacking integrity get all the contracts on the market because of their lower fees, you can beat them with their own weapons. You can bid lower than those guys, then provide the best design ever. Then the market is yours because you will demonstrate that you make amazing design, cost-efficient buildings, green and no one else can design as great as you do.
        2. “Integrity” architects. Do they really provide better design? Did they or did they not encourage the last years construction bubble? Is it the integrity a matter of money? Is it?
        3. I believe in the free market. I believe in it even when the free market makes lack of new projects. I believe it is the only way that our economical fall can be passed over. The free market makes the prices of a service (like architect’s service) being high or low as the demand for this service is high or low. This is not prostitution! What you say is an agreement between architects to keep our fees at high levels. This is illegal in most of the countries.

        We have to understand that the architecture as an occupation is relatively new. People can build houses without architects! The law in many countries, including mine and yours ask for an architect projects no matter what. This is monopoly by law, it is an artificial monopoly on the market. Any regulation of a market sets basically a monopoly.
        The architects became to flourish as they designed more and more beautiful buildings, better than the masons and carpenters. They became architects with no architecture schools, and stamps on their papers. Even Le Corbusier practiced architecture without a proper license. In our time he couldn’t practice at all! It was a market with no regulations, giving us back amazing pieces of architecture and architecture theory to sleep over it almost 100 years!
        I argue against you because I don’t see any reason not to let the free market being what it is: a natural regulatory organism of all our economical life. And the architecture is a part of the economical life more than an artistic behavior.

        The Romanian Order of Architects tried a decade ago to set minimal fees for architects. They wanted us to charge for the smallest house we design about 5500 $ (You have to know that a decade ago the GDP per capita was only about 5000 $). I fought against this absurd claim. Now those fees are considered just a guide and not a must. The same time, in Romania ALL the construction projects must be signed

        PS My country WAS a communist one. It is a democratic one and maybe one of the most liberal country in Europe (which is more and more a socialist bureaucracy).
        PPS. Yes, Lee, our work lasts more than we do. But it is not all of our work. The time is bigger than everything. The oldest buildings in the world are just about a few hundreds of years, only a couple of them are 2000 years old. Not even our work is meant to last forever. And I am not saying about disasters, but even the people demolished the old buildings, building new buildings on the old sites. This is nor good or bad.

      • Octavian,
        I can tell this won’t end anytime soon, but that’s awesome! You’ve hit a couple of chords with your latest comment, so I’ll go one by one.
        your points:
        1 – If the free market dictates that architects are no longer “required” because some jack-wagon contractor can “design” the house you want or the commercial office tower for pennies on the dollar, is that ok by you? It’s certainly not ok by me. This will only lead to destruction and chaos. What if, further, the free market decides that engineers and consultants are no longer “required” on construction projects? What if any Tom, Dick or Stanley could just go out and build a multi-million dollar structure with no oversight, no credentials, etc? That’s when people start to DIE. Plain and simple. Go read Lee’s latest post about health safety and welfare.
        2 – Does an architect with integrity who takes pride in his work and the vision of his clients produce better work? You bet your ass we do. Because we take on the mantel of design. We take it upon ourselves to design and construct that which will BENEFIT society rather than tear it down. It is those, what I call, “rubber stamp” architects that encouraged the “bubble” by cranking out substandard buildings left and right with a care only for how big a fee they were getting.
        3 – The free market is not a cure-all. A free market has to be met with sound, just regulations that attempt to ensure a level playing field for all involved. You point out that price fixing is illegal in most countries. It’s also illegal in the US. But then why do insurance companies get to fix their rates based on what others are offering? Mechanics even have a handy book that tells them exactly how much time to bill for a certain job type which is standard in their industry. So even if something takes ten minutes to fix, they are billing for maybe 2 hours of time. Yet no one is up in arms over there. But if architects want to get together to decide what are reasonable fees for particular building types or services, it’s illegal and an outrage. The double standard is alive and well it seems.
        Lastly you state that architecture as a profession is relatively new. Um….have you never taken a course in Architectural History? Imhotep was the first architect in recorded history. And that was some several THOUSAND years ago. Architecture is not a new profession. It is an age old profession stretching back to the beginning of recorded history and will continue to stretch forward long after our childrens’ children have gone to dust. And it is an honorable profession that deserves to be fought for and preserved. There is a level of respect that architects should demand and a level of responsibility that we must shoulder as a result. Otherwise, you’re right, we are useless.

  5. So when did we start believing that having integrity, pushing architecture forward, seeing architecture as more than a temporary shelter for its owner and being responsible to our clients become mutually exclusive concepts? No one advocating this position is arguing to be selfish, irresponsible narcissists that take our clients money and use it for our own gain. Gosh, this is getting so annoying that this simple point can’t be understood. We are only here a short time, but architecture ought to live longer than us. We are not trying to shine the spot light on us necessarily, we are advocating for the present as well as the future. It’s not hard to grasp.

    • Thank you Lee. My sentiments exactly. While he’s still missing the point and even arguing my point, to a degree, he brings up an interesting point about his own country’s communist rule which I want to address in detail a little later. Cheers!

  6. 1. I was just argumentative. I think that architects and engineers should have proper academical training to design buildings. I was saying that our services are no longer required as much as 3-4-5 years ago. But I think that for some small houses less than a certain surface, people should be able just to build them. As the villagers did it thousands of years. Now, in my country they are required to hire an architect. If I have to take such a contract my firm costs will be more than 1500-2000$ which in my opinion will be a charge too high for such projects. So I think that contractors should be able to build such houses with no architect project at all or with just a verification of an architect. I was not talking about 1.000.000 $ projects, not even 100.000$.

    2. Now it is you who are argumentative and not demonstrative. My question remains: A more expensive architect designs better than a cheaper architect? Are his buildings more beautiful, more functional and less expensive? The answer is that sometimes he designs better, sometimes he designs worst. My point is that not the fees are the standard of a good architect, but his commitment, his talent, his expertise, his word: the quality of his work. Any architect is free to sell his services as low or high he wants to, no matter another person think! An architect can work even with no fee at all, why not? I don’t see any problem if an architect (especially a young one) will design 1-2 free buildings, just to show how good he is. This might be considered as a dumping policy, but I would like to see young architects’ buildings. So let me rephrase. Is a higher fee a guaranty for better design?

    3. I was talking about double standards too. Mechanical, structural engineers they also charge the architects according the market level. I never let them bill me on a hourly fee, but for the whole project. I bill my clients not related by the hours I spend designing, but for the whole project. Ha ha… even my lawyers bill me based on the tasks, not on hours spent to prepare my case. I have little comments regarding the insurance companies as the insurance is not required in my country. I advocate to start a system based on insurances of architects and engineers in my country too.
    I am not so sure if regulations of a market are really a good thing. In Europe basically we can know the name of the cow that died for our cheeseburger. Is that helpful? Even the stray dogs have some yellow labels in their years, and they made some kind of law regarding the proper sizes of the cucumbers. Helpful?
    Too much regulations kill the free entrepreneurship. I don’t think that regulations could really prevent the banks to invent the sub-primes. People can be very inventive when their greed works for them. Everything that your compatriots did during the time, they did because they had the free market and the liberty. Almost everything built outside a free market seems to be doomed. The dictatorship is nothing than the ultimate regulation system and they all tend to fail.

    Yes! LICENSED architects are relatively new in this world. Imhotep had no license at all. The same is for Vitruvius, Bruneleschi, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Palladio….and Le Corbusier. They were not rubber stamp architects! No stamp at all! It is now when an university diploma makes us architects, and the registration with some organization will allow us to use a rubber stamp.

    @ Lee: Did we start to consider client respect and integrity as antagonism? I don’t, do you? I was just pointing that our problem are not the architects that work for the lower fees and that a high fee doesn’t guaranty a quality design.
    You see, Jeremiah? I didn’t say anything about poor quality design or about unsafe buildings. You said. And the same equations remain: lower fees = poor design. No stamp= poor design. I bet that there are architects all over the world that can design amazing buildings for just 1$/project!
    I met challenging projects that I would pay to get. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t pay just to design those buildings.

  7. Great thoughts here. I’m currently reading the Fountainhead (about 1/3 through), and I have so many pages tagged for quotes I want to remember. Sometimes I’ll even just start shouting ‘yes! exactly!’ when Roark tries to explain architecture and integrity of design to his clients. I did some contract design work during my unemployment, and I experienced first hand the pressure to lower fees and just ‘get the job’ in tandem with the client trying to force us to adapt our design to his (awful) drawings. Luckily, we stood our ground for integrity’s sake, but we lost the project. There are too many out there who either don’t care or are unaware of what integrity is, and specifically how it relates to design. I would say that perhaps 10% of each graduating class from architecture truly understands integrity in design, and maybe half of them stand up for it at all costs. That means only 5% of us out there are fighting for it – definitely an uphill battle. Thanks for bringing it up, making people aware, and fighting the good fight! 🙂

  8. Hey thanks all for the thought-prompting. I’m no architect, but I’m building a life. Does that count?

  9. Great article and very engaging dialogue… There are so many points to comment on, but the main topic of the original post, architectural integrity, is something that the profession needs to be addressing, and soon- for all the reasons noted above, so thanks for posting this piece. The system is entrenched in an unsustainable pattern, and a conscientious effort is required to overcome these problems. That said, the community of architects discussing these issues is headed in that direction, and in spite of the hardships we’re all facing right now, it’s an attitude that I find refreshing and reinvigorating, something that cannot be underestimated when discussing a profession based on creativity and innovation.
    Yes, we’re all facing the dilemma of maintaining our integrity and paying the mortgage, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other if we can come together and move towards a more collaborative and supportive professional environment. Your point about apathy, Jeremiah, is particularly crucial in this regard, as we need to be enthusiastic and take pride in what we’re doing to create good work. I have found in the few years since starting our firm, it is indeed possible to convince clients of the value of quality design, without having to give it away. It’s not easy, but taking that extra time to communicate our value through hard work, communication, and by providing creative and cost-effective designs, is priceless.
    We cannot work for free; that’s just a fact. Therefore, we’ve had to cut back on other things in order to maintain this type of practice. Still, I see this period as time spent building our firm, sacrificing a little, and ultimately finding a way to achieve positive results for all team members, and ultimately, help bolster the profession at large.
    Besides, I’ve found that those clients who want a full set of construction documents for a few thousand dollars probably aren’t the ones you’ll want to work with anyway…

    • Lauren, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving your comments. It has been so very encouraging to hear the same sentiments from so many of my peers that architecture, as a profession, is indeed in some very real trouble. And by our own hand as well. Hearing so many out there that share my views, see a better way forward and are willing to step out and help make it happen is so amazing.
      Thanks again. And keep up the good work. I love your site! 🙂

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