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What kind of Architect are you?

I talk with a lot of architects, interns, and people who studied architecture but went in different and/or non-traditional directions. There is a particular type of architect that comes up again and again in these conversations. A prototypical architect that we all seem to measure ourselves against: the Natural Architect. But that’s not the right term (we’ll get to that in a moment). Read the comments of my previous posts asking the question “What kind of Architect are you?” There’s a combination of derision, awe, jealous, confusion, and frustration regarding this type. Whatever your feelings, it seems like this one type of architect is the dominant persona of our profession. It’s the one we see in books, TV and movies. It’s Ted Mosby, Marshall Darling, and Howard Roark. It also happens to fit the bill for most of the famous starchitects, maybe. I have come to the conclusion that this type of architect is the Artist-Architect, and it is no better (or worse) than any other type of architect. It just happens to get the most press and is the easiest for the public to understand.

It saddens me to hear young interns and architects feel disconnected from this type, and as a result dejected about their future in the profession. They often feel like lesser creatures because they aren’t part of this wondrous type. This is wrong. This is hurting our profession. We need to understand that the Artist-Architect is just one of the three primary types of Architect, of Capital A Architects. And that for the health of our profession we need to value all the voices from this trio.

The Artist-Architect is just one of three Major Ideals

Primary Archetypes

In some ways the three primary archetypes are analogous to Vitruvius’s three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solid, useful, beautiful). But we are not talking about the buildings, we’re interested in the people. So the better analogy is mind, body, and soul. That might feel a little too esoteric and unmodern, but isn’t the intersection of those three what architects provide? The three archetypes aim to get at those intrinsic qualities of different Architects, to the core of our overriding motivators. The archetypes are about raising awareness and helping us understand how we each contribute to the conversation of Architecture. It’s not about who’s a good designer, listener, or collaborator. Or who’s the ideal boss or employee. Each archetype can be great to work with. Or a horror. We’ll explore that later.

Philosopher-Architect: (MIND) the architect who cares more about the concepts and ideas than the execution via artistry or built form. We all have our personal favorite (or hated) theorists who clearly fall into this category. Their overriding quest is to understand “Why will it be built?”

Builder-Architect: (BODY) the architect who wants to build the projects with his hands, who wants to understand how it goes together. They find the true value in the act of building, whether directly or via proxy of documentation. The Rural Studio and Ghost Architectural Laboratory (well 1 through 12) are great examples of this path. So are architects focused on detailing and production. Their primary need is to understand “How could it be built?”

Artist-Architect: (SOUL) the architect who loves the act of designing through the media of our trade—whether pencil on trace, scale models, or digitally. I talked about them here. And I tried to understand them more here. I’ll be honest, on a personal level they are the ones I understand least. Their major question for architecture is “What should be built?”

The nostalgia for the Master Builder is that by definition he was all three, a (perfect) balance of each archetype. That feels spot on perfect. And that also points to why we all feel some inadequacy as architects. Who among us is a perfect blend of Artist, Builder, and Philosopher? Maybe that is why we all revere Frank Lloyd Wright, albeit in our own unique fashion. However, beyond declaring that an architect must navigate between these three poles (and deal with constantly failing to be the ideal combination), the tripartite of Artist/Builder/Philosopher feels hollow. It is missing something. Rarely is an architect one of these three ideals. Instead we are imperfect mixtures. We have inclinations that put us closer to the midpoints, or secondary archetypes, rather than the corners.

What are the Philosopher-Artist, the Artist-Builder, and the Builder-Philosopher?

Secondary Archetypes

 

Poet-Architect: The midpoint between Philosopher and Artist. Their art serves a higher purpose. These are the architects who might talk about frozen music, Feng Shui, etc.

Artisan-Architect: The midpoint between Artist and Builder. Their art is expressed through the craft of their works, both the architectural production and the final built work.

Pragmatist-Architect: The midpoint between Builder and Philosopher. These architects have a strong theoretical compass but it is controlled by their realism. This might manifest as a focus on sustainability, civic and code issues, BIM protocols, etc.

My hunch is that the people in our profession making the most noise right now are the Artisans and the Pragmatists: design-build types, parametricists, BIM managers, and sustainability gurus. The ones getting the most press are the Artists and Poets: starchitects and proto-starchitects. The least understood are the Philosophers: teachers, theorists, dreamers, and those who are intentionally impractical. And the ones given daily inferiority complexes because they are told what they do isn’t as important as the Artists are the Builders: all the wonderful architects who actually shepherd projects from Schematic Design through Construction Administration.

Anyone on these charts can be a designer. Any of these types can be concerned with the sensory experiences of Architecture. Sight, sound, touch, etc. for the direct experiential encounter. Any can be concerned with statements like: I am in this building, I feel this. I experience that. This is pleasing. That is scary. Each type just filters those issues differently. Each ranks design criteria, and defines what good design is, differently. But the pressures from the industry convince many that the role of designer and the decider of what is good architecture is the purview of only the bottom left corner, of the Artist. We’ll investigate that more in future posts. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on that? Can anyone say “Guest Post????”

Congratulations. You just developed a new thing.

It’s round and when you spin it about an axle in the center it can be used to roll things attached to it.

Sure the mind/body/soul tripartite of philosopher/builder/artist isn’t anything earth shattering. But as a foil for understanding what kind of architect you are, it should create some vertigo. Think about it. Place yourself on this continuum. How does this help you understand some of your experiences with other architects, and clients? Where do you fall. Where are you heading? And where did you come from? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’ll focus on individual architects in the next post; I’ll talk about my personal journey and hopefully use that to illustrate some bigger concepts about career growth. After that, I’ll do another post that looks at how placing individuals of a firm all on the same graph reveals some interesting trends. After that maybe some thoughts on how this all effects Generation Y? Who knows. I’m not there yet.

 

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Comments

  • March 14, 2013
    reply

    This is a very cool post.

  • March 14, 2013
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    I hope that this very interesting monologue will evolve into a widespread dialogue and become one of the discussions to help us figure out the best course for the future of the profession. The issues that you raise have long driven the way that individual architects think of themselves and how others think of us as we progress through our lives.

    Finding a framework to understand why and how we do what we do is a worthwhile goal. Can a framework help us to carry on a discussion that reaches into the internal perception of individual architects? Perhaps by reconciling our internal monologues about what kind of an architect we are, with the external view fostered by others, we can begin to value the diversity that characterizes the profession.

    There is a lot of talk about integration and collaboration. There seems to be a consensus that both of these are good things and necessary in the world of tomorrow. Can one truly embrace either of these if one’s internal and external personae are at odds? It seems that too often we foster a passive, albeit cooperative relationship between divergent archetypes. Shouldn’t we be rewarding for actively working with those of divergent views(archetypes) to create a better, more resilient and sustainable world for our children? Isn’t that what integration and collaboration are trying to achieve?

    • April 16, 2013
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      I’m not too sure where I fit. Most of my work lies at the intersection of public policy, public health and human habitat – so I’m involved in a broad array of work including regulatory policy as well as building design, BIM, 3D laser scanning and so on at the more “traditional” architect’s end of the career spectrum.

      I’ve had a unique career thus far working in public health (UK National Health Service, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and the Medicare/Medicaid programs), architectural practice (Perkins & Will) and – for many years – the management consulting profession dealing with corporate strategy, operations and technology (A.T. Kearney).

      Its only been in more recent years that I’ve pulled my various “threads” together on projects that seek to re-shape/re-define human habitat because it is measurably central to economy, energy, community and well being.

      So, when I’m asked what kind of architect I am, I don’t have (yet!) a slick sound-bite of an answer……

  • March 14, 2013
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    Dave Olufs

    Nice post… Darn, now I have to think

    I added to your diagrams with lines from the corners to the center-point of the opposite line… the intersecting point is the amalgamation of your concept. But designers tend to float around the middle tending to one point or side per your post.

    I certainly hover near the builder point but have worked often with the artist and philosopher. My attempt is to replicate their vision, philosophical concept, and/or artistry but make it build-able. Early on in my career, I’d discuss the rational for making it build-able–it was never heard or considered. Now I just make it work and let them garner the accolades. Working with this way, I think I float between middle to the builder.

  • March 16, 2013
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    I believe it is possible for one to be the Artisan and the Pragmatist at once or at different times. I have my moments of what, why and how it should it be built especially when working with an indecisive client in this economy.

  • March 17, 2013
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    This is a great post Jared. Well done!

  • March 18, 2013
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    nasirhotak

    Hummm… It seem that i am Builder-Architect, thanks Jared Banks from your kindly and useful article.

  • March 18, 2013
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    Valerie

    I am most definitely on the Builder-Pragmatist side… I always say I should’ve been an engineer because of this but architecture just seemed more interesting and comprehensive. I love art and design, I am definitely interested in how it is ‘constructed/made’…. In the past few years, with the economy in turmoil, it seems like everyone is looking for the “Artist” in their advertising and I have been wondering, where does someone like me fit in? Do I even belong in this profession anymore? What am I? This has helped me to feel included in the paradigm.Thank you.*
    *That being said, I am looking forward to taking up some sketching clases this summer, to reconnect with my ‘artistic’ side

  • March 18, 2013
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    Nawid Royaee

    Very interesting.

  • March 21, 2013
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    Penny Wright

    Interesting thoughts. I have spent the bulk of my architectural career in Construction Administration. Many architects do not consider those of us who concentrate on this phase of the project to be “real” architects. But they are so wrong. I get to shepherd a concept and design into real physical space. I get to help users get the facility that will enable them to promote their mission – whatever that might be: work, play, healing etc. and I get to design – “God is in the details” after all. I get to constantly learn new materials, new ways of building and manageing and working. What could be better?

    • April 20, 2013
      reply

      Penny:
      Your note struck a chord with me. Your being able to see through a great deal of very detailed things IS, in my view, what being an architect is about. Its isn’t about being some kind of fashionista superstar who doesn’t actually know – or care – about how beings really need to work on the many dimensions they are evaluated.

      In the work I do, which includes teaching, I run into schools of architecture where faculty (full-time and adjunct) are either promoting their own practices using the school as a convenient vehicle or they engage in theoretical claptrap that no-one can understand, least of all prospective clients. What’s the results of this? Seems to me that the responsibility of architects is being constantly eroded by other players pushing their way on stage and claiming that it is they, not architects, who have the client’s interests at heart, that they have a proper business and technical focus and that architects should be simply “designers”, the results of which others have to make work.

      This dreadful state of affairs isn’t being helped much by universities who give students the impression that architecture has no need for science, math and engineering. It seems to me that the Schools of Architecture that are beginning (at long last) to merge Engineering (civil, mechanical, structural) and Architecture are the ones from which clients, students and the profession will benefit the greatest.

      Design is all about getting the details right. Imagine what an iPad would look like and function like if Jonathan Ive treated its design like some architects treat attention to detail and functionality. If the average home builder designed and built an iPad the thing would probably weigh 30 lbs, have badly-fitting crown molding around the edges and chromed plastic knobs that broke after one or two uses.

      No wonder the likes of Bob Vila and the Home and Garden TV talking Heads are able to get away with constantly telling the public that they have no need for architects.

  • April 2, 2013
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    P.R.S. Sivakumar

    Really a very good conversation.

  • April 20, 2013
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    Chad Conrad

    Jared
    Great post! Interesting to think that we are bundled into these differing types that creates creative modes that frame our effort and ideas. Makes one really think about what drives them to their final design ideals and through put.

    Keep up the great work!

    Chad

  • April 22, 2013
    reply

    I’m not too sure where I fit. Most of my work lies at the intersection of public policy, public health and human habitat – so I’m involved in a broad array of work including regulatory policy as well as building design, BIM, 3D laser scanning and so on at the more “traditional” architect’s end of the career spectrum.

    I’ve had a unique career thus far working in public health (UK National Health Service, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and the Medicare/Medicaid programs), architectural practice (Perkins & Will) and – for many years – the management consulting profession dealing with corporate strategy, operations and technology (A.T. Kearney).

    Its only been in more recent years that I’ve pulled my various “threads” together on projects that seek to re-shape/re-define human habitat because it is measurably central to economy, energy, community and well being.

    So, when I’m asked what kind of architect I am, I don’t have (yet!) a slick sound-bite of an answer……

  • April 29, 2013
    reply

    A Nolan Chart for architecture — fabulous!

    No doubt, one could “plot” architecture critics and writers, too, within this framework.

  • November 18, 2013
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    StephenK

    Really enjoyed your article. Thanks Jared. Will share this to all our architectural students.

  • April 11, 2014
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    Hello, sorry because my english isn’t perfect but I think I can be though. Congratulations for the post from Jalisco, México. I’m a junior architect, before to read this article I used to think in another way. Really I didn’t know there were many types of architects, instead I used to think in a master architect like a mixure of types, like perfect, non-perfect artist. And I think to be like artisan type of architect. I tell you again congratulations, this was Javier García aarchitect from México, my facebook: https://www.facebook.com/arquitecto.javiergarcia.

  • April 27, 2014
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    Natalie Lange

    This post is exactly what I needed to stumble across just as I’m about to start my thesis year. Would you mind listing a few architects who fall in each category (or direct me to where you’ve already done so)? I’m the artisan kind, and suspect some of the phenomenological architects are too, but I’m far from sure on that one.

  • July 13, 2014
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    Paul Brown

    Excellent posts. This is another one….

  • October 15, 2014
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    Keith

    What about the idiot, (like me) who thinks he fits all catorgories at least partially, and therefore works alone trying to do everything himself, even fix the car.

      • October 15, 2014

        Keith

        I’m afraid it’s more trouble than genius.
        I was taught that a successful practice will require three types of person, –
        Design, Technology and Administration, and that it may be fairly common to find that one person can handle 2 of the aspects, it is very rare to find someone proficient in all 3 (so my admin suffers).
        I have however learned from experience that there is a fourth character you need in a practice, and that is the one who goes to the pub, country club, plays golf, whatever it takes to bring in the work.

  • February 26, 2015
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    Philip Impey

    Depends on the client really- bit of a chameleon really, because some clients require one sort of architect, another a different type. I’m a man for all seasons- or should that be “person for all seasons” to be perfectly PC.

  • May 6, 2016
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    sharanya

    Hey I enjoyed reading and immediately plotted myself! As a small firm in India doing residential and school projects …. Seems like here its more about something outside the triangle/ a second layer of triangle if you please where theres client needs, client vision and budget which seems to guide and ultimately mutate my designs.

  • February 17, 2017
    reply

    New Zealand

    What if this type of architect only comes around Once in a blue moon and by this I mean the “master architect” you refer to, and possesses all of traits natually as if it’s built in his DNA? What if i I said I am this person whos name shall be that known, yet little or much known of him for reasons of not fame but self enlightenment ? You would, and any other person reading this would, probably be having a laugh at my expense. However I want you to ponder over this for a moment. What if I said that the TRUE “artist” is the “master” so maybe reference as T.A. Architect and here is why. A true artist, in my opinion only, and some may agree, is the artist that can not only just draw, but can build as if he was a builder because he sees building as just a another medium of art to him? Philosophy goes hand in hand with the true artist because to him philosophy is a art form and It’s in the true artists chain of thoughts. What if this true artist architect see everything as a art form, no matter what medium and that’s why he can do anything? He is a perfectionist at what ever he does and can do anything without an explanation to why or how he became to be like this, he doesn’t know any different as It’s not something that can be taught or learnt, It’s a gift I guess is the only way I could explain it, maybe given or handed to from god / gods and the LAST TRUE ARTIST ARCHITECTS were those who designed the pyramids???? Just food for thought.

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