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

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?


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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