Architect’s Dilemma

There are a few things that affect architects decisions and I would like to touch on those things in order to help potential clients get the most from their architect.



First, there is our dilemma. It is fundamental to all architects and can change your perception of them, and this is what you think their capabilities are based on what they present you as their experience. Certainly one can understand that architect’s are approached by a variety of clients who have particular needs and priorities, and that in almost all cases architects will take on those particular jobs for their scheduled project time. I being doubtful that any architect would turn down most commissions. Thus, when they have completed a project it stands as a representation of their work. You as a potential client will look at their past jobs to assess whether they are the architect for you. As an example, say an architect has had 3 past project, one a warehouse, another a house addition and the third a strip mall. Those projects aren’t exactly going to instill confidence in someone who wants a mansion built.

So an architect could create some examples of what they are capable of, produce renderings, elevations, plans and even perhaps an animation to represent their capabilities. Unfortunately for the architect that process could take from a month to several months. You see, architecture is not like the other arts where the investment to produce something is typically easily accomplished, except in the case of bronze sculptures or other types of sculpture. A musician, an artist, a fashion designer needs little time, money and effort, relatively speaking, compared to an architect to produce examples of their capabilities, and I have produced art, music and sculpture so know from experience. This is why the vast majority let their past projects represent their capabilities hoping to convince potential clients of their skill in designing in any situation. I, myself, am in this category and am hoping to have the time in the near future to create some speculative works to represent the type of projects I am not only capable of but hope to get in the future.

In this respect, one only needs to look at a wide variety of building types the Architect presents to understand that it is not about experience on a particular program type, but the cognitive ability to work out all the components on a project to its best potential that marks what makes a great Architect.  Another way to judge is represented by the type of clients the Architect has, those representing people who have themselves assessed the capabilities of the Architect and found them to be acceptable, or perhaps more directly to read reviews of the professional.

There’s only one firm I know of that put themselves ‘out there’ with a series of made up projects to gather new clients and they succeeded very well: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. Others have also made efforts but not in such a direct marketing the way KPF has, like Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey. The latter few not only did speculative works but published their works to gather further recognition, especially within the architectural world.

Yet another way to break out of the ‘project built only portfolio’ is to do competitions. But competitions can be tricky in that if you don’t win there’s nothing gained and a lot of time and effort lost. Because the stakes are so high, in terms of time/effort, many schemes will pander to the requirements of a competition program to the point of losing any spark of design excellence. Also, all too often competition winner either doesn’t understand the parameters of the competition rules of just ignores them, while all other entries follow the constraints of the rules to the letter assuming they’ll be disqualified if they ignore them, as in the case of the winning scheme of the World Trade Center Memorial where the winner actually ignored or didn’t understand all the buildings that were supposed to be placed around the memorial area. By ignoring the buildings the winner was able to use all the space they needed to create the best solution, while, as mentioned all other entries respected the judges rules to keep those buildings as part of the Memorial composition.

Regarding competitions though an unknown does have the potential of achieving public recognition and fame which can catapult their career and make the above dilemma disappear.

There is another factor that affects who the public generally chooses as their architect, and that is the architect’s wealth and how it influences client’s choices. You see, if an architect is wealthy, they can 1) open an office and hire people immediately to start generating promotional material to seek clients, 2) work on publications, 3) enter competitions, 4) travel to speak at universities, once they’ve published something worthy of attention, 5) purchases marketing materials and publicists to actively seek out new clients…

Because of this clients are choosing architects based partly on how wealthy they are, not necessarily based on how qualified they are. This isn’t really the client’s fault, they’re just looking at what architects are available to do their particular job, but, in my opinion it is partly to blame for such limited variety of architects to choose from, because either a client chooses an architect who is going to do their thing no matter what the project (i.e. has an expression they apply to every program, because it is their signature design) or they hire lesser known architects who are desperately competing for work and will pander their designs to any wind that blows towards them (i.e. the make too many compromises that affect the quality of the design because they only care about the bottom line: getting paid).

So, where am I at this stage in my career? I’m about to generate some speculative works to represent who I feel I am as an Architect. They will include townhouses, resort/hotels, commercial and office buildings, and a couple of museums because they offer an opportunity at creative solutions of openness. I will also enter a good competition if I can find one, with the hope that I can ignore enough of the rules to keep my eye on presenting the best solution, and spend enough time on that competition so as to develop it enough to become a very convincing design to be considered a winner. I will also continue to write about architecture, because in the end writing is as easy as pro ducting a painting. It is a representation of how I think, and thus could be applied by a potential client, at least partially, to reflect on my competence. Architecture is an amazing profession that I love. I think in 3D all the time, not only reflecting on what was built but how new concepts can be built to maintain themselves. It’s okay to present something radical and new, but in my mind not okay if the proposal can not maintain itself. And, less than buying a lot and building my designs as Philip Johnson did while a student at Harvard University and then inviting his professors to a party to review his ‘thesis’, something I’m really not in a position to do, I will have to continue to produce virtual examples until I am recognized as a significant alternative to what is being represented as ‘Architect’ in the world today. Louis Kahn did it, and Frank Lloyd Wright did it twice, I can also do it now that I’m in a better financial position.

Finally there are financial considerations, that most architecture firms that are available to the public were launched not by those who have the most talent, but those who are financially able to rent space, hire staff and support that staff at the beginning and through and slow periods. Further, there is an inherent need for being social, to connect with those who may need services in the future, keeping your name in their mind the way Coke-a-Cola or McDonalds does with all their advertising, requiring even more money for $1000 dinners, memberships to golf clubs, resorts, and other society clubs and events.  Ironically this means the person one puts their trust in might be very good socially, but is less than the sharpest pencil when it comes to the making of Architecture.

Architecture is more than just creating something that looks good or different, which appears to be a place we are at this moment in time as most firms borrow a trending element or exploit the potential of a new material, resulting in waves after waves of design uniformity. That it is an amalgamation of so many interwoven aspects to produce a single unified whole that itself is inspiring and can reflect upon everyone’s conscience in a positive way, and as such deserves the quantitative and qualitative respect of both our architectural profession and the public.  In this respect, the term Architect has been watered down, where home shows give the impression that anyone can design a home, or building, and that which is good spans the gamut from a large elephant to ‘it’s a spiral so it must be good.’

It has never been acceptable in my mind for a software engineer to call themselves an IT Architect, or for any other profession to use the term Architect, yet my own profession doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. Why? Because many, and certainly not all, architects are panderers seeking any form of recognition. This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t a small pool of clients in the world that understand and respect Architects, it’s that the vast majority of Americans and others don’t understand the value of an Architect, and thus we are competing for work from Contractors and Engineers because ‘they’ say they can design their project. Yes they can, but the owner will be left with a lot of bogus they bought and fully don’t understand. Some clients might even be proud of their bogus filled project, at least for some time, especially if it’s really big or expensive (Russian gaudy design comes to mind when one thinks of expensive, or, perhaps ‘rapper’s mansions’, actor mansions, or other expensive and large boxes.

And so comes my conclusion, that it is the public that forms the quality of architects we have and how they behave. Architects, who do work for free because they are desperate for work, because clients demand it or just don’t pay, leave architects begging for more. It’s a fundamental lack of respect from the public, which fundamentally reflects a lack of general education. Many only see architects as a means to submit drawings to attain a work permit, something that is required in order to make a building, reflecting most developers goals to only achieve something they can make money from which comprises of only one of the things a project should accomplish. This, I have found, isn’t true for corporations who understand that a quality building design can reflect on their corporate image and thus, in itself, be part of their corporate marketing strategy, or how better designed buildings result in longer leases and a financially successful property, but for other developer and architect types the sad truth is revealed. Until business people, home owners, developers understand that hiring an architect is hiring a professional who should be respected as much as a doctor, musician, or sports personality, that we ‘architects’ will be continued to be considered ‘of weak personality’ and be brushed off, not paid, and exploited, as mentioned, due in part to our own pandering tendencies.


So what can clients do to choose the right Architect?  Look at their past examples keeping in mind those are solutions for a particular program, not your program or needs.  With this in mind, ask yourself did they achieve a balanced scheme, one where there is a focus balanced with background (that can reinforce a focal point but not cost as much to achieve).  Also, find out what the budget was and ask yourself is it reasonable or is it excessively high.  If what you’re looking at in juxtaposition to a budget that seems high might reflect that they’re spending money on things, like structure, that can’t be seen and thus reflect on their ability to produce a quality design without skipping on working all the components out, i.e. all design solutions must consider structure just as our own bodies have a skeleton, if out of place it will cost more to ‘make it work’ and is thus not a harmonious solution of all the parts.  Finally, reflect on these two aspects to ask yourself could they, with care, achieve what I am trying to attain, because in the end you have a budget and a set of goals.

If you hire the Architect be cognizant of your role, and that is to communicate your program requirements and to pay on time.  Delays in either will cause delays in achieving the final solution and built project.  You have a duty not only to yourself to be disciplined but, in essence, as part of a team, now that you’ve selected your Architect, you have a duty.  Architects want to achieve the best results inherently and only express frustration when undermined by their own client.  Do yourself a favor by helping them move forward and expressing a trust in their capabilities.  It’s not your job to tell an Architect what you want your building to look like, for this is why you’re hiring a professional, it’s your job to fulfill your role as an excellent client which will result in the best possible project you will be proud of being a part of for decades.

All too often clients express the kind or style of building they want.  Given their lack of historical training, perspective on the discipline, lack of skill with regards of the design process it’s like a patient going to a doctor and telling them they want treatment for cancer when the Doctor can see they just have a cold.  It doesn’t make sense and you as a client should acknowledge you are hiring a highly trained and experienced professional.  Don’t be one of those who only after a period of feedback from their neighbors realize they’ve had a blunder built in their own name.  It is embarrassing for the client and typically becomes an eyesore the community has to live with for decades.  Be the client, like the one Frank Lloyd Wright got for Falling Water who says ‘design me something spectacular with this budget,’ and be proud of the accomplishment you’ve achieved with the team you assembled.  In the end, the client is the leader of that team and the results of a built project reflect not on the Architect, but on the Owner.

Note: you’ll notice that sometimes I use a capital A or small ‘a’ for the word Architect.  It reflects the way I perceive the word, one with respect and one without.

Nicholas Buccalo and SimpleTwig Architecture






2 Replies to “Architect’s Dilemma”

  1. I am intrique by the information presented. I applaud Mr. Buccalo for writing this article, simply for the fact that a lot of people may only think of Architects as designing something on a larger scale, and forget the fact that they can be used, or should be used in any renovation, especially a home for the best out come. My self being one.

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