The “architect” vs. the “Architect”

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by: Cynthia Fishman, AIA Colorado Associate Director

Choose the correct response to the following statement.

Definition of an architect.

A.)    A person trained to plan and design buildings, along with overseeing their construction

B.)    Hollywood’s go-to profession for  a smart, successful and handsome leading male

C.)    An overworked and underpaid professional who hates their detail-oriented, compromise-filled job

D.)   An idealistic person who wants to become famous like Frank Gehry and design major buildings in all of the big cities around the world

Depending on who you are, the answer to the above statement can be completely different.  There is a disconnect between the reality of an architect versus the idea of an architect, both in popular culture as well as within the profession.  I find this quite amusing and I am not really sure how and why this has happened.

When meeting a new person and our livelihoods are discussed, most of the time their reaction to the fact I am an architect is wonder and respect.  But why?  Their next comment is almost always, “I wanted to be an architect.”  Again, why is this?  There is a fascination with the elusive architect.  Architects are a rare breed (only about .03% of the US population are registered architects) that seem to be everywhere in popular culture, but hard to come across unless you happen to be one.  There are probably more actors portraying architects than there are actual ones.   From Paul Newman’s character in The Towering Inferno to Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, the architect archetype is a great way to define a character that can stand for someone who is creative but can earn a paycheck.  It has, however, led to an unrealistic depiction of the profession.  The truth doesn’t really seem to matter to the general public because without the architect, who would the heroine in a romantic comedy fall in love with? Once and a while there are attempts to realistically talk about an architect such as websites called “Nine Things They Don’t Tell You About Dating An Architect” and “How to Buy A Present For An Architect” which are pretty funny, but probably only architects read them.  In the end, it would be nice if we could always make it home for dinner at 5:30pm with sharpened pencils at our drafting tables and solve all six kids’ problems within a half hour like Mike Brady, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the reality away from the television screen.

Then there is the disconnect within the profession.  This can be summed up for me by the five-minute video called “So You Want To Be An Architect” (pictured above).  Every story is different, but in some way most of us start off as the naïve girl on the right and end up as the bitter guy on the left.  My time in architecture school hadn’t really prepared me for what the working world would be.  Wait, there are codes I have to follow? A budget? Gravity???  Everyone can’t be the designer.  We can’t all be making sketches on napkins because who will be there to create the building on the computer.  So I understand that there needs to be a team who does the documentation, but I doubt it would be a good selling point to tell students in school how they will  probably spend 60 hours a week working on waterproofing details and bathroom elevations.

For me, the definition of an architect changes constantly.  Most of the time I am lower case architect, doing the day-to-day of the profession, which is not always glamorous but necessary.  Then there are the times when I am an Architect with a capital A either through the eyes of someone not in the profession or when I dream of what the future may hold.  Hopefully there is some happy medium where I can not only create The Matrix, but also work some stair sections.

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