The Ego and the Architect

apex-helping-hand-610grA few weeks ago, I witnessed an interaction that I imagine most people in the design industry experience numerous times both in school AND professional life.  What transpired was this: a few junior architects were pinning up carefully composed drawings, renderings, and sketches for a client meeting.  Under a tight budget and time constraint, the amount of thought, options, and exploration on the wall felt vital and impressive. As the last drawing was being pinned, a visiting architect from a different office briefly stepped into the room, looked at the wall for about thirty seconds, and quickly claimed “Oh, I built this building in the 90’s…”

As the wind was quickly taken out of sails, the last pin was pushed in with a slight hesitation rather than the initial confidence and momentum of the previously installed drawings.

A few months ago, Heather wrote an extremely relevant blog post about the importance of mentorship in architectural offices today.  Rather than follow the traditional, antiquated approach of “Master” and “apprentice,” she explored the notion of the mentor being an omnipresent “Yoda” type that is able to support, critique, and affirm junior architects in their many stages of professional development.

As a follow-up to this discussion, I’d like to briefly touch on the idea of “leadership” in an architectural office.  For all of their good, idealistic, altruistic traits and stereotypes, architects have also (on occasion) been stereotyped to have relatively large egos.  While I will refrain from going into semantics or arguing for or against this stereotype (I plead the fifth!) the anecdote I mentioned above suggests that at times, voiced opinions that support the ego rather than the effort can prove futile rather than productive.

When I think about the people I would consider “leaders”  in my office, they don’t just include the people with the highest-ranking title or the most experience.  They are the people who send out design inspiration emails, events, and tips to keep us involved and aware.  They are the people who will put down their pens and walk over to your screen to guide you through an issue that is perhaps their expertise or passion. Their willingness to share that knowledge becomes a great resource to the entire office.

Leaders are the people who understand that the work we do extends beyond our desks and find themselves leading community and service-related efforts in their personal and professional lives. Furthermore, they look at the work that’s been produced and consider the source, the thinking, the project parameters, and then voice their opinions in a way that both challenges and guides the ship forward, rather than sinking the vessel in midstream.

I am impressed by the bravery of the many young architects I’ve met as of late, in their ability to begin to define what seems to be a changing paradigm of architect from egotistical to humanitarian.  While architects have always wanted to help improve society in small and large ways, the increased collaborative nature of offices, use of integrated design and delivery models, and the steady re-emergence of a celebrated creative class are all phenomenon that are requiring us to brand ourselves in ways that defy and transcend the definition of the stereotypical “master” builder or craftsmen.

As you approach your academic or professional workweek, I challenge you to consider your personal definition of leadership, and in some small way, aim to acknowledge or act in a manner that reinforces this.  While young architects need continued mentorship, they also need to be bold in working towards breaking old stereotypes and replacing them with definitions that reinforce both the importance and impact of architects’ contributions to helping shape the design and experience of the places we work, live, and enjoy.

One thought on “The Ego and the Architect

  1. It’s nice to be reminded of the true definition of a leader, when it often can be obscured in any hierarchical organization. The trick is for the organization to reward those based on the reality and not perception of leadership, which can be hard to distinguish.
    Thanks for the thoughts!

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