Monday, February 14, 2011

JUST WHAT DO YOU DO?

Turn on the television any evening, and chances are you’ll come across some TV lawyers engaged in brilliant verbal sparring in court or in some shadowy back hall.  The law--at least as it’s portrayed on television--is pretty compelling stuff.  It must be, considering the parade of lawyer shows we’ve seen since the Fifties.

Lord knows we’ve also had enough medical melodramas during that time, from Ben Casey to E.R. to all those oogie crime scene/inquest/autopsy shows.

And then we have architecture.  

Chances are you’ve probably never seen a show or a movie about architects, and there’s a good reason:  the preposterous histrionics of “The Fountainhead” aside, seeing an architect in action is about as thrilling as watching ivy grow.
That, unfortunately, is one of the architectural profession’s biggest image problems.  It seems reasonable to pay your lawyer big bucks for slaying the enemy with a well-honed courtroom phrase.  And it certainly seems worthwhile to pay a hefty doctor’s fee when your gall bladder is at stake.  But it’s harder for many people to see the return on paying an architect thousands of dollars for a) talking in dreamy generalities about your project, b) sitting on his or her butt for three months waiting for inspiration to strike, and c) sending you a thumping invoice for the mysterious services rendered.  
You haven’t been spared from six months in the slammer, nor has your gall bladder been restored to making first-rate gall, or whatever it’s supposed to do.  Instead, all you’ve got to show for your hard-earned money is a few lousy sheets of paper.

I’d love to remedy this public-relations shortcoming with a long, comprehensive list of all the nitty-gritty things an architect does for his commission.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  The truth is that designing a building is in fact a vague and amorphous business, because the most valuable part of an architect’s service is purely intellectual.  But that doesn’t make the work any less valid--just less visible.  

Architecture, alone among the professions, is a schizophrenic mixture of art and science—a lot more of the former, if you ask me.  And while an Einstein might be methodical in documenting his work, no one expects a Picasso to explain how he goes about producing great art.  What’s more, it would be utterly unthinkable to ask an artist, brilliant or otherwise, to justify the cost of his work.  

Yet it’s seldom that an architect, upon presenting his bill, doesn’t get a certain look from his client that says:  Exactly what the blank did I get for all this money? 

It’s perfectly reasonable that people want value for their design dollar.  In architecture, however, value doesn’t consist of objects or even accomplishments, but simply of ideas.  That’s a pretty tough sell, and it can lead to bad feelings on both sides.  Still, buildings last a long, long time, and I’d like to think that anyone who cares enough to hire an architect can also appreciate that the road to good design is bumpy and not well charted.   One hopes that, ultimately, the client will find it worth all the effort and expense.

We’re not prime time stuff, but we try.   

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