After I read Tom Fisher’s, In the Scheme of Things: Alternative Thinking on the Practice of Architecture, I read what I thought was an unrelated book; Jim Collins’, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
I read Built to Last after a recommendation from an entrepreneurial colleague. The author, Jim Collins, studied 18 visionary companies that have consistently outperformed the market for decades, and compared them to similar companies that have not performed as well. He then outlines the findings, many of which seem to be contrary to conventional perception about cut-throat business.
The book is inspirational in that Collins’ defines one of the most important characteristics of visionary companies is the implicit definition of a core ideology. Alongside maintaining this core, visionary companies should always change their methods to support the core ideology. Collins defines this as the ying and the yang: “Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress”. So while the pursuit for change is necessary for a company to be visionary, the one thing that cannot change is the core ideology.
This is only one aspect of visionary companies out of 12 that Collin’s defines through his research. While I was reading, I could not help but to think about how every chapter applies to architecture firms as a whole. According to Collins’ definition of visionary, the entire architectural profession would be considered unsustainable.
Honestly, it is difficult for me to define what the core ideologies were at some of firms that I worked for…. to design great buildings? to provide great service? to be architecty? to provide good solutions? I am not completely sure. The closest I can come to a core ideology would be from my tenure at Optima. I believe that we were “providing provocative, well-designed, and kind of affordable housing solutions”. Keep in mind though, Optima is not a traditional architectural firm. They are architect-led design/develop/build. Although I did not always feel that our methods always supported this core, I did have a sense of this core existing, and a personal interest in participating in the mission.
I brought Tom Fisher into this post because I believe he defines the architectural profession’s core ideology as “to provide the good life”. I think that deep down this ideology is why we stay in the architectural profession, if you have not yet left for law school, finance, or to make more money as realtor. (Although the argument that realtors’ core ideology is “to provide the good life” may be a bit clearer – and I don’t think they work nearly as hard or spend as much on education as architects)
The problem though, and Fisher argues this as well, is that the methods architects use to reinforce the core are so far from the good life, that it is detrimental to the profession as a whole. Architects compete with each other, pay low-wages, work their employees to the bone, micro-manage, and can be real assholes to their own people. Young architects continue to accept it, because the culture says that is just the way it is.
I urge all architects, young and old, to read both of these books and ponder if our profession, as a whole, is still visionary and at all sustainable without change.