A Recipe for Good Design

My wife and I are avid [forgive the overused term] foodies and we watch a lot foodie television programing.  I like it for the recipes, and my wife would say the same although I think she really enjoys indulging in the drama.  It’s in this that I came to think that architects and chefs have a lot common, which is evident in the learning of the trade, mastery of the craft, creativity in the product and the need for individuality and personal expression in what we do.

To galvanize this, I recently completed an AIA sponsored course on leadership where a group of us spent the better part of the last year meeting once a month, engaging with speakers and learning from our instructor and one another.  The most fascinating thing (at least for me) from the course often came out of the participants explaining to our instructor the subtle nuances of architects, the profession, and possibly more importantly, our education.

Let me preface this that the instructor was well educated and experienced, had been in the military, worked for a major computer company, and came with decades of experience in corporate America which has helped him hone his understanding of leadership.  However, unlike most professions, architecture is very different on many levels, and it was through helping him understand this that we all garnished more than a little illumination on ourselves.  It was then that I started seeing an even deeper, more sadistic level of similarity between our profession and that of the professional chef.

Alright, how many of you who’ve been through architecture school can tell a version of this story:

It was during a design crit my freshman year, we had all assembled in the support space and pinned up on the wall, and pulled out our study models.  The prof held up one girl’s and said “Aside from being ugly, this looks structurally unsound.” to which the girl replied “I think it would work.” whereupon the prof promptly took the model, laid it upon the floor and stepped on it, crushing it.  “Nope, not very structurally sound, is it?”

All your hands?  Well most at any rate.  If you didn’t raise your hand you must have gone to one ‘a them sissy schools.

Well this sort of story came up repeatedly across the participants in the course of our leadership instruction, and while I knew this was distinctly different from the education of other disciplines, I never thought it particularly heinous.  The instructor of our leadership course, however, was completely aghast at the thought and campaigned very heavily that we as professionals make a concerted effort to try and change this aspect of our education.  He was also very disconcerted with the state of architectural apprenticeship, particularly the martyrdom-like devotion to the profession of being expected to put in long hours for little pay simply because “that is what we do”.

In our instructor’s opinion, this education style propagates a certain degree of brainwashing that carries over into the practice.  In fact, he thought it particularly bad because the vast majority of people who get into architecture, and stick with it, are the type that want to make a difference and are willing to sacrifice a lot to do so, which make architects prime for this sort of exploitation.

Is it exploitation?

Well, back to the food industry.  You probably see right where I’m going with this, because the culinary profession (at least as portrayed on TV, but I’m sure there is an element of truth in it) exhibits a very similar level of professional beat-down.  I can’t help but think if this is somehow then tied to the creative aspects of both professions.  Designing is a very difficult thing.  The interpretation of a design is wholly subjective, and influenced by a panoply of factors, and as result any design will find it’s critics and it’s supporters.  The designer of anything lays themselves bare when presenting their work.  Whatever the product becomes, it is fundamentally part of them, something from them, a piece of who they are, and when that design is criticized, it isn’t easy to take.  In addition, very rarely is that criticism objective, nor can it be so argued.  Just as if a person who doesn’t like liver was served fois gras, and no manner of argument could sway them as to how noble the dish was because, gosh darn it, they just don’t like liver, trying to impose a modern design on someone who doesn’t like modernism is probably ultimately futile.  Heck, even getting a half dozen architects at your own firm together in a room to talk about your design can be a challenging experience.

Clearly, the job of the architect it to know your client, and deliver to them a design that is both in their liking and fits their needs.  Clients aren’t always right, although neither are architects, and it is through this subtle interplay, when navigated correctly, really good architecture can happen.  Although sometimes, you just get it wrong.

Several years ago I gave a presentation to a client I was working with, a very prominent developer with hundreds of real estate assets to her name.  Her direction had been something “urban industrial” that we had interpreted as a sort of “soft modern loft” where in fact she really wanted “east coast brick warehouse”.  When I pushed the design across the table she gave it a half glance, turned it over and said “I never want to see that again, it’s so bad.”  It was something that I’d worked on for about a week, with plenty of overtime (possibly even an all nighter the previous day if I remember correctly) so aside from having my soul invested in it (not to get too dramatic) there was a lot of work and time (especially personal) all dismissed in a matter of seconds.  I have dozens more stories like this, as do all architects, and, quite frankly, it’s just the nature of the profession.  Creating something is very difficult, but criticizing it is quite easy.

So I joke about the parallel this has with the hyped up drama on these chef shows, but I think there is an element of understanding in it.  Sure, I remember an episode of Chopped where Chris Santos berated a contestant for using uncooked onions in his dish because he himself hates the pungent taste of raw onions, but what can you do?  How the *bleep* was I supposed to know you don’t like uncooked onions?  How the *bleep* was I supposed to know your grandmother had a 50s modernist house you would vacation at which you hated and has always tainted your view toward contemporary design? [true story].

This, ultimately, goes back to the instructor in our leadership course who, when he made me aware of his misgivings about this mode of education, I explained to him simply that, architects need to have a tough skin.  You can’t go into a design meeting wearing your heart on your sleeve because if, and when the criticism comes, you need to be able to handle it.  The worst thing you can do it get mad at the client or resent them for not understanding the design.  You must understand your client, or you will lose them, no matter how good the design, and you must be able to set aside a bruised ego in order to get to where the project needs to be.

A friend and I joke about the new interns coming out of school over the last 5 years or so, that they nearly all expect to succeed at anything they do and are often dumbfounded when they fail.  We blame it on them growing up in soccer leagues where they didn’t keep score, or basketball leagues where you get a point for hitting the backboard.  Successfully dealing with with failure, either arbitrary or objective is essential to be a good architect, because it will happen, no matter how hard you prepare, or how good your design is.

I think this is true for chef’s as well, as your success balances so precariously on the edge of an entirely subjective knife.  The education, therefore, needs to prepare one for this reality.  It doesn’t need to be indulgent or cruel, which it often can spiral down to, but it does need to be firm and real.


01 2011