Philip Johnson was Half Right

University of Virginia  photo by Alex McLean
University of Virginia –photo by Alex McLean
An email inquiry from a 27 year old working in a California Architecture firm:
“I once saw an interview online with Phillip Johnson where he stated that most successful architects are either born rich or marry rich because you have to commission your own projects. I often wonder how accurate this is but I guess I will find out one day. I’m still trying to figure out my own strategy of opening up my own firm one day so it’s always helpful to get little clues from those with greater experience.”
My first clue would be to suggest that Philip Johnson may not be the best role model for a young Architect (for a number of reasons).   But broader advice  requires a big picture view of the Architecture profession.  MIT offered its first classes in Architecture in 1868 taught by William Ware. Prior to that time, formal study of Architecture was difficult and Architecture was not a licensed profession (like the practice of Law or Medicine).  Guys like Thomas Jefferson who designed the Great Lawn in the photo above, learned by reading books and by trial and error.  Specializing and professionalizing the Architect’s work divided the tasks previously performed by  generalist master builders into the design professions (Architects and Professional Engineers) and the building trades.  This division and specialization made some things more efficient, but also created some unfortunate problems and cultural gaps that continue to mess us up when we try to design and build places worth caring about.
Many architects do not understand the fundamentals of how a building makes money or loses money as an enterprise. Most universities limit training in basic business practices or finance to a single class in “practice management”, so understanding where clients come from, or what drives their program or decision process is abstract at best for many Architects.  If you combine this particular blind spot with a lack of direct experience in any of the building trades, an Architect’s grasp of the complex world of building construction and operations can sometimes be too “thin” and theoretical to be useful to the client.  When clients and Architects are not able to understand each other the work gets significantly harder.
While you are young and still logging hours toward completing your IDP and taking your license exams, I would recommend learning how to create a financial pro forma that corresponds with a schematic design and site plan for a potential project.  This skill and the broader thinking that it requires will set you apart from your peers.  You will also be less vulnerable to the frustration that comes when the client tells you that “the numbers don’t work” for the design you have worked on for the last 2 weeks.  Which numbers don’t work?  The construction costs?  The likely rents?  The operating expenses?  If you understand how the numbers work you can ask questions and fix stuff in the design, just like you would if the stair section does not work.
If you have an opportunity to work in a building trade; framing &  finish carpentry, electrical, plumbing, drywall, etc.,  I recommend it.  Seeing a building progress through construction on a daily basis at full scale will give you much more confidence and capacity as a practical professional.  Spending your days on a construction site will also help you to understand the culture of the trades and the rhythm and pace of building.  That’s hard to do if you are just an occasional visitor/tourist.
Understanding the numbers and spending time in the trades will help you tremendously if you decide to build a couple of buildings with a financial partner.  Build something that you can hold onto can provide passive income, those checks that show up in your mailbox regardless of how many hours you bill as an Architect.  The mechanics of having your own practice and managing projects, clients and employees is another thing that your formal studies or daily experience working in an Architecture firm may not prepare you for, but that is a story for another email.
I think that rather than limiting yourself to a specialized corner of the building business, it is better to be fully engaged, even if you have to limit yourself to projects of a modest scale.  You can own a building with partners without having to be rich or marry rich as Phillip Johnson suggests.
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