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Is architecture a good business?

09 of April '21

In letters to the editor, our readers ask if architecture is a good business. The owners of stores affected by the Covidian emptiness ask, cinemagoers, theater actors, puffins ask, but also more than one architect, asking for anonymity, of course. I don't know if architecture is good business, but the question is certainly a good one, and, as they say, it's worth pondering.

First of all, I don't know many architects who went to college because someone told them there was good money to be made in architecture, especially easy money. I met one student who extremely skillfully slid through five years of architectural education, handing in basically the same project over and over again, and who from the beginning declared a great love for money and fast cars. He himself, by the way, was already driving one, and I, having neither such interests nor prospects for a "nice carriage," could only grimace and "be above it," which, by the way, was not difficult, because I was surrounded mainly by people for whom the future profession of architecture was above all a vocation. We all seemed to be saying:

You want to make a lot of money fast: go into economics, marketing, or preferably straight into politics, hoping that someone will put you in a treasury company.

Those, on the other hand, for whom studying architecture was simply to be a prelude to quickly finding a secure job with someone in an office, and there was no shortage of such, simply did not interest me. Instead of talking with gusto about, say, the problems of revitalizing the center of Warsaw, beautiful traditional carpentry in Japan, or discussing the merits of compressed plastic bags as an insulator in a vertical partition, they were busy counting unpaid overtime in a large studio, thinking how tolarge studio, thinking about how to play out the conversation with HR as to L4, or how to pass for building materials manufacturers as sales representatives with a chic drive up to someone's studio in a brand-new fleet opel astra, hey!

The architectural profession is a constant teetering between the mission of shaping space and influencing people's destinies, or at least their daily lives, and the disarmingly mundane nature of the profession, where what usually matters more than design skills is the talent for charming officials at the County Office or the gift of twistedly interpreting urban planning restrictions to the client's advantage, of course. Here I am reminded of the words of Miguel, my roommate from Barcelona, who, upon graduating from the Civil Engineering Department of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, was to become part of his father's design studio, eventually inheriting it.

You architects are suckers: clients can sway you back and forth, because you do architecture for love and out of narcissism," used to say this smartass.

It's hard for me to disagree with him, and on the other hand, looking at colleagues who have managed to find the golden mean, often standing at the head of large commercial studios, I see that it doesn't always have to be that way. For several reasons.

First, in every profession there are more and less enterprising people, so also in architecture there are those who, even without inheriting a thriving business from their parents, will be able to say that for them architecture is a good business. That if one has a head on one's shoulders, one can make good money by designing a lot for a small margin or a little for a very large margin, and that one must have the cards in hand that will make one from an architectural pushover into a valuable and respectable player in the eyes of people with cash.

Secondly, even with all the ineffectiveness of the professional representation of architects (in Poland!) unable to compete in any way with organizations lobbying for various engineering specialties, reality has changed since my college days in the 1990s and the architectural profession (I know, not everyone will agree) has gained prestige. Perhaps mainly thanks to pop culture, especially TV series (the long-legged Mrs. Architect puts on a white helmet, emerging from a convertible with rolls of unspecified documentation under her arm) and "Grand projects" type programs, thanks to the progressive global "iconization" of architecture and starchitects (Dejan, we'll never forget you!), but also because non-architects have had a chance to see how important the role of architecture can be in the aforementioned influencing their daily lives, both by designing it to be more "user friendly" and, at least in theory, through the good taste of professionals who have been adequately paid for their job well done.

Here I have to admit that I am impressed by how we are changing, as a nation (still living in a hardly "user-friendly" country populated by two incompatible camps): every year I get more and more the impression that people trust each other enough not to be, in their own eyes, better doctors than doctors, or their own architects, after all, knowing better how to design something than some damn architects. One can surmise here that often enough representatives of our profession have "not blundered," "proved" or simply performed beautifully in helping someone in any design or consulting capacity, and that this increase in public confidence is a direct result of a certain mass of duties well performed.

In a word, as improbable as it may sound in a time of pandemonium, crisis of democracy and uncertainty of tomorrow: probably in terms of the status of architects (and female architects) and how that status translates into earnings it is getting better and better, and architecture is also getting better business for other stakeholders, with its residents and users in the lead.

Finally, inevitably a reader or reader will ask whether architecture has turned out to be a good business for me personally as well. So I hasten to answer: I can't complain about business, but I am still, as in my student days, focused, and successfully, first and foremost on making my LIFE an exciting and intellectually valuable business. An interest that allows me, among other things, to write this column, hey!


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