What Makes a Great Architect?
I think all architects think about this regularly from the moment they begin their architectural studies. For me this question arose even before I enrolled at the University of Melbourne, knowing that I wanted to be an architect from the age of eight.
The profession of architecture is unique because in theory it is an exact science, but the necessity to be artistic and creative makes it highly complex. In reality it is rarely an exact science. The combination of artistic vision with scientific and practical expertise determines the quality of outcome and some architects perform better than others. It is known that artistic and scientific endeavor are governed by opposing sides of our brain and with most of us being dominant on one side it can be quite difficult to excel in both. This is why many successful practices are ones where several directors or partners combine their strengths to create a complimentary balance. One partner might handle the artistic aspects while others handle the practical construction or business sides of affairs. As our industry grows to become more complex than ever before and require greater specialization, the architect who can claim a comprehensive skill set becomes increasingly rare.
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to divide architects into practical and artistic. The practical can realise buildings relatively easily but perhaps without beauty or inspiration. The artistic or creative architects can deliver innovative buildings embodying qualities that enhance the users’ experience, but potentially at the expense of time, funds, or even practicality and function.
Most of the world we live in is, sadly, driven by economics which can leave little room for dreaming. Practical and logical thinking has prevailed over that of the dreamer, resulting in reduced potential for those who are artistically inclined. From my experience, it has become increasingly rare to find architects who are truly artistic in vision and ability. Plenty will try to sell themselves as artists but in reality, are just putting on an act because that is what they believe the title of architect demands.
Today it is often the client who dreams and the architect’s role is simply to ground those dreams into a product that is practical and functional. While people still want inspiration they generally don’t want to risk being led along by a designer whose head is in the clouds. Unfortunately, artistic architects have a reputation for being too slow, impractical, and costing the client too much. This is why so much of the housing industry in recent times has been in the hands of builders, drafts-persons, and construction companies. The only architects who seem to be able to survive are the practical ones who might have limited talent and work desperately just to stay afloat. Often, they will even cut their fees drastically to be only marginally more than a far less qualified draftsperson. They may even focus more on industrial or commercial projects that don’t demand as much creativity.
This does not mean to say that practical architects don’t do good work. The process of becoming a registered and competent architect can take over 10 years and those who qualify to be capable of good work, but what we want to explore here is great design. Great design work must exceed function & budget to also be beautiful and uplifting. It has to make its users happy, proud and inspired. The practical architect must either activate the artistic side of the brain or find someone artistic with whom to join forces in order to create work that is truly exceptional. Only then can appropriate fees be charged and recognition deserved be granted.
When I was a professional dancer my coaches told me that talent was cheap. They explained to me that 99% of the talented dancers they came across never made anything of their talent because too many superficial factors such as ego got in their way. Because a talented or gifted person can get away with working less they often tend to become lazy, arrogant, or distracted. That is why most of the World Champions, in the field of Ballroom dancing at least, are a result of hard work rather than talent. I’ve always remembered my coach’s wisdom and tried in my own practice to gravitate towards the hard worker over talented or gifted individuals.
I, myself, have often been labelled as talented, but remembering my coach’s words, I know that talent alone cannot be relied upon in order to succeed. To truly achieve greatness, talent must be nurtured and combined with focus, determination and hard work.
Then one day after the 2016 Olympics I watched a documentary about Usain Bolt. He had achieved the triple triple, 9 gold medals across three consecutive Olympic Games. He is one of the greatest athletes of our generation and compelled me to see myself and my talent for architecture differently.
Bolt was clearly gifted and after his first Olympics had more fame, wealth, and achievements than most people on the planet. He could have retired from running and moved on. In fact, the documentary made evident that going on to win in two more Olympic Games was incredibly difficult from the perspective of motivation and Bolt had to really will himself to put in the work required. It was admirable and illustrated to me that talent cannot be dismissed when combined with hard work. In fact those who are able to combine hard work with whatever gifts they possess can be Kings or Queens of their industry. What Bolt is to Athletics and Bruce Lee is to Kung Fu is what I believe WOLF ARCHITECTS can be to the architectural industry.
I can design, draw, paint, sculpt, and build things to exceptional standards, but for each of these disciplines there are plenty of people I would regard as being far more talented than myself. My true talent, or gift, is in bringing all of these things together. Architecture is a combination of many skills and my ability to bring it all together with good taste is what endows WOLF ARCHITECTS with a balanced artistic side of the brain.
Being practical and having comprehensive knowledge in areas such as regulations, construction, time-frames, and build cost is as much about experience as it is about research and study. For the artistic architect, those skills might seem unexciting, but at least are attainable through discipline. Whereas in contrast, a practically minded architect may never achieve a high level of creative artistry or good taste. Hard work and discipline are all that stand in the way of a talented or gifted person from becoming great.
Hard work has always felt more like play to me because I’ve always loved whatever I did. I am very fortunate to have aligned my talents with my career. I can imagine that just because someone can run fast, doesn’t necessarily mean that they want a career as a runner. I’ve always loved drawing, designing, and creating all of which feed naturally into architecture. Being passionate helps to go the extra distance, and have never afraid to get your hands dirty. On my early projects, I used to join the tradesmen to learn how to lay bricks, paint, execute plumbing tasks, or sand the floor. It made sense to understand these skills intimately for how could I demand higher standards if I could not do it myself?
The answer to what makes a great architect starts with the ability to balance a creative and artistic mind with one which understands function and practicality. By then combining this with hard work and perseverance there is no reason why greatness cannot be achieved. I believe that WOLF ARCHITECTS, while relatively small and young, is a great practice with team able to match up to any other on the planet. A great architect, however, is only one component towards an extraordinary building. The attitude and ability of the builder must be in tune with the project and, above all, of this the client needs to be on board. A client with the wrong expectations can hinder a project’s true potential. This brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning about architecture only being an exact science in theory. At WOLF ARCHITECTS, every project is essentially a unique prototype. While a building might be considered to be a result of physics and chemistry, a WOLF building is often also an innovative experiment. The words prototype and experiment are not synonymous with the pursuits of exact science. This is why our products will likely cost more and take longer, and it is the clients who appreciate this that benefit most from what the WOLF brand has to offer.
The ability to be a great architect, however, does not necessarily equate to success. I believe that the intention behind the work is crucial. The point of being a great architect should be to affect lives in a positive way. It’s is about good Karma… but that is a different topic for another day.