Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Not some pushover

Architects, in contrast to common perception, are not a well paid lot. In fact, most make salaries not much better than engineers and certainly nowhere near lawyers or doctors (despite going to university for just as long). It's often said it's a profession you choose for the love of the job, not for the money. All fine and dandy, but who says lawyers and doctors don't love their job? In the end it's all about business, about money. Architects don't directly make or save clients' money as lawyers do and they sure don't save lives. And with any engineer able to make drawings just as well, there isn't an absolute requirement to have an architect involved. All of which translates to a world in which architects find themselves increasingly pushed to the sidelines, into a never-ending fight to convince the building trade of their continued relevance. The consequences of this are visible everywhere, and we now live in a world more ugly than it ever has been. 

I was reminded by this again by a Wall Street Journal article about skyrocketing lawyers' fees, which now reach as high as $1250 an hour for stars of the profession! "We'll keep paying them a lot of money, because they're worth that," said a General Electric counsel in the article. That's the weekly salary of a young architect and according to the Department of Labor, the average hourly rate for architects in 2008 was $39.60. Quite a contrast. 

The law profession, especially in the US and UK, is a very tight knot group, what with bar associations and the fact that many politicians are themselves lawyers. Lawyers have been looking out for themselves for centuries and it's very difficult to do anything in the Western world these days without the guidance of a lawyer. The same cannot be said about the architectural profession, despite professional bodies such as the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and AIA (American Institute of Architects). Infighting is common, with architects often undercutting their competitors or refusing to pay interns. Just last year the RIBA experienced a significant internal power struggle over such issues. How can the profession expect to be respected by their clients if they cannot even reach consensus among themselves? Don't air your dirty laundry, we are taught, yet architects do so again and again. 

Arguably, there is in my mind another possibility, that being not solely the unprofessionalism of architects' respective bodies but namely the presentation of individuals. For you see, many architects fancy themselves the starving artist... and look the part. I had a similar discussion with my colleagues while an architectural assistant in London, and it wasn't something they'd really thought about before. But how can architects be surprised by their hierarchy in the business world if they show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt? Like it or not, people base their impressions about others based on the way they dress. If an architect is meeting with a client, who likely is a successful businessman, should they not meet them on equal terms? Should they not at the least dress the part of an equally successful professional? The client should think, should have no doubt, that they are dealing with someone worth the money, not some pushover. 

If architects want to play poor artist or cool hipster, they should do that on their own time, not degrade the reputation of the profession. Architects are an absolutely fundamental part of our everyday lives, shaping the cities, streets, and buildings which occupy every minute of our waking hours. But if they can't make the sacrifice to wear a suit, maybe they deserve the degrading position they now occupy. Maybe they're fine with dissolving into the history books and abandoning cities to those who couldn't care less.