They do not retire, because taking architecture away from their day-to-day, would leave an unsustainable void in their lives. The presence of other architects around them, keep them up, keep them busy, and keep them creative.
Even if the brain’s elasticity declines and the ability to hold many things on one hand decreases during old age, on the other hand, the experience goes up. So many things seen, so many tests made, this gain counterbalances the loss of brilliance and helps old and successful architects to be productive until… until they get sick, sick so much that they have to stop working.
Right after that, they enter the books of history of architecture, where they finally can rest. Few of them were walking legends such as Oscar Niemeyer, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, well established in the reference publications, already in the mid of their career.
We will talk again about Zaha Hadid later on in this article, lately her studio ZHA has announced a courageous decision inside their organization.
Getting back to this “wine ability” of architects who are continuously improving while ageing, that was very true before digitization and before regulation exploded in a large number of very dense galaxies of know-how.
This possibility of being the only head of a studio, the “personification” is less true, there is less awareness of all the constraints that are on the table while an architect starts a project, there is too much to know for one person, too fast-changing pace to keep updated on everything you should.
To make a parallel in another field: would you consider an orthopedist taking care of your brain surgery? Both doctors right? And would you truly rely on a doctor with two different specializations?
Everything and not only medicine became so complex during the last part of the 20th century that every discipline requires hyper-specialization.
And so architecture does.
One cannot find the all-in-one professional, to take another example: you now find an architect, who specialized in urban local regulation. This is the person to consult while starting the project, and if you have her/him, in your studio: better. You will be able to form your concept together with this person.
If we talk about other matters which strongly influence the project, we can find out, just to name some: fire-control, urban local regulation, lighting regulations, LEED or BREEAM constraints to achieve, etc.
Only fire-control regulation is enough to influence so drastically your project, changing it from your base concept so heavily, that the starting idea can be deprived of its original sparkle.
We can also talk about drafting tools, if even I can imagine some well-established architect being able to draw the basics of CAD, the writer hardly can think of one following the always changing BiM evolution.
Most of the old school architects draw pen and pencil on top of blueprints, looking for the different alternatives with the help of see-through paper rolls. The drafting basis is coming from the collaborators who are closer to the digital tools.
Of course, there are some rare exceptions to that. But in the most, lead architects will gradually lose contact with architecture representation and regulation in favour of managerial skills.
My understanding of that matter is that, until the 90ies, it was still thinkable that a single architect could develop a project, thanks to the support of another lead architect and two or three experienced collaborators, who were drafting, detailing and developing the project.
Until that period one could read the saga of an architect in his or her production, the narrative was extremely clear.
A reader was able to find an architectural device in one project and follow the evolution of this, along the time, project after project. You could perceive that the architect matured the know-how of this element, making it more expressive and flexible as the experience went forward.
So was the case the other day, the writer was browsing the production of the Spanish architect Enric Miralles together with the Italian architect Elisabetta Tagliabue when this speculation popped up in my mind. The difference between an enterprise and a singular professional is that an individual has a research path that is a quest, a path, clear and traceable. I found out one element of Miralles and Tagliabue which got an extraordinary evolution along their professional path together: reticular trussed roofs.
It was amazing looking at the trusses, evolving from crude engineered devices in the project Eurythmics Sports Centre (Alicante, Spain, 1990-1993),
to fluent snakes, masterpieces trusses in the project Renovation to Santa Caterina Market (Barcelona, Spain, 1997-2005),
ending in real elegant and sublime members in the project Scottish Parliament (Edinburgh, U.K., 1998-2004).
One could easily grasp their step by step development, storyline and investigation of the themes behind architecture (the user experience, society and its needs, the architectural language, the research on materials).
There’s that romantic idea of the architects as creators and their architecture as a timeline. While you browse their production, you can read a path into that. Well nowadays, it’s not anymore that way.
The digitization and explosion of globalization inflated the studio sizes and exploded the numbers of: everything.
Digitization brought a flow that is not manageable by a single person anymore. This is the case of large multinational studios of course. The number of projects happening at the same time does not allow anymore to have a “personification” of the studio.
If “the devil is in the details”, that poor devil is busy with: international conferences, financial institutions to meet, marketing action to determine, studio planning and so forth.
In the meanwhile, there’s also architecture.
It is really the project leader who brings into depth the design together with the project team, who confronts the different constraints and gains architectural beauty out of a degree of lack of freedom (the so-called project constraint).
Even if nominally is “that architect’s atelier”, at the very end of the game, the archistar does not have the physical time to get deep on all that projects at the same time. And at that speed, they took then…
It’s simply a scale factor: one architect can follow in-depth 3 projects at the same time, more than that the focus blurs. The focus degrades, it goes more and more superficial, in the measure that the number of simultaneous projects rises.
The chief architect might pick out one design to cherish, the others… she or he will reach a depth of detailing in between brainstorming and general concept.
Down the project line, the archistar will direct some change due to her/his experience and solve some nodes. That’s it.
No singular human being can afford more than that at that speed and at that complexity. Here comes the turning point:
Diffused ownership studios.
In these studios, the architects have exchanged thoughts by the coffee machine, in meetings, during field visits, and at lunch for more than a decade. What is my belief is that a minimum overlap is about 3 years, is the necessary time to “absorb” one another.
This creates a final result which still has a fil-rouge, the expression of about the same ingredients (being their ingredients the people know-how), of about the same detailing, of about the same sense of space, of about the same material usage. In a word: about the same grammar.
But yet these buildings are not immediately recognizable, a user cannot say at first glance: this is of this or that architect… They are not heavily branded.
Because one architect tends always to follow a stream, she or he tends to often use the same devices and refine them with the passing of time.
This activity, willingly or not, builds a brand. An architectural group does brand but in a much more underground way.
In some way, the architecture here gets rid of the Ego recognition. They are more likely to drop the brand in favour of a common culture.
These products and buildings are the expressions of a variety of team leaders, so they can express a common idea: the culture for modernity, the culture for colours, the culture for structural challenges, the culture for parametrization, the culture for the past, etc…
Anyhow one can barely find some vague minimum common denominator, not more than that. These architectural groups have a studio leader who traces the studio orientation, not ignoring what the base has to say about that vision.
This orientation changes once every ten or twenty years maybe. Professionals change organizations sometimes.
This dream, this vision promotes a general tendency in the studio, it shifts the studio culture to some degree. Even if the studio leader changes, one will rarely see U-turns in the way the group interprets architecture.
Here we come about one of the latest and biggest news in architecture, dated December 2021. Zaha Hadid Architects switched to employee-owned.
This happened to this fantastic group, who received architect Hadid’s inheritance. They have been doing really well during these 7 years without the founder. Now that they got this employee-owned orientation, they will have in the long run the chance to choose:
Shall they follow the franchising of Zaha Hadid, repeating her grammar over and over again, only changing some material and some shape, in order to: be recognizable and therefore have easier marketing in selling their projects.
Or shall they define What meant Zaha Hadid to the architectural community, which principle She embodied, taking the legacy of continuing her research?
Whichever conclusion it might bring in the future.
Franchising vs Legacy, this is the topic.
This is not only Zaha Hadid Architects’ dilemma. This is a worldwide architectural dilemma.
There is more: this question mark is not only valid for the architecture sector, but for the fashion and the design as well.
In principle, every craftsmanship strongly connected to a personality sees the arisen of a question after the founder ceases her/his activity.
Now, an essential question arises: What does it mean in principle, to continue an architect’s legacy?
What’s the thin line which separates the image franchising, from the research legacy? How to establish the essence of these masterworks?
My view about composition is the following: there is a “Design Pyramid” of elements which determine the personality of architectural production.
Starting from the Design Pyramid bottom, with the most transient characters of a work, going up to the most specific and immutable ones, we find:
An architect can be connected expressively-wise to a date set of materials (for example the famous square: glass, steel, concrete, wood), but this doesn’t hinder her/him to change the palette and in the long run, having a similar or better formal result.
Materials evolution is also a resource for creativity, so we actually cannot say that this is invariable.
For example, even the ones more connected to the wood material, which would be arguably seen as a never-changing material, have experienced the cross-laminated timber as a new natural engineered material that opened totally new paths in wood composition and construction.
– Space, Envelope, Structure:
Space can be defined as the volume of air enclosed in one room. The bigger the volume is, the stronger effect the space will convey to the user. A massive vertical void will convey a vertigo effect and pull the visitor up (a gothic cathedral vault explains this effect very well). This element strongly determines the building message to the user and bursts the construction costs.
– The envelope can be seen as the building skin. Nowadays the envelope is rarely a load-bearing structure and is mostly used as a thermal barrier, a space boundary, a view/daylight source, and last but not least a way to show character.
The envelope is the aesthetic value carrier towards the city, bringing nowadays the most part of the material significance.
– The structure is per se the way to hold the whole building against gravity, but it can be much more than that: an expressive means, if used with the right skill-set. The polarity between structure and envelope is often a composition theme, which has been particularly important in the last hundreds of years of architecture.
– User experience:
Architecture should always be a letter that the architect writes in steel, bricks, wood, voids, thresholds, stone and glass to the user. This letter will generate a mood in the user, this mood is the ultimate goal of architecture in my opinion.
We can say that the more the experience is strong and polarizing, the more we will have a common perception of the building atmosphere among the vast majority of the users.
The user experience should be based on the final feeling that designers transmit to the users, as well on the building usability. Building usability is the practical part of this recipe and it is also a part of the user experience. A very fascinating architecture that has very poor usability is only an out of scale sculpture.
– Architect’s drive for the composition:
It can be shaping the light, following nature’s order through the parametricism, following the sustainability quest in order to have the minimum environmental impact possible, or minimalism…
The architect’s drive for composition can be in some cases the deepening of one of the previously named steps of the pyramid.
An example of that can be that there are designers who deliberately want to mislead the users in their experience, creating instability, and transiency.
They want to warp the natural user experience in order to convey a specific feeling. So simplifying the concept a lot, we can say that the architect aims to create a perception that generates a specific state of mind in the user. The building designer works with that in mind. Let’s think, for example, of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, what is the overall feeling that the user experience there? Probably anguish.
The past World War II generation of archistar is getting smaller and smaller in number. Time passes by for everybody!
Point is that now their businesses have 30, 50, 100 between associates and collaborators. In the globalization era, once got a certain critical mass it’s easier than before to continue growing and scaling. The so-called snowball effect.
These studios are snowballs that are travelling too fast to be stopped, nobody would take the responsibility to dismiss something so big and so well functioning, it would not be possible without doing dozens of unemployed and long judicial procedures to divide the studio shares and assets.
So practically and logically they keep going. Keeping the same name, of course, doing differently would be ahrakiring the studio, marketing-wise.
Following the architect’s legacy, implies to have understood and to share, what was this person’s drive for the profession. Live her or his quest toward a goal, which we called before: “the architect’s drive for architecture”.
It is a path that can unfold a number of unexpected results. This can be thrilling for the architect’s team and guarantees a degree of intellectual challenge. The team still can feel that they are researching for something that they do not have totally in their hands.
They can feel in their day by day activity, a drive towards a goal, which they have eventually the power to determine. The franchising path is notably easier, faster and comfort-oriented.
The studio will reproduce the lower part of the “design pyramid” belonging to the founder architect (materials, envelope, structure, space, user experience) and they will get in this way a good imitation of the final result. Some critics would call it: “Mannerism”, I would call it: “Franchising”.
Franchising has this definition in marketing and business: It is generally a method of distributing products or services involving a franchisor, who establishes the brand’s trademark (in this case the founder architect), and a franchisee (the architectural studio which continues the founder activity), who pays a royalty and often an initial fee for the right to do business under the franchisor’s name and system (this does not apply in that case).
The Franchising path entails an architecture practice that is increasingly less related to external constraints and external events: the Franchising business attitude creates a more collectible object, related to the studio past and not to the studio present, a Work of Art.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, essay by Walter Benjamin explains this dystopia of the present, being now this “Mechanical Reproduction” relatable even to architecture.
The architect’s Legacy path, as I see it, it is a future related path, still open to uncertainties, still plastic, still in search.
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