My fellow Archinect blogger Gregory Walker posted a link to a Harvard Business Review interview with Frank Gehry [P.S. For folks from Twitter and elsewhere: if you haven't seen Gregory's blog, I advise checking it out. His posts about the profession are both insightful and grounded].
Mr. Gehry is one of those architects that my studio instructors loved to hate--the poster child for excess, indulgence, starchitectural disregard for basic concepts like constructability.
But here's the thing: according to the HBR article, Gehry makes his money. And unlike many, many architects, Gehry realizes his visions--as crazy as they may be.
To me, as a young architect starting out, that sounds pretty great. No compromising on the things that are important: make the vision happen, and make your money doing it. In Gehry's case, that 'no compromise' mentality starts long before the first concepts are sketched or the first invoices mailed out.
In the interview, he says: "The client has got to be willing to talk to you. Imagine you get a job with IBM, you’re working with an executive vice president, and he shows the model to the president, and the guy says, “What the f--- is that? That won’t work with my work.” So I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker."
"I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker." He sets it up as a basic project requirement which cannot be compromised--and not compromising on that crucial, structural project team decision leads to both greater freedom on the part of the designer and higher perceived value on the part of the client. It's a classic win-win.
Every project is an endless game of telephone. You interview the client on their basic needs--some of which are inevitably lost in translation. Then, your team gets together and turns that information into a design that tries to address function, aesthetics, budget and construction. During the design process, you are pre-editing yourself, pre-value-engineering, trying to anticipate concerns to get your design as close to approval as possible. Then every meeting with the client's project team is another process of shaving, focusing, tightening, trimming toward the final solution. Then sometimes they have their own internal meetings and present your work to their internal decision maker. THEN their concerns have to travel backwards along the same path: decision maker, client team, design team. And within those teams, communication is similarly broken down. In the case of the project I'm on currently, it's Client CEO > Client CFO and/or HR Manager > Design Project Manager > Project Designers > Consultants / Contractor.
Every step, every meeting, is another chance for something to get twisted, communicated incorrectly, or axed, and as the design intent and client requirements get muddied by retransmission, money is lost on fees and coordination hours, and design is lost in favor of hard costs.
So to Gehry's point: why not streamline that process from the outset by insisting on working directly with the decision maker? Less steps, less confusion: better product, better service.
I bet it's a difficult concept to execute sometimes--big decision makers on major projects are usually very busy people. Gaining ear time with them is difficult, and they are master delegators.
But his point is one we should keep in mind, especially as we are starting out in our careers: be realistic about who the decision makers are, and work as closely to them as possible. It's a lesson for every industry, not just architecture. The less links in the chain of command, the less chances for communication errors. Less error, less frustration; better communication, better product.
We live in uncertain times. Let's use the uncertainty to redefine the way we are valued and the way we measure ourselves, to create the context for the change we want to make.