Tag Archives: RENAISSANCE

THE INFURIATING MYTH OF AN ARCHITECT’S WEALTH

April 9, 2021

The Brady Bunch, a sizable family to support as an entrepreneurial architect (1969 to 1974)

It’s a popular myth that you see in TV and movies, that an architect is rich. From Mike Brady supporting a family of eight (nine if you count Alice) to the architect duo of Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, from charming Tom Hanks to Steve Martin playing an architect twice, the world seems to think architects are wealthy—rolling in money.

Know this: we are not. Not at all. Not even close.

left: Sharon Stone and Richard Gere in Intersection (1994); middle: Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle (1993); right: Meryl Strep and Steve Martin in It’s Complicated (2009)

We are regular people  with a regular job. We don’t have those fancy clothes, driving those nice cars, living in big homes, as one might believe from the prevalent urban legends of who an architect is.

Poon Design team from archives (photo by Poon Design)

Yes, we are rich in our artistic rewards and in the opportunities to chase our creative dreams. But no, we are not affluent. My question is this: Why don’t we have lots of money?

I compare our design industry to doctors and lawyers, who have similar paths of required higher education, rigorous state requirements for licensure, and even responsibilities to public safety. But for anyone who knows the statistics, architects aren’t just not rich, some are living at modest middle class incomes. Well, at least not starving artists. But when compared to doctors and lawyers, architects are compensated at a fraction of our professional colleagues. Why?

Probably a doctor, not an architect, showing up in his/her $3 million W Motors Lykan HyperSport for a day on the yacht (photo from smf-blog.com)

The work of an architect is not valued as it used to be, as say in the Renaissance, when kings and queens rewarded architects handsomely to design heaven-reaching cathedrals that would last centuries. Perhaps architecture today is too abstract to understand. People know that when they hire a plumber, the pipes get fixed. But if you don’t understand what design is or what an abstract idea is—then from architects, you are only getting random lines on a piece of paper. And how much money is that worth?

Curson and Pico Mixed-Use Project, by Poon Design

But with star chefs, you would never call the recipe for a Michelin-rated dish, merely random scribbles on a piece of paper. I have had clients say that they don’t need a design, just the drawings. I don’t get that. That’s like saying I don’t need the fascinating epic of the Harry Potter saga. Instead, just give me random ink on pages.

Add to this how reality TV (here and here) has inaccurately shown that you can approach an architect and ask for three designs, for free! Would you ask any professional for free work, such as your doctor, dentist, accountant, or lawyer?

One critical thing to note why architects suffer: The typical fees paid to an architect rarely compensate for the work that needs to be done when designing a building. For example, if an architect gets a fee of $100,000, we all know right from the start that $120,000 is needed to do the work. You might ask: Why not just do the work of $100,000, since that is all you are paid to do? It is not that simple.

Architects drafting and slaving away (photo by Michael Neatu)

Partly, the work is dictated by the client’s indecisions and endless changes over the course of an unknown number of meetings, coordinating the work of structural and mechanical engineers always behind schedule, getting city approvals that can take months and even years, administering construction and resolving all the unforeseen conditions, and the other hundreds of spinning tops and fires that burn brightly. In part, we are also driven by our artistic ego, and we will design a project until it is great, not stopping at the amount of fee that is allocated.

So, who is the blame?

San Diego Civic Theater, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA)

WHO WILL BE MY CLIENT?

July 8, 2016

Arena for 2000 Olympics, Sydney, Australia, by Anthony Poon (w/ NBBJ)

In architecture school, our professors provided us with projects to design. Example: For this semester, design a sports arena in San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

But here is the thing: How does an architect land such a project after graduation? This is a challenging question to ponder after you leave the comforts of school, after you have made the premature decision to start your own architecture company from your apartment. And you realize that you have no clients. Not a sports arena. Not even a bathroom addition. None at all.

Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, by Leon Battista Alberti and Giorgio Vasari (photo by wanderfly)
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, by Leon Battista Alberti and Giorgio Vasari (photo by wanderfly)

Everyone sees homes, theaters, parks and shopping centers within our communities, but how does an architect get hired to design them?

Many architects would kill for a system I call the Medici Effect. Within such a circumstance, an architect can sustain a career through the loyal patronage of a single client—be it an individual, a retail chain, or a university. This Medici Effect is a client-architect relationship where decade after decade, the faithful client provides the architect with projects.

Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers, Florence, Italy, by Arnolfo di Cambio (photo by Petar Milosevic)
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers, Florence, Italy, by Arnolfo di Cambio (photo by Petar Milosevic)

From the 15th to the 18th century, the Medici family reigned supreme in Florence. As wool merchants initially, then formidable bankers later, this family commissioned Renaissance painters, sculptors and writers. And yes, architects too.

Alongside hiring painters Michelangelo, Raphael and Rubens, and the scientist Galileo, the Medici’s supported architects most of all: Alberti, Vasari, Buontalenti and Bartolomeo, just to name a few. As one of the most powerful clans throughout Europe, the Medici family bankrolled the entire career of any architect of their choosing, as well as completing building upon building—from palaces to churches, from museums to hospitals.

Pterodactyle, Culver City, California, by Eric Owen Moss Architects (photo by Architect)
Pterodactyle, Culver City, California, by Eric Owen Moss Architects (photo by Architect)
Samitaur Tower, Culver City, California, by Eric Owen Moss Architects (photo by Tom Bonner)
Samitaur Tower, Culver City, California, by Eric Owen Moss Architects (photo by Tom Bonner)

Though a wonderful tale from hundreds of years ago, this Medici Effect does continue today. A contemporary example can be found in Culver City, where a husband/wife, client/developer team of Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith has sustained a 30-year patronage of Eric Owen Moss Architects. Project after project, the Smiths have produced a city-scale portfolio of buildings through the talents of this single architect

During fortunate periods of my career, my Medici’s have appeared in the form of developers, retiring architects, friends, and even a public school district. What I have learned so far, if I have learned anything at all, is that an architect should base a career on relationships not contracts. If an architect’s entire career revolves around one hundred projects, it is better to find ten patrons that might each give you ten commissions vs. finding one hundred individual clients.

It should be taught in architecture schools, and it should be a directive at the workplace: Build relationships and attract clients. At many law firms, entry-level attorneys, even paralegals, are requested to bring in clients.

DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Pfeiffer Partners)
DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, by Anthony Poon (w/ HHPA, photo by Pfeiffer Partners)

Architecture is not just about earth shattering design, but about marketing, business development and public relations. If you are simple minded, call it “schmoozing.” If you are intelligent, call it good business. And, if you are human, call it survival.

© Poon Design Inc.