Sunday, January 7, 2007

Oh, Brother...

I spent about fifteen minutes earlier this evening watching clips of Big Brother on YouTube. It's about all I could stand. "Can Janelle and Erika succeed in getting Will to take a shower with them?" Puh-leeze....

But it makes me think. Years ago, I was doing research in a high school with 47 teachers. They also hosted eight to ten student teachers a year from the nearby state college's education department. One day, I was having a conversation with the college's student-teacher coordinator, and she asked me, "How many really good teachers do you think there are at this school?" By that time, I'd been in every classroom, many more than once, so I said, "If I were starting my own school tomorrow, I'd take..." and then I started counting on my fingers "...six, I think." She replied, "That's not bad. Usually, it's around ten percent."

I have a feeling that the ten-percent rule is true for almost every industry. We have three hundred cable channels on, but there are only a handful of good actors, so the rest of the space gets filled up with Big Brother and Monster Garage and ElimiDate. We have a handful of good films, so most of the summer is filled with Steven Segal and Adam Sandler. There are only a few remarkable songwriters, but there's a huge need for product, so we get N'Sync and Kenny G. When I go to academic conferences, there are a few sessions that are outstanding and engaging, and dozens that are dull and carelessly organized.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this... :-)

Our work this semester is going to be aimed at a statement of belief that each of you will create, beliefs about your aspirations and goals and what constitutes good work, with some research to back it up. As we move forward, I want you to take seriously the notion that 90% of architects aren't very good (just as 90% of professional television actors aren't very good, and 90% of professional baseball players are in the minor leagues or play for the Royals...). And I want you to define for yourselves what you need to do to be one of the ten percent -- not merely successful, but good. Training and talent and hard work are not enough. What is?


peterjames said...

scary thought....but definitely I part of that 10% now??? definitely I have the potential to be??? I have the drive and ambition to realize that potential??? I think so....what makes me think that I have that potential??? my passion.....passion to contribute to the cant be quantified or described...but its there.....I know it...hopefully, someday, my clients, the industry, and the world will know it also.....its about doing what you do for the love of doing it...everything else is just a bonus....

Ken Ballard said...

The Top Ten Percent. Yes the age old adage that unless you are completely on top of your field/profession/industry you are somehow not equal. Since working in the industry for the past six years I have come to a few conclusions:
● No matter how good you are (design, programing, concept, etc.) there is always some that will challenge you and “would have done it differently.”
● Status of a “good” Architect is in the eyes of many beholders:
○ Do you have a strong Client base that through their experience brings you new clients, i.e. word of mouth?
○ Do you possess a style that is distinctly yours, presentation, views, method, ideology?
○ Do you have a Firm that your employees want to come to work everyday regardless of what headaches are looming around?
○ Do the contractors, consultants, city planners/plans check personal respect you and your staff?
● Will your building still be loved by the client/end user for years to come?
● Will the relationships with your clients turn into friendships (I know not all will, but when you spend months on end even years on something that is near to their hearts a bond is created)?
● Have you explored ideas/methods/materials that will result in better use for the clients needs?
● Has there been an open discussion with others in the field about ways to improve, i.e. bi-lateral collaboration?
● Intense explorations in the education and development of future architects.
● Community involvement.

This all being said, I look forward to finding myself in a position where I can honestly say I put my best foot forward and have accomplished these goals. I personally feel that to be a GOOD architect I don’t have to necessarily have a mega-building on my resume or some grand concept. It will take years of experience and defeat for someone to be a “mega-architect.” I also strongly feel that to have those opportunities for that signature building you need to possess the items I outlined above AND be in the right spot at the right time.

I am eager to hear what others in the class feel about this question, “What is” as I can take those in mind an incorporate those ideas into shaping how I want to be perceived as a contributor to the community, an architect and as an individual.

Karrick said...

I think it is somewhat unfair to say that 10% of people are good and if you aren't in that 10% you aren't good at all. This is just for conversation... Why do we have to care about being in the top 10%. Lots of people in lots of professions go to work as a means to an end. Feed the family, pay the bills, go on vacation, enjoy life. I ask myself, I wonder if other people do, why are architects so passionate about what they do that is isn't just a job for us? Well some of us... there are definetly people in my office and I'm sure in other offices that come to work to get a paycheck, and they could care less about being a good architect. So far in my career I have been striving to be in that top 10% if not in the top 1%, but with my first child due in May, will my priorities change? To be successful in life must you necessarily need to be successful in your profession? Much less be so succesfull that you are in the top 10%.

Herb Childress said...

I think Ken raises an important point, that to be a good architect one doesn't need to be a "name" architect or have a signature building. In fact, for me, a signature style or concept is usually a warning sign. I know a couple of architects whose work has really added to people's lives and to the communities they work in, but they'll never be published. And Jack Nasar of Ohio State's school of urban planning has done fascinating research on buildings that are the results of design competitions among star architects: they tend to come in WAY beyond budget, need constant repair, and have the lowest ratings of satisfaction among their everyday users (Design by Competition, 1999).

Zaha Hadid's fire station in Weil am Rhein was used as a fire station for almost no time at all, because it made no usable sense -- it's now a chair museum. I once saw a panel discussion with Peter Eisenman after the opening of the Aronoff Center at U.Cincinnati -- one of the audience said that she and her friend and their taxi driver couldn't figure out where the front door of the building was, to which he replied, "That's good. It will make you think differently about 'doorness' ." To me, these are both irresponsible (and architecture matters not because of its relationship to art, but because of its numerous responsibilities).

I want to be really careful about this idea of "top 10%." I don't mean to be literal about the number -- it might be 23% or 2%. And I don't mean top 10% most notable, or top 10% most economically successful, or the winner of the Pritzker or Aalto prize. I mean someone whose work brings together many interests and works toward their mutual satisfaction; whose work is pleasing to all of our senses; whose work helps its users to be more productive and engaged; whose work grows to become a beloved (NOT "respected") part of its environment because of its generosity of spirit and flexibility of use. That's a subset of MY criteria... yours will (and should) differ. The point is that we all should have something to live up to that we have to struggle toward every day, and that we may never achieve.

Ken Ballard said...

Herb, I love the fact that you bring up Zaha Hadid's name. I researched her while at UNLV and fell in love with her work. I think it was her style and approaches, I had a chance to see her in San Francisco as well as Peter Eisenman. They were both great to listen to and it was my first experience to hear some "mega-Architects." Now I seem to to have the why questions... the public sees eye candy, I see issues that make me why, why? Just thought it was odd that you brought to light the two "mega-Architects" I first had a pseudo-live encounter with and now like to explore their work for things I would do different.

Chris said...

Who is to say what a "good" film is? Is the the critics or is it the public? Why is Pirates of the Caribbean, which made over $400 million and provided entertainment to untold millions of viewers, not considered "good". Same with N'Sync or Big Brother. I get concerned when there is an elitist attitude towards what is "good" and what is "bad". Everyone has their own terms of criticism. Why is someone's better than another? I think Big Brother is extremely entertaining television. You don't. Who is right?

Herb Childress said...

I'm not so concerned by elitism as I am by relativism ("we all like different things, so who's to say?"). If environmental design is primarily a political and civic act, which I believe that it is, then I have to take a political stance in order to make judgments. I certainly agree that others will take different positions, but the stakes are a lot higher than they are for ElimiDate, and I have to really believe in my position.

That belief, in and of itself, is part of the quality that I think can be seen in what we do -- in music, in physical design, in writing -- and that we respond to. Thus, while a Butler Building might be exactly the right object for a shipping facility, nobody's going to respond to it in 50 years. It won't be in anybody's Hall of Fame, it won't be on postcards, you won't drive your grandkids to see it. Compare against Bruce Goff's Page Warehouse from 1927 ( -- Goff clearly meant to do something here beyond mere merchandise handling.

This question of standards and aspirations is exactly our work for the semester. I don't expect us all to agree (but I obviously have standards about the care and craft I expect in the writing and thinking that leads to them all, and those beliefs and judgments are elitist as well).

Felix said...

I think you can be a good designer; you also can be a bad designer. Sometimes it depends on the situation (lawsuit, codes, etc), and client (money talks). What have to be consistence is, the intention of your design; to provide the best solution available for our clients.
What people think the best is not always the best. For example, The President of The United States of America. Out of millions of people, only one-person get gets elected. The consensus of the people believes he is the best one for their President. But, how do you never know if he is the best one, if others didn’t get the same opportunity to be the President? But each of us knows our own intention. When we strive to be the best in our profession, we are getting the best of the best.

Regarding to Zaha Hadid, and Peter Eisenman works, to appreciate their work, people have to understand the concept of their design first. Even bad building design can be good design, if that design holds many memoirs. For example: WTC towers. Many design experts, architects, and public thinks that 2 buildings are nothing but big black box and ugly. But, ever since 9/11 tragedy, people change their opinion about WTC designs, it is considered as one of the most beautiful architecture monuments.

I think that’s one of the reasons we are enrolled to BAC program, to educate, to learn and to appreciate more about architecture, with the hope we can use this knowledge in our profession life.

Felix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

But if environmental design is considered first and foremost a political and civic act (which, as an aside, i disagree), then zaha's fire station for vitra should be "good" in your terms (as it makes some very strong/positive civic statements on the vitra campus. but you tout it as "bad" because it doesn't work as a fire station. but "program" or "client" wasn't one of your first and foremost responsibilities for environmental design. (are you distinguishing environmental design from architecture?)

architecture certainly has a responsibility to something larger than itself (city, civic, public) but its first and foremost reason for being is its program (i.e. its purpose).