Monday, June 9, 2008


I don't have a whole lot of regard for Corbusier, but I have to give him credit for one thing — he had MASSIVE amounts of self-regard. Here's a brief passage from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton:
In September 1936, six years after the villa's official completion, Madame Savoye compressed her feelings about the performance of the flat roof into a (rain-splattered) letter: "It's raining in the hall, it's raining on the ramp, and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What's more, it's still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight." Le Corbusier promised that the problem would be fixed straightaway, then took the opportunity to remind his client of how enthusiastically his flat-roofed design had been received by architectural critics worldwide: "You should place a book on the table in the downstairs hall and ask all your visitors to inscribe their names and addresses in it. You'll see how many fine autographs you will collect." But this invitation to philography was of little comfort to the rheumatic Savoye family: "After innumerable demands on my part, you have finally admitted that this house which you built in 1929 is uninhabitable," admonished Madame Savoye in the autumn of 1937. "Your responsibility is at stake and I have no need to foot the bill. Please render it habitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action." Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the Savoye family's consequent flight from Paris saved Le Corbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely uninhabitable, if extraordinarily beautiful, machine-for-living.
There's an architect that wasn't all that worried about being sued. I wonder if he carried E&O coverage...

But, although Corbu's principles were deeply misplaced, he put them first. I find most of the architects I talk with now to be a remarkably beleaguered bunch, feeling as though they'll be hauled into a courtroom if they haven't specified exactly how many times each screw should be turned or which way the grain should run on the third stud from the left. And that's probably true. We are a litigious people, and the only way to avoid litigation is to predict and prevent every possible thing that could go awry.

Maybe. Another way to avoid litigation, though, would be to build relationships with your clients and tradespeople, and to suck up some of the cost when troubles arise (even if they're not your fault). I'm thinking about the brickworkers of my previous post... imagine what it would mean to say to your finish carpenters or masons (or their foremen) "You guys know more than I do about bricks. Make it look great" and trust that they would. Imagine getting a positive call from the job site. "Hey, Betsy, you know what would look really good here? If we used a dyed mortar, and ran two courses at the lintel that were sawtoothed horizontal at 45 degrees." And Betsy says, "That sounds great, Carl. Lay up a sample and I'll be over in a couple of hours."

Oh so naive... I'm such a child. But once in a while, I've seen those relationships work in other (equally contentious) settings. There's a high school where every kid works with his advisor, his internship supervisor, and his parent(s) to create his own curriculum for every semester. When everyone sticks to her or his own contractual limits, then everyone does exactly their part and no more, and has little regard for the ultimate outcome. But when everyone agrees on the outcome and is in constant communication, then a fluid system really can work.

It's easy to say, "Yeah, that's great, but it'll never work because _______ is such a jerk." There are two responses to that. One is to start not by assuming what their problems are, but to ask yourself "what would I have to do to start working that way?" The other is to quit working with jerks.

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