By Jane Lanahan Decker
I am the assistant director for a local municipal building department, arriving in administration after working in the field as an inspector and plans examiner. I am also a licensed architect. Merging the two paradoxical worlds have helped me identify five reasons why every city should have an architect on staff.
1. We are outside-the-box thinkers.
We are creative thinkers. We are thrown problems, issues, puzzles, and pickles and are expected to formulate practical, thoughtful, and complete solutions for those quandaries. We might consider redesigning the box. We might deconstruct the box down to its component parts. We might sit inside the box and just contemplate the space. We might even build a model of the box to get past an impasse. The box is just a metaphor for any number of problems we need to tackle regularly in municipal government (or really, anyorganization).
Local government managers and elected officials can be assured that if there’s a problem, we’ll solve it.
2. We are altruistic. (And we consistently aim higher.)
We know the story of Michelangelo negotiating with Pope Julius II for his monthly stipend—at least as portrayed by Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy(1965). At one point “Mike” survives on very little just to maintain the integrity of the beautiful fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He would stop at nothing to get it absolutely perfect. Don’t confuse this with ego or megalomania, though. This is the architect’s genuine need for wholeness.
As Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”1 As architects, just as we are motivated to solve problems, we do so with an undying perseverance.
We also love to learn. We probably have more than one degree, and the second or third might not even be related to architecture. Our curiosity and thirst for knowledge is inexhaustible. We likely are incessantly trying new things, taking cooking classes, travelling to the distant corners of the world, or even going back to school. Just one more time.
3. We are natural-born project managers.
We understand the beginning and the end, and while beneficial, we don’t need the Project Management Professional designation to show competence. (Besides, our continuing education requirements are just as rigorous.) We have experienced risks and delighted in rewards. Remember, after finishing a five-year undergrad or 4+2 master’s program, plus a minimum three-year apprenticeship, and then taking a series of exams (currently seven) that test our abilities from pre-design through construction and post-occupancy, we know that every project requires a different set of processes and thinking. No two methods of execution for a project will ever be precisely the same.
From early on in our architectural careers, we are taught how to carefully plan. We start with vague illustrations of relationships and sketches with lots of arrows or maybe a “needs and adjacencies” matrix. We refine these sketches into partis,which are careful diagrams that begin to outline flow or movement through a space. Later, the details emerge from the ether and we begin to see something Bauhaus or Postmodern or Neoclassical or…something else.
Don’t pigeonhole us into just the capital improvement projects, though. That will come easy to us. We are challenged when management assigns us to software integrations and process improvement studies on customer service or permitting workflows. We will gaze in awe at a project, slowly dissecting the Rubik’s moves toward a solution.
4. We thrive on R&D.
We are driven to find the answers that no one else can. Research and development is our wheelhouse. Before we even begin to plan or sketch and visualize a project, we do the research. We interview our clients (e.g., stakeholders, building users); we find out their needs, wants, and desires. We find out what has worked or what has epically failed in prior spaces, buildings, structures, or sites. Then, we try to fix it. We are fixers, you know, the “good” kind.
When a project calls for something truly unique, we might even invent something new to tackle the problem. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose residential projects were often complemented with his self-designed furniture or flatware because anything off the shelf just wouldn’t do. His philosophies prevail today. “Above all, integrity,” he would say, “buildings like people must first be sincere, must be true.”
In government, this type of integrity and inventiveness is not just a gift, but something that debunks the myth of bureaucracy that can pervade government today.
5. We embody engineering, mathematics, and pragmatic solutions.
We love numbers. We see patterns. We understand the importance of technology and are capable of figuring out how to design an entire procedural workflow around an end goal or objective. The key is for management to be able to communicate its needs or the residents’ needs to us unequivocally.
We are broad thinkers, 40,000-foot hoverers, able to see the proverbial bigger picture. But we also enjoy the minutiae, the details, the nuances of why something is so. We remember our lessons from the Ten Books on Architecture,in which Vitruvius2 wrote that an architect should focus on three central themes when preparing a design for a building: firmitas(strength), utilitas(functionality), and venustas(beauty). All cities likely endeavor to create communities rich in all three attributes.
We identify with workflow maps and the visualization of the plan. We will look for pleasing proportions and sensible scale, in any project, report, and yes, space. We will look for solutions that are beautiful and make sense, that will be functional and strong.
The next time the administration is looking to fill an executive level spot, consider the applicant pool and look for someone who came through an accredited architecture program. You won’t be disappointed. Your citizens and colleagues might find it refreshing to have such an innovative thinker on staff, even if it’s a little weird if you ever see them sitting insidea box.