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New Partner Feels Lost

Dear Louis:

Are we a professional organization, or are we a business? As far as our architectural practice is concerned both models seem to be trading in degraded currency.

I find myself wracked with anxiety over this question, as I nurture our ideas and projects, often rooted in strange places with strange languages throughout the world. While I am amassing air miles, I feel an impending identity crisis, lost and unmoored: a kid who took off in Grandpa’s daysailer without his ok, a cantilevered roof floating detached in space in the wake of some unforeseen seismic shock.

If at one time, professional meant something about being rooted in the arts of the past while embracing the future, my view is that professional now means something else entirely. Professional mud wrestler. Professional payday loan generator. Professional blogger — no offense! Business, on the other hand, used to mean generating wealth. Now it’s more about hiding it offshore.

Here’s my specific situation: I made partner last November. Hurray! Our architecture practice is growing. Hurray, hurray! But we seem to have come to a major crossroads concerning our vision for the future — at which time there will be the inevitable downturn. Humph!

Last December I attended my first monthly upper-management strategy session. “Strategy,” I said to myself, “sounds like we’re planning some kind of war.” Oh, well, I’m new, and as the founding partners are fond of saying, “Someday, Sheila, all these problems will be yours.”

Here’s what I noted down regarding Strategy A: The Architecture as a Profession Approach, vigorously supported by four founding partners, one media consultant, and our COO.

Partner 1: “If you’re about to have open heart surgery, do you want the surgeon to remind you he’s ‘in business to make a buck, just like everyone else.’ ”?  My view is that we have to maintain a professional approach. The business model is about only one thing: profit margins — buying low, selling high. Of course, we have to make money to make payroll, but we have other goals as well — or should.”

Partner 2: “I subscribe to the European marketing model. Do something beautiful enough or useful enough and people will come to you. The American model of casting around for a need to fill just doesn’t hold up. Take the copying machine, the internet, jet skis — could anyone say he needed it until it was there in front of him?”

Partner 3: “The way I see it, big marketing campaigns are just a way of covering up the hard work of honing a proper vision, something we desperately need to do before throwing money around.”

Agreeing to disagree, the proponents of Strategy B: The Architecture as a Business Approach gnawed on their pencils, listening to all this, rotated their coffee cups, while surreptitiously checking their Facebooks. How do these guys expect to be paid their oh-so-professional dividends? was the message from one bushy, raised eyebrow. This group included our CEO, CFO, and Business Development chief (no surprise there!).

Professional or business model is my question — where’s the win-win, considering that this intractable problem will soon be mine.


Untethered Over the Pacific


Dear Untethered:

Congratulations on making partner. Remember that ad: Certs is a candy mint. No it’s a breath mint. You’re both right! The same holds true for advocates of Architecture as Business and Architecture as Profession. They’re both right.

I was at a party in Collingswood, New Jersey, two weeks ago, on a Friday following AIA 2016 in Philly — quite a posh party, thrown by Kitchen & Associates and Graphisoft. It did cross my mind: did the CFOs of these respective firms approve of such a lavish spread?

In any case, there at the desserts, I fell into conversation with Erich Morgan Karp, a sole practitioner in Portland, Oregon, with a growing practice and looking to add on. He had attended a lecture by Arthur Gensler. “It was the highlight of the whole convention, at least for me,” he said. “How Gensler had grown his company from three people to a multinational. He has no qualms about calling himself a business — and that was inspiring.

“I remember Gensler telling one story about taking a Jet Blue flight. Jet Blue’s chief executive happened to be on board. He asked to interview the passengers about their experience, adding that Jet Blue was expanding. When it came time for Gensler to introduce himself he said he was the head of an architecture firm and that his firm designed airports.

“The fact that his firm hadn’t actually designed an airport didn’t faze Gensler,” Karp said. “He got the job designing all 640,000 square feet of Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 at JFK. Now his book is on my to-read shelf, and I really need to get to it, attend more to the business side of things.”

Karp was a student of high-energy physics, but he didn’t get into a PhD program he was set on. “I took stock in myself,” he told me. “I realized I had read all the architecture books on my shelves for pleasure. Why not make a practice of it? Which is what I did. But business wasn’t something I knew about — and there were no courses offered in architecture school. They should be.”

Is Karp going to go for the Architecture as Business model full bore once he’s fully absorbed Gensler’s book, Art’s Principles: 50 years of hard-learned lessons in building a world-class professional services firm? Or will he remain with the Architecture as Profession model, deftly negotiating between tradition and innovation and hoping for the best?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be one or the other — business or professional —for any of us. Modern physics and modern marketing both confirm this non-duality: matter can be a wave or a particle, Cert’s a breath mint or candy mint, architecture a business or a profession. You’re both right. As for worrying about being lumped in with professional mud wrestlers or tax-evading-billionaire types, there’s always Prozac.

Louis Postel

© Louis Postel 2017, first published by Graphisoft USA