Integration of the Professional Polymath: architect, artist, technician, builder, manager

February 23, 2005 · by Richard Swett, FAIA

Architects often succeed as leaders when they step outside of the conventional definitions they have given themselves.

Continued from Four Philosophical Cornerstones of the Architecture of Trust

Architects often succeed as leaders when they step outside of the conventional definitions they have given themselves. By the close of the 19th century, the architects' professional association in the United States, the American Institute of Architects (aia), was publicly and loudly insisting that architects, as a profession, be considered a cadre of master artists at the head of America's cultural table.

In the process of educating the public about the value of architecture, as well as directing the profession from within, architects slowly surrendered their position as the executives of the building process. As technology advanced and new technical proficiencies were applied to building design, increasingly the authority and responsibility formerly controlled by the architect were delegated or co-opted. As a result, the status of the architect changed from that of the leader of the building team to just the designer on a team of building experts. Add to this a contrived and widely promoted perception of the professional architect as a European-styled artist and soon architects were involuntarily losing a substantial measure of credibility in society's broader decision-making processes.

Not only did the other creative and building professions bridle at the idea that the artist-architect incarnation was their natural superior, but this self-imposed diminishment of the intrinsic attributes of the architect--that of master builder, technician, and team manager--had a lasting negative impact. For rather than embracing and promoting the diversity of skills that place architects among society's professional polymaths, this imposition of old-world elitism by the upper echelon drove the profession away from such an empowering self-realization.

Instead, prominent representatives of the profession spent decades pursuing a self-proclaimed artistic hierarchy that envisioned the architect at the top of a great cultural pyramid. Business, politics, and whole categories of the plastic arts were relegated to inferior positions in this social model.

After all, elitism is, by definition, the mechanism utilized by a minority to command entitlement over the majority. Of course, the vast number of buildings then constructed in America were not designed by the elite but by legions of the self-made who were trained on the job.Over time, the public's acceptance of this superficial stereotype of the egotistical artist architect contributed to the profession's increasing exclusion from the "table of first decision making."

Despite these setbacks, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the professional architect has functioned as society's professional polymath in daily practice, meeting ever-expanding demands with new ideas, new technologies, and new solutions. The making of architecture requires the precise orchestration of hard science, advanced mathematics, technical engineering, social and economic assessment, and, now, serious environmental and sustainability issues--far more than the self-evident aspects of art that we can see and appreciate for ourselves. Just like everyone else, architects can too often be their own worst enemies.

How helpful it would be to fully employ the multifaceted skills of architects as we revitalize our blighted inner cities or attempt the rebuilding of Iraq and other decimated countries. The professional polymath's ability to understand and balance competing issues is a daily preoccupation and is a facility many leaders lack. Our leaders are further challenged by the abundant temptations and distractions that are constantly at play in the political arena. Emphasis on a disciplined, ethical approach to problem solving has always been a hallmark of the architecture profession.

This central issue of ethics has been most famously exemplified by the extremism of the Howard Roark character in Ayn Rand's 1943 novel, The Fountainhead. His unyielding fealty to his artistic principle compelled him to destroy his own masterpiece project after learning of the owner's willingness to compromise the exterior of his building's design.

Architects, although seldom as arrogant or destructive in the expression of their principles as Roark, do tend to shy away from any activity deemed potentially unseemly or problematic, whether serving on a local planning commission or the board of a community institution (not art museums or professional organizations) or becoming actively involved in broader political activity. Every organization, from the local planning board to the U.S. Congress, could greatly benefit from the addition of an architect--the professional polymath--to its ranks. (continues on next page)

Click for Next Page: Visions of the Master Builder: First Define the Goals and Then Coherently Articulate Them

About the Book

This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of the book Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust by Ambassador Richard Swett, FAIA.
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Leadership By Design

This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.

Ambassador Richard Swett's groundbreaking new book investigates the unique civic leadership strengths of the architecture profession. Drawing upon the compelling history of the profession, both past and present, as well as from his own singular experience as the only architect to serve in Congress during the 20th century, Swett has produced an insightful volume that is both inspiring and instructive. He shares Mark Twain's view that "if the only tool you have is a hammer, after a while every problem begins to look like a nail." Leadership by Design is an eloquent plea to architects, leaders and citizens alike to expand the tool chest as we seek new leadership to design new solutions for the complex challenges facing our nation and the world.

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