If you want success, find a way to make a strong client even more successful through your design.

It was more than three years ago that we forecast that Santiago Calatrava would be the next recipient of the AIA Gold Medal; this finally came to pass earlier this month. The decision was no surprise, except for its time in coming. This architect/engineer leads a firm that requires no time sheets, has an intense work ethic, and whose in-house attorney (Mrs. Santiago Calatrava) daily scrutinizes and negotiates custom contracts.

In its own quixotic way, this firm challenges most of the conventional wisdoms of our time—it is generalist AND specialist. They have a transcendent global appeal in every culture around the planet. They take exceptionally high aesthetic risks, while consistently delivering economic success for clients and communities. Calatrava has become as familiar and influential as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano (the most likely 2006 Gold Medalist we think), and Norman Foster. He is a genuine innovator of sculpture and form who affirms the fundamental power of architecture. Every single project has brought value to client and community alike; even the Athens Olympics Committee was infused with the “on-time” confidence of Calatrava’s team. It just works, in every sense of the word. This example has relevance for every practicing professional.

AIA recognition is not only overdue, but will also leverage the profession as a whole. AIA can relax their ad budget. Calatrava has merged the language of architecture with the language of transformative economic change. He is not afraid to raise money for his clients and he tells them early on that he “believes in their future.” He puts himself into his client’s story and carves out a role of indispensability. His confidence rubs off. His discernment, collaboration and even delegation raises the bar consistently. It’s an infectious enthusiasm that communities feel. They see their potential through the eyes of the architect, and clients embrace change that brings ascendancy of both form and spirit. There are many lessons we can learn from Calatrava, but let’s start with four:

Lesson One

If you want success, find a way to make a strong client even more successful through your design. In the Calatrava paradigm, each meeting, (let alone the final project) is valuable.

Lesson Two

The right solution may likely cost more money. Calatrava teaches us to negotiate for the best solution that pays long-term dividends. The Milwaukee Art Museum budget grew from $30 million to more than $100 million as the benefits of the design were made clear. This short-term pain will prove to be long-term ROI.

Lesson Three

Pick your clients very carefully. Be aware of fees, ethics, toxic cultural mix, and other things that can sabotage the best-laid plans. The chemistry and the project plan need committed parties who understand complexity and reward.

Lesson Four

Know that it is possible to delegate excellence. Other architecture consultants—the acoustic and lighting consultants, engineers, contractors, and product manufacturers all play key roles in Calatrava’s design. Everyone is important. The Calatrava paradigm doesn’t seek to control everything, but writes the score and conducts the orchestra that creates the art. Calatrava, the architect as generalist in this regard, provides energy and leadership for the whole team.

Calatrava is a mentor providing lessons to each designer on how to creatively combine form, function and finance. And once you see the wisdom and sense of it all, you can design your fees and success accordingly.

—James P. Cramer