The Indicator: Modus Extremis

Architecture sans tourists. Photo by Guy Horton

I am constantly amazed by the extremes architects go to to realize their “vision” or to impress or even merely serve a client. Clients demand so much and architects seem to willingly bend to insane schedules that tax their people to the maximum. In the age of extreme everything, architecture is extreme working.

Of course sometimes good things can emerge from the pressures of compressing schedules. There are synergistic flows that can magically occur when people are working under the pressure of an impending deadline. Granted, sometimes pressure is a good thing that allows creativity to emerge.

There are times, however, when this approach becomes dysfunctional and counterproductive. It can even damage a business in the long run. It’s a hold-over from the indoctrination during school studios. Remember when they told you that 80 hours a week wasn’t enough to spend on your studio project? Or when they said nothing else mattered? Still trying to convince yourself that it’s true, aren’t you?

I’m thinking about this in part because in about a month our new book, The Real Architect’s Handbook is going to be released and I’ve been going over a few of the points within. Now that I’m back to full-time practice, many of the points are proving to be realities in my own life once again. In fact, much of the book is about how to have a life and be an architect, or how to balance life with work—which can apply to many demanding professions.

Architecture with tourists. Photo by Guy Horton

There I am with my family on a Sunday and I’m taking photographs of stone details at the Getty Villa with my wife’s i-Phone—I left mine at home. I can’t just take one shot. I take ten and then I find something else architectural that catches my eye. “Look how the formwork is expressed and bends into that elevator alcove,” I tell my wife. “Look at how those fixtures are recessed.”

I can feel myself getting seriously annoyed when tourists, people who have come to enjoy the Villa with their families, get in the frame and obscure the architecture. Sensing the urgency of my photographic endeavors they sheepishly push their wheel-chair bound grandmothers out of the way of the great architecture around the elevator and usher their small children, hunching and bowing to make way for my “vision.”

While my wife can appreciate good architecture and is very knowledgeable about it, at this moment she is more concerned with getting our four year-old daughter out of the blistering sun and over to the café—we had come for lunch, not an architectural tour. “Look, honey,” she says. “There’s the architectural tour. Maybe you should go on it.” At that moment I catch myself in my moment of architectural insanity on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and hand the i-Phone back.

Most of The Handbook was written when I had time and distance from the daily demands of working for an office. My wife also had a story to tell as the spouse of someone in the mind-lock of this cult-like discipline. All the points were developed while we both reflected back on my previous experiences in graduate school and in the midst of the architectural sub-culture…or cult as it sometimes seems. All that school-indoctrination sure worked on me.

I had to wait for all the tourists to move out of the way. Photo by Guy Horton

So about having a life, there is more of that in the book, but for the moment let’s address the issue of time. In short, there isn’t enough. Time management is absolutely crucial, not just to maintaining a little sanity at work (although the jury is still out about whether that is possible with constant internal, external, and just-to-keep-you-on-your-toes deadlines), but how to maintain a life. Ever heard this one, “I haven’t had a vacation in two years.” Or this one, “Yeah, I know everyone else on the team stayed ‘til ten.” Or this one, “I stayed late every day last week, what do you mean I should come in on the weekend?” Oh, wait, that one is probably just the dialogue you have with yourself. Still, time management is key. So, if you’re a firm, don’t let the client push you into a schedule that is unrealistic and frankly produces bad work. if you’re a manager, that means giving those on your team time enough to do the work. Properly and thoughtfully. And if you’re one of those team-members being rushed, it means taking enough time, and being assertive about it to your project leader. Even if it means it won’t be done tonight, but tomorrow. Because good work is what we’re all after, right? And at home? Well, there you’re on your own there. But in case you have a wife, as one of my former bosses told me, you’re wife is always right.

The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates.

New book out soon! ‘The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School’, by Sherin Wing and Guy Horton.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Modus Extremis" 28 Jul 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • James

    “Get a life” is just something that insecure people say to the creative people in our society once they have kids and don’t have any other choice but to pretend they made the right decision in forgoing their productive careers.

    They pretend like they forgot that a creative life is just as much a life as a 1950′s style nuclear family.

    And they pretend they forgot how enjoyable a creative life is because they secretly wonder if they regret the choice they made but can’t admit it to themselves – simply because there’s no going back once you have a kid and denial is really the only option unless you want to live your life with regret always on your mind.

    • MZ

      I used to think like this as well. But it was BEFORE I had kids.

  • Didier

    Not sure what you are talking about there James. There are plenty of creative people here around the office doing amazing work who have families.

  • Sam

    Good to see the hidden sexism is still alive

    • Spacer Nix

      @ Sam… I think you’ve gone LOOKING for sexism.

  • tincho

    this work (getty villa) from argentinan architects machado and silvetti its a great place to realise that good architecture (like everithing else) demands time…