What Architects Do Doesn’t Count

  • 14 Sep 2012
  • by
  • Coffee with an Architect

Yesterday, a good friend of mine wrote “It doesn’t count, unless it’s built.”

I read this, and thought. “I completely agree with this”. And, then my head began to hurt. More.

Because, what does that say about my work? (I don’t mean the obvious reference to my lack of built work the last few years). No, I mean in general, my work isn’t about a built project. It’s about a vision of an unbuilt project. Or more specifically, my work is about visualizing an as yet realized building. My work isn’t a physical thing that you can order from Amazon. My work is not a thing at all. It’s a path to a thing.

I meet with a client. I listen to them describe their idea of this thing that doesn’t exist yet, and then I begin to work. I slowly use the tools of my trade to bring into focus an image of what that idea can become. It’s a poetic endeavor really; making these images of forms and light that point towards someone else’s hopes for their future. It’s a translucent profession, not an opaque craft.

more after the break

So, if it doesn’t count until it’s built? What was I working on this whole time? And, I’m not going to build it. Someone else is going to do that. I’m creating the guidelines for it’s construction. Someone else is going to take those documents I slaved over for months and months and use them to guide the construction of someone else’s building. It doesn’t count, unless it’s built? Does that mean that the true value of a project is only realized at the end? Does the process count? Yes, of course it does. But, then again, what does the client value? The process? Or, do they just see that as a means towards the end that they truly value?

Every client I’ve had has been passionately concerned about “their” building. None have been overly passionate about the documents and concepts I’ve created. Those are just pieces of paper. No one is ever passionate about pieces of paper. But, those markings on that paper represent potential. They point towards the thing; the unrealized physical form. So, when we get excited by the markings on the paper, it’s because they enable us to see what isn’t there yet. We’re excited because we can picture the possibility.

But, if the work needs to be realized for it to count? Then it’s possible that all my efforts, all the efforts of my profession actually, have no real value.

Because we don’t design the destination.

We design the path.

{via coffee with an architect}

So, what do you think. Where does the value of the profession lie? Does it matter? It’s worth a discussion.


Here’s Bob Borson’s response to my post over at Life of an Architect..

the photo is from Bjorn Giesenbaue’s Flickr stream and has been used under the creative commons license

Cite: Brown, Jody. "What Architects Do Doesn’t Count" 14 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=271744>
  • gusta

    it´s not architecture untill it´s built. if it´s not built then is just planning, theory and design.

    • mehran

      I think there is no such a profession called theory, planing and design. They are a part of a larger profession called architecture, if they happen, so does architecture.

  • Flavia Quintanilha

    I think your work counts. Well, I think at least mine does. 

    I design mostly houses, and as the time goes by, i learn diferent uses for my work.

    Among regular clients, I had a couple that wanted a new home just to save their marriage. Most of them used the process of discusssing with architects their different wanting as a metaforic way to discuss what they expected their future to be. Eventually they broke up and the house was never built, but their new future were.

    I had clients who didn’t have the money to build a house, but had enough to hire me to design one so they could dream of. We went all the way, even picking the materials and choosing the exact texture of wood we would use. That was the way they found they could feel as they had the house without having to be seriously commited to it. And they felt good about it.

    I had clients who disovered, during the process, that it wasn’t a house that they wanted, but something else. But they would never find out that if they hadn’t hired an architect.

    So, I think architects have more power than they usually know. 

    I can see your point, but to say that our work doesn’t count is simply denying this power.

  • Daddyarqui

    It’s not that “it doesn’t count”, but is really sad that all the work that is done it just finishes in paper. We design “things” so they could be used.

  • Andrew Schiffer

    Architecture for Architectures sake (in the unbuilt sense) is pointless. That’s part of the challenge of Architecture, it’s not easy to make things in steal and concrete. I hate it when an Architect talks about unbuilt work in a lecture, because while it might be beautiful work, part of the Job description of an Architect is that it gets built. If we all just followed “the path” we would just be a bunch of weirdos wearing black, drinking coffee and living in our own utopia full of unrealized ways in which our designs could have changed the world.

  • tochavanes

    Is it a matter of faith ? Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the sign that the things not seen are true. Architects lives always by making things not yet seen … that what maybe does count the most !

  • Mare

    I’ll tell you only one name: Ivan Leonidov.
    He was a Russian architect that built only a couple of staircases in his career, but he is a name that cannot be overseen in any history of architecture. He also influenced many contemporary architects: Archigram, Koolhaas, etc.

  • evan troxel

    Here’s the thing: We draw a lot of stuff that never happens… but it is experimentation, development of ideas, etc. that make their ways into other projects that do get built in other forms. None of it is waste. This is not a black or white argument.

  • Dan

    designing/planning produces graphics and information.
    construction (building profession) produces buildings. Neither is mutually exclusive. Syd Mead and Norman Bel Geddes did their fair share of drawing and planning with regards to buildings (and more!), but are not architects. Even the word architect finds its root in construction, not planning.

    Architecture exists at the intersection of planning and implementation. Designing and building if you will.

  • 2cents

    maybe you should build models in the process and then you would end up with at least small phyisical things / could be possibly sold on amazon…

  • Arin Bukhari

    it doesn’t count unless it gets built…. very true to every sense of the words….as a full fledge architect, i believe that…. what differs an architect from an artist and a poet is that an architect realises his dream and is brave enough to materialise it physically. as much as realising dreams on papers and describing by sketches and 3 d views and fly thru animations to sell ideas to clients, which my toddler niece and 8 year old nephew are pretty much good at it too, the tango lies in the totalily of transfering the ideas from butter paper or 3d computer software to the actual ground for what it is meant to be….architect in the old original sense of the word is a master builder…we tell how we want it built, lead the team to build it and realise our ideas for the client to believe they get what they want and paid for….. my question – why stop and just brag about what’s on the paper when we call ourselves architect….

  • C.P.T.L.

    “It doesn’t count, unless it’s built.”

    Naturally one wishes to see “it” built, and even wishes for it so badly that well realized plans seem insignificant.

    There is an ounce of truth in the saying, but only an ounce, and a significant truth is done an injustice by omission.

    An idea matters to others to the extent the individual can transmit the totality of the idea to another person or persons.

    An idea in a person’s mind only matters to that individual.

    We are to presume the quoted friend is speaking of more than just a sketch on a napkin when he or she says, “it.”

    If we take “it” to mean a building realized on paper or a computer program, in essence the blueprints necessary for a building’s construction, “it” certainly does “count.”

    Some ideas take a whole book to transmit to other people, and even at that the ideas are open to interpretation.

    But in architecture one works in the realm of the finite.

    The entirety of the idea can be transmitted to others.

    Blueprints and picture realizations and necessary notes, if done to a complete enough degree, can be said to be all that is necessary for one to erect the building.

    The hard work of getting the idea out of the mind and translated into that which others can use is done.

    Plans like that outlive the architect.

    That counts.

  • Aditya Jeswal

    fantastic article!!… for what it says but also what it does implies,… our work unfortunately can only be digested by clients/ viewers/users after completion,…. they cannot ‘see’ the project and all its potential until it leaves the paper and gets formed in concrete, brick and mortar. That is the burden of our cross…. and it is this which makes us and our profession unique in its potential to create something from the space of our minds that can bring so much to those who cannot ‘see’….. all creators face this question. The answer, ofcourse, is that it counts.

  • Eric in Colorado

    I certainly understand your basic premise here, but I agree with Bob. The goal of the process is to have a thing that can be occupied and that will help the users live and enjoy their lives. “Architecture” is not about the tools. If it is, and you’re being paid for it, kudos to you, but I believe you need a different title.

  • Gary Allman

    So what’s wrong with inspiring others through your vision? Jules Verne never built any of the machines he envisioned, but he inspired countless others to try.

  • Martin Kostov

    I count everything that pays my bills or just makes me happy.

  • mehran

    “architect in the old original sense of the word is a master builder” “part of the Job description of an Architect is that it gets built” “Even the word architect finds its root in construction, not planning.”
    These Comments may be true but as times change so does the meaning of words, we dont live in the times of Alberti any more…

  • Ermite

    It depends on what kind of angle you take for envisioning architecture.

    In socio-politico-economic point of view “totally ancored in reality”, only the built projects could reflect the harsh reality of our social environment where socail acceptace is narrowed down by cost effectiveness, cultural awareness and routinized politico-economical decision making process. Cause, in the end, a built project is a materialized result emerging from the complicastion of all those conditions.

    However, this “harsh” reality couldn’t deny and refute the operational importance of unbuilt project. Cause, no metter what should be the name of this unbuilt project – a sketch, a paper architecture or an option -, this unbuilt project is the christalization of our thinking, vision and conceptual approaches, which slowly get impregnated into the process of materialized ones (so the built ones).

    What your friend didn’t realize about this subject should be the time gap between conceptualization and its materialization. Materialization takes lot much more steps/filters or obstacles, comming from the routinized realities.

    I think we can only make progress when we successfully connect these two dimensions by a plausible and effective process which can reduce considerably the time gap.

  • Anna

    I know in Australia at least the term architect is legally protected and the job of a registered architect is distinct from that of a building designer. Architects do contract administration, i.e., they deliver the building, building designers don’t.

  • medura

    Unfortunately only a few people value project. They are ready to pay higher-priced amounts for a tool that they will use in their houses.

    Sometimes some people understand what architecture means when they see buildings built without architecture. But very low percent of people :(

  • Monica

    I’m only an Architecture student, I don’t have any buildings (yet), so for me your work counts. But the most important thing about all your work is that, even though it might never be built, it influences your future work. And if you are lucky, it might even influence someone else.
    The built design itself contains all your previous work, all the past pieces of paper, the time you spent on that project and in all of your previous projects.
    If you are lucky enough to get one of your designs built, it means that you have learned enough from all the work you made before it (unless you’re rich and have many contacts).