Why I Left the Architecture Profession

  • 21 Oct 2013
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  • Articles Editor's Choice
Architects may love a good curve, but do they understand people? Image of Santiago Calatrava’s Valencia Complex. Image © Flickr CC User FromTheNorth

In the following article, which originally appeared on Medium as “What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don’t,” Christine Outram, bemoans that architects today just don’t listen to people’s actual needs.

Dear architects,

You’re outdated. I know this because I once was one of you. But now I’ve moved on. I moved on because despite your love of a great curve, and your experimentation with form, you don’t understand people.

I correct myself. You don’t listen to people.

In legal terms, an architect is the all seeing, all knowing, building professional. You are liable for anything that goes wrong with a building but if someone just hates the spaces you design? If someone feels uncomfortable, or cold, or scared? Well there’s no lawsuit for that.

I used to think it was impossible for you to respond to an audience in the way that tech startups do. These startups can build a product, release it over the Internet and adjust it based on the feedback they get. It’s an iterative process. Architecture, I thought, was too permanent for that. There was too much at stake, there was only one chance to get it right, there were too many variables. Blah blah blah.

But the truth is, most of you don’t try. You rely on rules of thumb and pattern books, but you rarely do in-depth ethnographic research. You might sit at the building site for an hour and watch people “use space” but do you speak to them? Do you find out their motivations? Do your attempts really make their way into your design process?

The world is changing. You have all these new tools at your fingertips. New tools that I don’t see you using and quite a few old techniques that you could get a lot better at.

This really hit home for me when I read a recent article on the design of Starbucks stores. Now you might hate Starbucks. You might believe they are a soulless commercial entity with no architectural merit at all, but do you know what they are good at? Responding to people’s needs and desires.

The article reads:

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted out of a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.

My dear architects. This is why Starbucks designed round tables in their stores. They were strategically created “in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee drinkers flying solo”. They were not round because the architect felt it looked better that way, they were not round because they were cheaper, they were round because as the article concludes“there are no empty seats at a round table”.

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers before determining that round tables would be the best solution for people. Image Courtesy of Medium.com

The round tables at Starbucks were the result of asking the question how do we want people to feel before considering what do we want them to do. 

Form follows feeling.

Now I’m not saying that all architects are dumb in this regard. Residential architects are often quite successful when it comes to building livable spaces. And then there’s Gehl Architects. They’re particularly known and respected for their ethnographic techniques — though these days they seem to focus on master plans and urban regeneration and I don’t think they really do architecture. Do they? And even then, I would have to assume that these architects employ old school methods of observation with limited sample sizes.

You have not, it seems, embraced the opportunities that the Internet has given to us. Opportunities like: polling a vast number of people using online tools or modeling the likelihood that a retail space will actually get foot traffic. No one wants an empty row of shops. It makes for a sad neighborhood. You could use and develop tools that help you understand if this will happen. But you don’t.

And as for the rest of the profession. Let’s face it, most commercial buildings, hospitals, and police stations are underwhelming. And even when they are pleasing to the eye, it doesn’t mean they are built to address human needs: if you don’t believe me, read this New York Times’ review of Santiago Calatrava’s buildings.

No wonder architecture has become a niche vocation. You don’t connect with people any more.

The problem is that architects seem to pray at the feet of the latest hyped-up formal language. I dare you. Flip through an architectural magazine today. Find any people in the photographs? I didn’t think so. Find plenty of pictures that worship obscure angles and the place where two materials meet? You betcha.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the profession grew up while I wasn’t watching and started throwing more than a cursory glance to the people who would inhabit their buildings. But what really drives it home is that the majority of you never perform post occupancy evaluations! (That one I can’t get over).

So if I’m wrong, prove it. For now I remain humbly disappointed.

Are you a current or former architect that wants to help us understand whether architects really do listen to people and which tools and techniques they use to do so? Fill in this survey. 

Christine Outram is a human-centered #smartcity and #bigdata strategist, music lover, and designer of the Copenhagen Wheel. She started her career practicing architecture and urban design in Australia. Since moving to the US, she’s been a research fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, founded the think tank City Innovation Group, and is currently the Senior Inventionist at Deutsch LA.

Cite: Christine Outram. "Why I Left the Architecture Profession" 21 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=440358>

124 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +271

    The words in this article sound as if they are written by one who has never truly experienced an architectural practice.

    Successful firms are typically driven by repeat business. A firm cannot sustain its business if it does not listen to its clients. Many decisions are driven by an owner’s wants and needs (whether for better or worse). Although part of an architect’s role is to interpret these desires and communicate the benefit of each with the owner, the owner is still in the driver’s seat.

    There is also the element of finances to consider. When it comes to architects (who provide a service, not a product), time is everything in terms of money. Many clients cannot afford months of research; or more importantly, they have already done research prior to hiring an architect. The most well-designed and well-crafted row of shops will still be empty (as you mention) if it was developed in the wrong neighborhood (site). Architects are typically not paid to select a site; this is the fault of the planner, developer, or owner.

    “The internet” is not the answer to creating successful architecture. Surveying mass amounts of people will often result in chaos by listening to the wrong people or skewing results based on “majorities” and attempting to make “democratic” decisions. You can’t design a successful middle school by asking only what 2,000 13-year old students want instead of the principal, faculty, custodians, and security officials need for a functional school.

    You draw a comparison to internet start-ups who can release a beta product and continue to evolve it. I challenge you to find an owner who wants to pay to renovate or completely overhaul their building every few months or annually.

    The concept of Starbucks using round tables should come as nothing innovative. The “rules of thumb” that you criticize would tell even a novice architect such rules as “round is comforting, sharp angles are uninviting.” These rules play into the “how do we want people to feel” element of the entire building design that you promote. I would argue that most architects focus on this before “what do we want people to do.” Don’t take Calatrava or other “starchitects” as an example of the profession. They are in a small minority. Owners likely hire these folks because they want a striking piece of art; an interactive sculpture. Sometimes these pieces of art are also functional; but know that is not their focus.

    You say that architects don’t question, interview, or listen to people. Perhaps you should be criticizing the practice(s) you have worked with; not the profession of architects as a whole. Every firm I have encountered based their success on listening to an owner’s needs. Every successful project evolves from bringing together executives, employees, janitors, cooks, teachers, students, residents–essentially every representative of the occupants–and asking them how their ideal space should function.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +8

      There is nothing wrong with architecture, but definitely there is something wrong with architecture practice these days.Yes, we can’t choose the site or responsible to financial constraints etc etc but as architect, we are responsible to our creation to space we have created.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +3

      It is quite an unfair point to say the writer’s of the article never truly experience architecture.
      What i saw here was two different architects with two polar views on architecture.

      While you mention on how success based on listening to an owner’s need, i saw that as a functional architecture. On how their ideal space should function. And on the architecture follows the needs of ‘space’. I agree that by following the needs of owner and guidelines you can called it a good architecture.

      But what the article’s writer talked about is more than functionality, it is how this ‘spaces’ actually makes the person using it feels. On bringing the emotions of each people. How to make a person feels serene once they enter a space, or feel the formalities of the space. Great architecture can convert people’s behavior.
      I admit this is the hard part on architecture. Very few architects succeed on translating these emotions into building works.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +75

    I agree – Architects do need to listen to people more. Charles Moore was a master at this for example. But I am also reminded of the Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +14

    …my last clients kept telling me to put the sunroom on the north side of the house (in the northern hemisphere) and so I ask you, who is guilty of not listening or understanding need…

    • Thumb up Thumb down +28

      Actually, a ‘sunroom’ on the northside of the house makes sense for some situations. With lots of glass, an occupant gets the view without the solar load. The occupant also see what the sun is illuminating, what the sun is bouncing off. One may also get a view on the north side that is not there to be seen on the south side. And in the southern hemisphere, there is more sunlight on the north face of buildings. So, presume nothing. Listen carefully before making a judgment.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +44

    The words in this article sound as if they are written by someone who has never experienced an architectural practice.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    …my last clients kept suggesting they wanted a sunroom on the north side of the design (in the northern hemisphere) and so I ask you, who is guilty of not listening or understanding need… In my experience clients usually get the designs they deserve…

  6. Thumb up Thumb down -20

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +54

    I agree wholeheartedly with what’s been said in this article, but why decide to leave the profession when you could initiate change by example within it?

    • Thumb up Thumb down +9

      Because losers generally quit.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +27

    I get the message, but at the same time clients should expect the architect to be somewhat combative. We are trained where they are not.

    I wouldn’t tell my surgeon how to do my surgery. That’s his job.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +19

    Go home Christene, you’re drunk.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down -37

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +101

    I was literally just in a Starbucks with nothing but square and rectangular tables and the coffee still tasted like shit – what a ridiculous article.

    Who are these boogeymen architects that the author refers to? I my experience, my colleagues struggle to create spaces that meet human need and improve human experience, but are consistently thwarted by budget, regulation and fashion trends. How many faux-historic duplexes loose usability because dormers and doric columns ate through budget? What about the building codes and zoning regulations that encourage and reward the monotonous and the bland? What about cheap developers and short-sighted clients?

    And “polling a vast number of people using online tools”, seriously? Opening up the design process to people who have no stake in the project at hand would be disastrous and would result in- guess what – something like Starbucks: a lowest common denominator design created to maximize company profit NOT user experience.

    This designer/architect-as-bad guy trope needs to be put to rest so we can have a serious adult conversation about design and architecture – maybe at one of those human experience-creating round tables I hear they have at Starbucks.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      Thank you for writing this. This author of this article looks like a moron by comparing starbucks to Architecture and then she thinks design can be created by online polling!?!?! She writes this as if the Architect picks the site and developer every time. She obviously has not worked at a great firm. I think her going to MIT has gone to her head because the tone of this article is as if she knows more then us.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +43

    All those reasons are precisely why I STAY in the profession.
    Architecture needs people that work hard at being good at what architects should do.

    If you feel you can’t perform well because others around don’t perform well, then it’s a good thing you left the profession. Thank you for that.

    You just made it that much easier for the rest of us to bring dignity back to architecture in the 21 first century.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down +11

    Architects must adhere to budgets that they very often don’t control and still make the buildings and interior spaces work. Those that can do it successfully remain architects. Those that don’t, well, they go on to other things. Like working at Starbucks.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +11

      I must admit that this article was truly engaging, not so much for its principles, but more for the controversial issues that the author made generalizations and sweeping statements about. I am a registered architect from Manila, Philippines (after several years of practice I decided to put up my own design firm), and it saddens me that the author staunchly claims that architects do not know how to listen to people. I believe that behind the success of every professional (whether s/he be a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect) is the ability to connect with people, understanding their clients’ needs and providing solutions that address those situations. If I were in the author’s shoes, the seeming discrepancy between principle and practice (which by the way would only be applicable to “starchitects” who shine either for their exemplarity or their eccentricity) would have challenged me to do something about it, contributing positively to how it can be improved, instead of giving up and criticizing architects for something of which it is not their fault, much less something to be guilty of… I challenge the author to rectify her stand and give due credit to this noble profession that dates back to antiquity, way back from the Greek and Egyptian civilizations, and will persist for as long as humans would need shelter and vertical structures for their sense of well-being.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      In my experience, this is a large part of the problem. We are so overwhelmingly concerned with efficiency that we sacrifice basic human comfort.

  14. Thumb up Thumb down +10

    we do not agree.
    unfortunately the last thing that’s considered in designing the mentioned commercial buildings is the user. there are far too many economical, ecological, political factors that are put before that. the position of the architect nowadays is too weak, being caught inbetween investors, building regulations, project managers to name just a few.
    the complexity of planning has become very high, while at the same time the bulidung has to be efficient, CO2 neutral, as cheap as possible, and ready to use as quickly as possible.

    if you want a good result, you have be patient and put in the time and money. if you want it quick and cheap and only look for return on your invest – your building will inevitably be shit.

    (and in the end, you can conveniently blame it all on the architect. for “not listening to the people”…)

    so mrs. outram: we do not agree with you.
    you just need to look at the projects where the client takes an actual interest in the architecture. there are so many good examples. i’m sorry if you were frustrated with your job.

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +62

    Sorry, but where is the big data that Christine collected prior to writing this “article”? How many hundreds of architects, or clients did she interview? This is just an arrogant act of self promotion.

  16. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    I really like the way this article looks at the profession from people’s side. I myself am a new-born architect, still young , inexperienced and in denial of most of my profession’s way of working. But. I am happy to say, that I studied in different European universities and today’s architecture generation is different. We are interested in people. We do talk to them, and we do address the task through the methods, that are not common to older architecture generations. I think the problem is, that as an unestablished architect you are forced to work ‘by the rules’ before you can do anything about it. Therefore, not to sound heroic or naive, but I think architects do notice people’s needs, young companies change the method of work and research is becoming more and more important in all projects. I just think architects with actual interest in people are overlooked and treated like they are spending time on things no one cares about. That interest needs to be turned around.

  17. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    Although it undoubtably true that some architects are obsessed with daring formal dexerity and esoteric design concepts to the detriment of any appreciation of how people actually USE buildings (I’m looking at you, Peter Eisenmann), I think there are other contributing factors to the shortcomings of contemporary architectural practice that cannot be addressed if you only consider the values and behaviour of architects themselves.

    The author’s assertion that residential architects tend to be the most successful at buiding livable spaces, I think, is what starts to point us in the right direction to look further in this regard. In residential projects, the client of the building also tends to be the USER of the building, giving the architect a direct, personal appreciation of how their design will touch on everyday life.

    Unfortunately, for the majority of architectural commisions, this is not the case: in large public projects, the client will often be a committee of civil servants and in large private projects, a developer looking to maximise profit as much as possible. In both of these set-ups, the architect is isolated from the end user of the building and has little direct incentive to try and understand them. Similarly, there is little incentive for those who commision large projects to think far beyond their bottom line. Understanding social behaviour takes time and money, which architects and clients alike (rightly or wrongly) feel that they cannot afford to invest.

    Companies like Starbucks may break the mould and make a concious attempt to understand how customers actually use their spaces, but the vast majority of clients remain disinterested in this and nobody has yet to give them any good reason to think otherwise. The architecture profession may need to reassess its priorities, but that’s only the start of the battle.

  18. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    This is exactly why I left architecture, and moved to a profession where I have a far more positive influence on people lives. I have learned more about architecture from sociologists, anthropologist and programmers… yes programmers that are forced to make things that work (or the user will run away), not just looks good enough that it can be featured by arch daily ;)

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Ever head of Coleman Coker? Famous American Architect who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – you choose your career – and you choose who benefits from it

  19. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    I am just a student of architecture from INDIA, and what I learnt from architecture is that, If all great minds like Le corbusier, Michel Jackson, Elvis Presley etc. if they ask people what kind of things you want, they will always do what ever the peoples suggests them to do. They will never get their identity, and the world never had them and their beyond normal thinking opinions. So its good to ask people and talked to them that what they want, and than compile your thoughts according to their need. And my dear friend I hope that you heard the so called thought ” no design is 100% perfect “…. its just that you give your best what ever you do.

  20. Thumb up Thumb down +15

    “Go home Christene, you’re drunk” -intoxicated with coffee. One more thing, interior designing is not an Architecture :)

  21. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    I think your points lean much more toward “Starchitect” offices. I have been in small practices majority of my career and I can honestly say the needs and desires of the client have always gone to the forefront of the decision making process and when you may disagree with something they are pushing, you try to sell a better solution. With this thinking we always had repeat clientele for jobs ranging from large new construction to the most minor alteration or even violation procurement.

    As architects we are truly spatial psychologists in which we are aware that any space we design will evoke some form of occupant emotion or reaction. With that in mind I don’t believe every architect has their own motive to push their design initiatives only. We hold too much responsibility both legally and socially. That is just my take though.

  22. Thumb up Thumb down +10

    “Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted out of a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.”

    And this is why many so Starbucks have a drive-thru.

  23. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Our ideas should urged the peoples to like them, if we only do what the people wants world will never have new ideas and thought… and in that case my friend I am quite afraid that we might stand at the point when the evolution of mankind starts….

  24. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    I believe it may fall into the “magazine architects” as some mentioned below or real estates (that car about money), but as an Architect I have learned that the most important thing is to build FOR the people, without people there is no architecture. And I don’t think I’m the only one that believes this in the profession. No real research in what architecture is focused now in this article. In the last Biennale in Venezia there was a whole room with only kitchen cabinets and it was the reflection of just this… with no movement, or people or LIFE it just doesn’t make sense. We do look at the space, but we do also speak to people, and ask what they want. They are also big firms who already have new technology where they can measure what a “space” produces in a person emotionally from seeing which part of the brain highlights. I believe they do care, we do care. And if they are not teaching this in some schools I wouldn’t recommend them.

  25. Thumb up Thumb down +10

    Very interesting point of view. But I still don’t understand your reasons for leaving the architecture profession. I believe the only way of changing todays architecture is living inside todays architecture. If we think something is going wrong, then lets do something to change it.

  26. Thumb up Thumb down +8

    Architecture magazines, Santiago Calatrava, Jan Gehl and Starbucks are not representative for my view of the profession called architecture. I’m doing social and environmental projects in development countries, it is hard working most of the time, but I’m doing it because architecture is ONE of the tools to deal with the challenges within this part of the world, and it is worth every minute when you see the changes. I’m NOT disappointed that you generalize the whole profession, I’m NOT disappointed that you called the effort of my likes and me an outdated niche vocation, but I am disappointed that you left architecture, then who will prosper from your brilliant ideas?

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Hi Tron! where do you work? I am a student but i was always interested in working in developing countries cause that’s where the changes that you make are most influential I guess. Are you involved in some organization or firm? And is that government projects that you are doing or design-build on your own? thanks.

  27. Thumb up Thumb down +21

    Why is Arch Daily giving any air time to this sort of drivel. The article demonstrates that it’s author has very little experience in the profession, nor any understanding of the processes involved in building. Which is why it is so reliant on broad, sweeping, unsubstantiated generalisations. By giving this Palinesque like rant traction you have besmirched yourself Arch Daily.

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