Architect Schmarchitect…Media, Edit Yourself

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ezekiel Emanuel, John Tanton, Roger Noriega, Anwar Sadat, Heinrich Himmler, Alberto Gonzales, Leszek Balcerowicz, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Creamer, Marshall Ganz, Liz Fowler, David Cutler, and to beat all, Karl Rove. All have something in common. Google “Architect of…” and you will find all of these individuals listed as “the Architect” of one thing or another. Actually, Karl Rove is just noted as “The Architect,” and is referred to on Fox News all the time as “the Architect.”

I had no idea there were so many architects in public life, especially in government. And none of them are architects!

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Why do we as humans do this kind of crap? What’s in us that causes us to debase a wonderful institution in good standing just to elevate some guy or gal in the eyes of the reader or listener? Why do “the media” do that?

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Karl Rove… An Architect? No.

This practice has some pretty ghastly consequences for those of us who are actually in the architectural profession. It lumps us with the likes of the Architect of Terror (the aforementioned Mohammed) and the Architect of Genocide (the aforementioned Himmler.)

Here’s the fear for many of us in the profession: When people hear the word “architect” over a period of time, due to word association, the word will lose its prominent historical cachet. Personally, I don’t want to be word-linked to the architect of Abu Ghraib torture or the architect of the Rule of Terror in Haiti.

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I completely understand the importance of altering the perception and meaning of words to develop greater understanding and to evoke emotions. I understand that our language is ever evolving. I understand the art. What I have difficulty understanding is why, by word association, it is acceptable to demean the good standing of architects and to disgrace an entire profession. If this practice is allowed to permeate all facets of our culture, it can eventually degrade some of our most valued and cultured institutions and thereby corrupt certain aspects of our civilization. Such a practice could potentially turn us into a second-rate civilization. Well, that may be over the top, but it’s important to those of us who are actually licensed in the profession to not be tarnished by those who are not.

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Thomas Jefferson, architect? Yes.

Let’s stay with government “architects” for a moment. The media has labeled five Obama administration individuals as “architects,” including Marshall Ganz, the architect of Obama’s 2008 field campaign, and Ezekiel Emanuel, David Cutler, Liz Fowler and Robert Creamer as the “architects of Obamacare.” I don’t think there have been so many prestigious architects in the White House since Thomas Jefferson. The difference being that Jefferson actually was an architect.

One of the worst parts of all of this is that the organizations which represent my profession stand by and let this kind of humiliation occur, just as attorneys have. And I surely don’t want to be lumped together with attorneys and politicians-groups who have allowed their professions to be so tarnished and misunderstood that they are considered lower than used-car salesmen.

I am writing about this because I’m tired of my profession being sullied and corrupted by people who really don’t know what architects do. The last straw for me was when an electric shaver was named “The Architec.”

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What Architects Do
The Greek origin of architect is arkhitekton, which means (arkhi) chief (tekton) builder. Webster’s describes an architect as:

A person who is involved in the planning, design, and oversight of a building’s construction.

It also says:

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An architect is a person who translates a user’s requirements into a built environment.

As an architect, I was cut from the same cloth as those we refer to as “old school” architects. We practice the profession in which the architect was the boss. The architect was God. (I’ll get to the legal aspects of being a God in a minute.) The origins and evolution of the profession put the architect in the position of the overseer of all the multiple disciplines that are involved in the creation of the built environment. This historic umbrella position that the architect holds is why the media likes to refer to various non-architects as “architects.”

Webster’s also says:

Although the term “architect” refers to a professionally-qualified individual, the word is frequently used in the broader sense to define someone who brings order to a built or non-built situation.

So let me ask this: If it is all about bringing order to the world, then why in God’s name are so many tagged with the title when they’ve caused so much disarray and screwed things up so badly?

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The God Syndrome
Many architects I know seem to be a tad bit schizophrenic. I mean that in a nice way. It’s a left-brain, right-brain thing, creative and analytical at the same time. Many are humble and sensitive by nature and at times demure, mainly because they are always sucking up looking for work.

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Frank Lloyd Wright, architect? Yes.

Architects are taught how to critique their own projects and how to be critiqued by others; this means being criticized all the time. The constant criticism can cause odd defensive behaviors in some architects; at times may be misread as arrogant and bossy. Then again, some architects are arrogant, bossy and full of themselves like anyone in any profession because they are jerks. Then there are those who come across as arrogant, bossy and full of themselves because of the station in life they hold, due to the nature and practice of the profession.

Owners can own projects and developers can develop projects. They can also sell their projects and walk away. And God forbid, if something goes wrong on a project, they can be personally shielded financially (legally) with a corporate buffer or by the sheer fact that, in the eyes of the law, they are considered dumb. That’s why states require the hiring of contractors and architects on projects of certain types and sizes: to protect the public from those who are considered risky in the ways of designing and building.

A contractor can be personally insulated by a corporate structure as well. That means they won’t be held personally liable if something goes wrong on a building project unless there is gross negligence or fraud.

The architect, on the other hand, is held to a higher standard. In the earliest days of the profession, an architect could be put to death if anyone died on their project. That practice has been annulled over the millennia and replaced with the architect being liable for his or her project for as long as they lived. That practice has also been voided. Today, there are limits to an architect’s potential liability. In many states, for example, an architect is liable for his or her decisions, as well as the work and actions of others, for 15 years. This means that if you, as an architect, indicate that a project is build-able, you are liable for it and for what may occur in and around your building for a long time. This long-term responsibility for the work of others is also why many architects act as they do. This professional station, coupled with disproportionate personal liability, is the framework for the “God Syndrome” that many architects display.

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Media, Mend Your Ways
I’m sure the media has researched the legalities of all of this and uses the moniker “architect” to show how brainy and gifted certain individuals are in non-architectural like. And I’m sure many in the media are also aware that in most states, if not all states, there are laws restricting the use of the word “architect” — it’s only for those licensed to practice. This is why the media should choose its words more carefully.

I suppose the press figures it isn’t necessary to take such words so seriously. The pen isn’t very powerful, so how would it have an adverse effect on anyone? Besides, if you’re not liable for your actions, who cares? It is possible that the press isn’t aware of the implications of ever-changing words and their definitions in the aggregate and over a long period of time. Or they may be unaware and possibly insensitive to how the inept use of words can hurt others. Or maybe they just don’t know.

Hopefully they do now.