My recent blog post and people's continuing discussion in the comments section about OHSU's opportunities in South Waterfront given their recent $40 million windfall, in which I argued for a signature building by a top-shelf architect, got me thinking about a related issue: the ego that can often accompany great talent.
In the last few years, the word "starchitect" has entered the lexicon to describe the cult of celebrity surrounding a select few famous names: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, and so on. But world-famous architects aren't the only ones given to inflated egos.
What I've always found interesting about architects is that they, like film directors, must navigate very large, expensive, and necessarily collaborative processes involving lots of other people. A film director is more explicity an artist than an architect, because film usually is entertainment whereas a building, for all its potential beauty, needs to function in a practical way for its inhabitants - at least in most cases. Still, there's no denying the mountainous creativity needed to pull off a beautiful, inspiring and enduring work of architecture. And when you successfully design a great building, it's hard to top. I think it was Frank Lloyd Writght who called architecture 'the mother art'.
Still, that 'mother artist' usually has a client sweating bullets over the budget as well as contractor and subcontractor colleagues who have to work with the designer to make it a reality. And sometimes architects, like people of all kinds who create something personal and of passion, can be possessive and prickly about their babies. I already brought up Wright, and he's the ideal example of someone whose talent was matched perhaps only by his ego. That's not typical of most any architects I know, but it certainly exists. Sometimes the people whose talent should generate plentiful amounts of self confidence are in reality the most insecure. I hope one doesn't have to require the other.
I'm curious what the rest of you have to say about working with talent architects who also happen to be a handful. Have you dealt wih a diva who cops an attitude as l'artiste extraordinaire and whines at every pragmatic reality? Or is it just the opposite, that architects are a misunderstood bunch we just don't appreciate enough? After all, they're the last line of defense from ugliness. Maybe sometimes you have to be an uncompromising jerk to make the best architecture happen. But still, I'm not talking about being uncompromising: sometimes that is a virtue. (Randy Gragg's Sunday Oregonian article about the tram and its designer, Sara Graham, is a good example of this. I'm glad she fought hard!) Instead, I'm talking about acting like you're God's gift to the art architecture, and I don't see how that helps anyone - including the architect.
Before you answer, keep in mind that this is absolutely not, I repeat not, about naming names. This is not the place for attacking any individuals per se. I don't want to hear about how Architect X is a weasel or Designer Z a primadona. The last thing I want to do is damage anybody's reputation. But I would love to hear some good advice, ideas or anectdotes people out there have about the issue of architects and ego. Think fun and not furor. And if there are architects reading this and getting offended, let me be the first to offer that writers like myself are just as susceptible to inflated ego if not more.
And to bring it back around to the original topic of OHSU and a signature building or any other client that considers that possibility, I also want to emphasize that great talent and ego needn't go hand in hand. Good architecture also doesn't necessarily have a direct correlation to what kind of a person you are. There are jerks who have designed duds and nice guys who have designed masterpieces, just as we now the reverse is certainly true. The point is to embrace great design. It just happens more palatably from a human relations standpoint with some than it does with others.