I sometimes lay awake at night, worrying about the day’s schedule, or more productively, imagining a solution to a particularly vexing architectural or project management problem. Recently, I found myself trying to form a great first sentence, just one. If I could craft the words that make that sentence, a book (or a blog) would surely seamlessly follow. But, “Call me Ishamel” is taken as is ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”…. ; so, I think I’ll stop worrying about the words and start my story in the middle.
I recently turned fifty, a middle age I can only hope; and realize I have spent fully half this middle life at the helm of a residential architectural and design firm in Midtown Manhattan. Twenty-five years is a long time to do one thing over and over again, and yet this business of designing homes and working aside our clients, staff, and contractors feels as fresh as it did when I set out on this journey. Maybe more so.
What I lacked in the way of a roadmap, I certainly made up for in the absolute optimism and unearned confidence of a graduate degree recipient from a school (Columbia University) agreed to be tops in its field. 1991 was the third or fourth year of a meaningful recession, and among my peers, I was a lucky one, having numerous job offers allowing me to stay in New York and embark on a career in Architecture. And yet, there were catches. The most desirable jobs were those offered by professors, continuing the academically and critically significant work of our recently completed curriculum. Negotiating one of these, I had the temerity of a debt-laden recent graduate to inquire as to the terms, or more succinctly, the hours and pay. It was explicit; the hours would be approximately 80 per week, and pay for labor would be nil, until such time when my contribution to the practice would be valuable enough to warrant compensation. More like, “give ‘em hope”, it sounded to me.
While other societies and industries have similar exploitation and rites-of-passage structures (investment banking, and fraternities here in the States come quickly to mind); none I’ve run across are as consistently exploitive and lacking in providing a light at the end of the tunnel as ‘interning’ at a top-tier critically-acclaimed architectural firm. Of course, there were other options; one being to work in a large corporate office for reasonable pay – yet still with investment banker hours – but without much hope of creative exploration or ascension to associate or partner.
A third option, was to stay on the academic track, and to teach. I could never overcome the old adage, “those who can’t, teach”. The idea that a twenty-five year old had enough knowledge and wisdom to impart to students a few years younger seemed arrogant, a trait in which all of us as recent graduates had in excess. Most importantly, I had studied Architecture both as an undergraduate and graduate student, and had enjoyed internships and freelance work; and I wanted to join in the practice of Architecture, not teach.