Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
It’s a Wonderful Life
by Daniel Frisch
Posted November 14th, 2018

During our Monday Morning meetings, I often use sports metaphors like ‘playing extra holes’ to demonstrate a particular idea such as scope creep. When explaining our STUDIO Program, DFA uses the terms “a la carte” and “prix fixe,” two clear descriptors lifted straight from restaurant menus. Most often, I use movies – favorite blockbusters, usually – when calling upon cultural references to illustrate a theme. Below are some of my most frequently quoted movies.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

I hadn’t heard of the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life until my first year at the University of Virginia. One of the student organizations sponsored showings before Christmas, and it seemed as if the entire student population attended this annual rite. I joined the madding crowd, but with little expectation that the film would have a lifelong impact.

The film’s simple themes are as relevant today as when I first saw the movie, and as in 1946 when the film first aired.

–           Slow and steady wins the race.

–           We each affect the lives of many more people than we realize.

–           Wealth should be measured not in dollars, but in the quality of friendships.

–           A life of principle has more meaning than a life of materialism.

–           A small town life is as rewarding as big city glamour.

I am proud of how our office culture reflects these themes, and especially so of how we bring a small town sensibility to our big city practice. George Bailey is a pretty fine role model.

 

The American President

I reference this Rob Reiner film very frequently, almost as often as I watch it when it comes on late at night.

The President is, of course, the ultimate CEO, and the humorous portrayal of the commander in chief’s difficulty fulfilling the simple task of buying flowers without assistance from his team echoes the process of delegating tasks in any venture– not to avoid the work, but to ensure the work gets done right.

Many of the political issues remain priorities today (gun control, global warming, character defamation), but the line I quote most frequently is Michael Douglas’ climax statement; “ I was so busy doing my job, that I forgot to do my job.” What a lovely reminder to focus on the actual performance of one’s job rather than the applause and critiques proffered by others.

There is a second line I often quote: “Has he lied? Has Bob Rumford lied? Other than the fact that I went Stanford, not Harvard, has Bob Rumford lied?” We often feel ourselves unfairly put on the defensive, criticized over trivialities. I quote this line to remind us that, sometimes, the criticism may be factually accurate, even if not relevant to our performance or overall report card.

 

When Harry Met Sally

Another Rob Reiner Classic.

No last line of a movie better describes the enthusiasm of starting a project or a new venture, or the urgency and excitement that comes with all the beginning of a creative endeavor: “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” We feel this way every time we start a project.

 

Shawshank Redemption

In a similar vein as the climax in When Harry Met Sally, Red (Morgan Freeman) says on the bus to Mexico as he sets out to meet Andy:

“I find I am so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” We start every project – at least I hope we do – with this sense of excitement and optimism.

A second favorite line is: “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure and time. That, and a big goddamn poster.” In our case, patience, perseverance, hard work and whole lot of talent.

And finally: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

 

Working Girl

In collaboration with clients, engineers, consultants and builders, architects solve complex problems. Very often, the solutions are nuanced and complicated, and the elegant or straightforward solution is overlooked. Tess (Melanie Griffith), a secretary and the protagonist of Working Girl played by Melanie Griffith, provides an unexpectedly simple and elegant solution to a baffling problem – how to get a truck unstuck from under an underpass. “Let a little air of the tires.”

We rely on this concept of ‘letting a little air out of the tires’ when we feel the complexity of the answer to a problem is keeping us from a more straightforward and elegant resolution. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

 

Schindler’s List

This film is more serious and significant than the rest of this catalog of (mostly) romantic comedies, and the hubris of any comparison between the extraordinary accomplishments of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and our efforts is self-evident. Notwithstanding, Oskar Schindler’s statements of accounting and self-assessment – that he could have done more – is a theme that underlies our culture. In our own way, we do make a difference in people’s lives, and our efforts to grow the business stem directly from our desire to share our efforts with more clients, to have more employees join the firm and enjoy our affirmative culture, and to share these opportunities with the talented contractors, tradesmen, and craftsmen who collaborate on our projects.

Every December, our firm joins one of our favorite contracting teams at their holiday party. The firm employs eighty people, in addition to subcontractors, and the owners of the company invite all of the employees, subcontractors, and their families – around 250 people. At some point late in the evening, the owner of the company (Gus) invariably puts his arm around my shoulder, and somewhat weepily insists I take in the standing room only venue, and says, “if not for DFA, his employees’ jobs would be in question, and while they would probably find other jobs, they are far better-off because of our firms’ collaboration.”

It seems to me, given such positive reinforcement, that there is always a way to do a little more. We make a difference, how we can make even more of one?

 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

I recently read a book titled Uneasy Street; the Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman. I’ve purchased countless copies for colleagues and it’s part of the bibliography of these essays. The book chronicles affluent New York City residents who have undertaken home renovations – clients like those of our firm. The affluent owners Ms. Sherman interviewed all have different comfort levels with their wealth, and the book does a wonderful job of defining the nuances of the anxiety that comes with affluence.

For all of the academic insight and nuance Ms. Sherman brings to the subject, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory does an even better job portraying entitlement issues. Each of the families touring the Willy Wonka factory exhibits the tragic flaws of narcissism, greed, spoiled-ness and entitlement. Yet, when Mr. Wonka (Gene Wilder) says to Charlie at the end of the movie, “and, what happens to the boy who gets everything he ever wished for? …He lived happily ever after.” Well, I am that boy, and we strive to make all of our clients, staff, consultants, and contracting partners feel exactly the same.

 

The Internship

Although not yet considered a classic, I watched this again the other day, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. In the film, a couple of guys my age (younger, actually) join Google as summer interns. They find they have leadership skills in spite of being out of touch with technology, the very foundation of the firm they have joined. On top of discovering ways they can contribute, they draw out the talents of a group of young people lacking in social skills or self esteem. While I lack the acting ability and humor of Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson – not to mention the quality writing and direction they enjoy -, the story resonates with me. It’s all about “Googlieness.”

 

The Replacements

“Winners always want the ball, when the game is on the line.” Shortened, of course, to “Winners want the ball.”

Sine I started this installment explaining my frequent use of sports metaphors, I think including this movie is most appropriate. Too often, we find ourselves playing defense, not offense. “Winners want the ball” reminds us to be leaders.

Whether the above films won Academy Awards or not, these movies (and many, many others) are fabulously quotable and useful to us. While we take what we do seriously, it’s very helpful to be able to quote a film when we wish to communicate an idea without sanctimony. These movies provide us a familiar (pop) cultural language with which to tell our story.

 

DF, 1-9-2017