Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Avocation : Vocation
by Daniel Frisch
Posted April 16th, 2023

For our Monday Morning Meetings, I have added an in-the-papers segment.  I borrowed the concept wholesale from Pat Kiernan of NY1, who I listen to most mornings and who reads the headlines that have grabbed his interest before arriving at the studio and going on air.  This Monday, he included a headline from the Wall Street Journal that read, “Stop Telling Everyone What You Do for a Living; How to handle the “What do you do?” with aplomb, and make more space for the rest of your life” (by Rachel Feintzeig, WSJ 4/10/23).  The article’s headline grabbed me just like countless others about “quiet quitting,” “the great resignation,” and just about any article about working from home in athleisure or pajamas.  These pandemic and post-pandemic subjects challenge me to reflect on the work-life balance; mine, and that of our team.

For architects, the work-life balance translates to being on charette (a term coined at the Ecole des Beaux Artes – “being en charette,” or literally drawing while sitting atop the cart as proctors rolled through the studio collecting presentation drawings) and hosting a boondoggle (too many darn happy hours, not enough time spent drawing).  In the everyday language of employment, the difference is between exploitation and entitlement. Whether the phraseology is industry specific or ubiquitous, an uncomfortable polarization between work (pain) and leisure (pleasure) has been established.  From much of what we read in the papers and see on the news, at least in our progressive echo chamber, a shift toward the life side of the work-life balance is attracting the most attention.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the iconic image of the modern architect was the fictional Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (Macmillan Publishing, 1943), based on the very real Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).  Not surprisingly, Howard Roark’s character was significantly drawn from the public exploits of Master Wright, and their shared passion for perfection in their craft coupled with their larger-than-life personalities which left little room for balance.  For Roark and Wright, there was nothing in the middle, just an unapologetic oscillation between extremes.  While both stories make for breathless reading, there is not much to emulate if one is seeking equilibrium.  If you ever wondered what the letter “A” in Type A stands for, perhaps it is for Architect.  Unfortunately, I believe the two figures were overly influential on the Architects of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially the “Starchitects.”  For employees, this meant endless hours for little or no pay and little or no opportunity for advancement, which created a hopelessness for those emerging from school and early in their careers.

When I emerged with my degree from graduate school (Columbia University, 1991), I was confronted with this lack of remuneration and a very real career ceiling. I turned down a starchitect professor’s internship offer – no pay and eighty hours per week – and formed a partnership with a graduate school classmate and my cousin who was established architect.  We founded our firm based on principles of a good life-work balance, in direct response to a system not known for such.  We chose not to work evenings or weekends, although I, for one, had little else to do.  When we were fortunate enough to hire interns, they were paid.  These “rules” and others, paid health care benefits, for instance, still exist today at the firm.  This culture also informs our recent commitment to working remotely on Fridays, which began as a response to pandemic-induced exhaustion.

In these times of aspirational malaise, the field of architecture, and others, still tilt towards the intense side of the balancing scale.  Becoming a doctor, for instance, requires eight years of study, plus years in residency and the passing of one’s boards.  The law has its bar, long hours of practice, and billing requirements.  Teachers collect their graduate degrees and go through near-constant continuing education.  We professionals are proud of having met our education and apprenticeship requirements and take pleasure in indoctrinating (hazing) the younger generations.  Thankfully, plenty of determined young people still sign up.

The recent pandemic and the media’s push for a focus on leisure over labor will certainly take its toll on the professions as we waver slightly in our seemingly unidimensional pursuit of career success.  But for those of us who declared our majors when we entered college and who made it through graduate school and passed our exams, “quiet quitting” is the farthest thing from our minds.  And for us, the answer to the question of what we do is not awkward, but rather an opportunity to celebrate our very identity.  “I am a Doctor.”  “I am a Lawyer.”  “I am a Teacher.”  And in my case, “I am an Architect.”  I have always felt fortunate to have chosen a field that so many wistfully say they wanted to pursue but didn’t for any number of reasons.  George Costanza’s alter ego Art Vandelay on Seinfeld is our generation’s testament to the sentiment.  Maybe too many parents insisted daughters and sons become doctors or lawyers, or perhaps, the appeal of outsize remuneration brought others to Wall Street.  Still others became designers or artists or photographers or actors or poets.  No matter the field or endeavor, I can only hope that the words of the incomparable Robert Frost resonate: “My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation, as my two eyes made one in sight.” (Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time).  Whomever we choose to be, may we all be so lucky as to have our avocations and our vocations be one.