Architectural Blatherations

Grumpy prima donnas

top rule

The Good Oil

We've discussed the humourless prigishness of the architecture profession here. We outsource these comments to Mr Witold Rybczynski.

Witold Rybczynski writes

Writing in Slate, our favourite critic, Witold Rybczynski said:

[Philip Johnson's] well-publicized retirement at 85 turned out to be only the first of many, and he continued to design and build until his death 13 years later. I.M. Pei… was 72 when he announced his retirement. Golf, fishing, mah-jongg? Hardly. I want to spend whatever time I have left working, he said… At 91, Pei is the same age Frank Lloyd Wright was when he died. Wright didn't pretend to retire; he just kept drawing until the end.

What is it with architects that they don't–or can't–retire? In part, it is the nature of their profession. Architecture is a delicate balancing act between practicality and artistry, and it takes a long time to master all the necessary technical skills as well as to learn how to successfully manipulate the thousands of details that compose even a small building. Requisite skills for the successful practitioner include dealing with clients: individuals, committees, communities, boards. The architect, proposing an as-yet-unbuilt vision of the future, must be able to persuade, and it's easier to be persuasive if you have a proven track record.

For all these reasons, architectural wunderkinds are few and far between; architects have traditionally hit their stride in late middle age. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was 62 when he started designing the Lake Shore Drive apartments, which became the model for all subsequent steel-and-glass towers; Le Corbusier was 63 when he built the marvelous chapel at Ronchamp, setting the architectural world on its ear; Louis Kahn was 64 when the Salk Institute was built; and Frank Gehry was 68 when he produced the Bilbao Guggenheim.

It's not so hard for an architect to keep going. Since building is a team endeavor, the old master is surrounded by scores of assistants. For any slowing down that occurs in later years, there are plenty of younger hands and minds to pick up the pace. The younger minds propose, but the master disposes, and the big decisions still benefit from years of practice and experience. From the client's point of view, since buildings represent large investments, it is safer, by far, to know that a seasoned practitioner is overseeing the process.