Playing by Ear…

Today is my two-year anniversary working in my current office. Since starting here, I have had the good fortune of sitting next to Paul, one of the founding principals, the guys whose initials became part of our firm’s name. Paul is nearly completely retired, stopping into the office only to work on high-end custom residential projects. He’s never in any earlier than 10am, and if he’s still here at 3, he considers it a long day. He calls his wife before he leaves, and tells her that he loves her. He makes me smile.

He a product of a different era, and does business in a very traditional way — drafting on a board instead of a computer, spending a great deal of time talking to his clients over the phone, in an extremely affable and personable manner. In two years’ time, I’ve learned more by simply listening to his end of his phone conversations than I have in two years of traditional practice. It’s his manner that I’ve been the most taken with… The way he earns the trust of his client through his knowledge of construction, his confidence in design, his level of service to their project.

If this story has a point, it’s this: there’s a lot more to learn than can ever be taught. So much of what we do on a daily basis isn’t based on anything that can be quantified; it’s just part of the experience. To be a young architect means that you have to be a sponge, soaking up as much as you can of the environment around you. IDP is only the tip of the iceberg, and nowhere in the Experience Areas will you find “eavesdropping on a principal’s phone conversations,” but we have to take our opportunities wherever we can get them. I used to dread making phone calls in the office (I preferred the ability to collect my thoughts in email, and most days I still do). I’ve gotten better at it over time, but listening to Paul’s end of his phone conversations has given me a new appreciation for it. He’s given me an example to follow, and I hope I’m able to live up to it.

A little epilogue to my story: We’re in the midst of a clean-up effort before a major (and much-needed) renovation of our office. A lot of our older presentation boards — some damaged, others just obsolete — are being gotten rid of. One day last week, I found Paul looking very longingly at one of them, a cast-in-place concrete building (very Tadao Ando, with expressed reveals and formwork plugs, the weight of the material balanced very deftly by the lightness of its form). I’m sure it was very much in vogue when it was built, but time has inevitably taken its toll, and it has started to look somewhat dated. Paul is looking at it like it’s a picture of one of his children.

“I think we’re throwing this out,” he says, more to himself than to me. “I want to keep this. This is the first building that I ever designed,” Paul tells me. “Two other guys and me, we did the whole thing. All of the drawings… On linen.”

The very thought of working on linen, as always, is mind-blowing to a relative whippersnapper like me. “You didn’t change things as often back then, right?” I ask. “You did it once and that was it?”

“Of course!” he tells me, as if there was no other possible answer. Then his eyes narrow: “Why? Do you guys change things a lot these days?”

And again, like so many times in these past two years, a smile spreads across my face.

Update: I’ve been at the firm for nearly four years now. The renovation is long since complete, and Paul now sits above me on the mezzanine… further away, but still close enough that his end of his phone conversations still drift down over the guardrail…

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