An architect, a contractor, and an owner were walking through the forest when they came upon a set of tracks.

The contractor said, “those are deer tracks.” The owner shook his head and said, “no, those are elk tracks.” The architect held up his hands and said, “you’re both wrong, those are moose tracks.”

They were still arguing when the train hit them.

The moral of the story — sometimes it doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong. Sometimes all that matters is knowing when to get out of the way.


Photo via Flickr.

The Roasting Pan

If necessity is the mother of invention, then routine is the crazy uncle no one talks about at parties.  Much of our behavior is influenced by habit, instead of critical thought, more often than you might expect. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see something that should be blatantly obvious — for a real-world example, check out this piece on

One day a little girl was watching her mother prepare a roast beef for that evening’s dinner.  She cut off  the ends, wrapped it in string, seasoned it and set it in the great roasting  pan.

I know it’s a turkey, not a roast… just go with it.

The little girl asked her mom why she cut off the ends of the roast.  Mom replied, after some thought, that she learned how to prepare a roast by watching her own mother, and this was the way that she had always done  it.

That night grandma came to dinner, so the little girl went to her and asked why she had cut the end off of the roast before cooking.  After some thought grandma replied, with a shrug of the shoulders, that it was the way her mother had done it.

The girl’s great-grandmother was quite old and in a nursing home.  A few weeks after the dinner, the little girl went with  her mother and grandmother to see her, and again she asked the question.  Great-grandma looked at them a bit annoyed and said, “So it would fit in the pan, of course.”

Reprinted, with some liberties, from JokeBuddha:

The Balloonist

One of my favorite jokes… because it’s so honest.  I think it speaks volumes about the way we communicate with our fellow professionals… but more on that later.  For now, enjoy a little more industry-specific humor.

A man flying in a hot air balloon realizes he’s lost. He lowers the balloon, spots a man down below and shouts, “Can you help me? I promised a friend I’d meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below says, “Yes, you’re in a hot air balloon hovering 30 feet above this field, which is at 42 degrees N. latitude and 60 degrees W. longitude.”

“You must be an architect,” says the balloonist.

“I am,” replies the man. “How did you know?”

“Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but is of no use to me.  Your information, while fascinating, is useless and I am still lost.”

The man below says, “You must be a contractor.”

“I am,” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” says the man below, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep and you expect me to solve your problem. And the fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now it’s somehow my fault.”

Reprinted, with some liberties, from JokeBuddha:


“An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”
— Andy Warhol

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the death of famed pop artist (and fellow Pittsburgh native) Andy Warhol. I first came across that quote of his on a paper coaster at a downtown bar named, appropriately enough, Andy’s (located in a building with some really nicely done canopies).At first, I didn’t think much of that coaster — at the time, I was probably more concerned with the drink perched lovingly on top of it — but had enough presence of mind to pick it up before leaving. I found that coaster in my jacket pocket a few weeks later, and the value of Andy’s words hit home to me — this is one of the problems faced by our profession. There is little perceived value to our services. We are seen as a commodity for the elite. We produce art, that people don’t need to have.

With all due respect to Mr. Warhol, we need to aspire to more than this.

A pioneer of the pop art movement, Warhol was fascinated with the somewhat disposable nature of consumerism in our society. Aside from being one of the 20th century’s most well-known artists, Warhol is also known for coining the phrase “fifteen minutes of fame,” the fleeting notoriety that each of us will experience at least once in our lifetime. In terms of recognition, the architectural profession very closely resembles the acting world — only a very small percentage of those working in both professions find widespread fame through their success. (Editor’s Note: this thought is not original to me, but in all the reading and skimming I’ve done in the past year or so, I can’t tell you where I came across it. Suffice it to say, it stuck with me, so kudos to the original thinker.) And just as there are thousands of highly competent actors toiling away, night after night, in relative obscurity, there are equally as many highly-skilled architects who will never see their work on the cover of a magazine. It’s a concept that Andy Warhol would understand — everyone’s interested in the next big thing, before its bubble bursts. Permanence doesn’t sell.

Interestingly enough, the flip side of that coaster bears a quote by Pittsburgh’s other famous Andy — Andrew Carnegie, a man who built himself an empire of steel out of near-poverty, becoming one of the 19th century’s richest men and one of our nation’s greatest philanthropists. His contributions to our city included a world-class museum and a renowned system of libraries. He produced things that people need to have, and still rely upon, even to this day. How much can we learn from Mr. Carnegie’s efforts? How much applies to what we do?

I don’t have the answers, but I’d love to debate it with you. Maybe we can talk about it over a drink. I know a nice place…

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

Partners, Pilot (CBS Studios)

The set of “Partners” — models, books, material samples… it must be an architect’s office! (That being said, I would kill for that monitor…) (CBS Studios)

Now that the holiday season is well behind us, I’m trying to get back into my old routine, which includes a fair amount of primetime television.  Last night, I tuned in to find that the CBS series “Partners” has, not surprisingly, been canceled.  (Apparently, I should have spent a little more time over the holiday break catching up on my entertainment news — it was canned in November, and the network has no plans to burn off the unaired episodes.)  The sitcom, about best friends who go into business together, was surprisingly run-of-the-mill except for one small detail: the partners in question were architects. How do we know they were architects?  Take this sample line of dialogue: “Maybe you should focus a little more on architecture, which is what we do, instead of (insert plot device here).”  Subtlety at its finest.  The humor was often lowbrow and the plot derivative — One’s gay, the other isn’t!  One’s incredibly rigid, the other is free-spirited!  Hilarity and hijinks ensue! — but at least it was a weekly dose of architecture in pop culture each week.

Architecture isn’t a part of the zeitgeist in the same way as other professions. Doctors, lawyers, police officers — all of them have been a constant part of the prime-time landscape for almost as long as television has been a mainstream medium, and for good reason.  Each of these professions brings its own inherent drama with it, which makes for good ratings… and means that the general public ends up with a pretty good idea of what a career in medicine, law, or law enforcement is all about.  Even a relatively obscure line of work can benefit from a prime-time phenomenon — after the series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” premiered in the fall of 2000, the demand for criminal forensics programs increased exponentially; the forensics programs at some universities had doubled in size in 2004, a result of what was dubbed “the CSI effect,”  proof positive that the right show at the right time can work wonders for your profession.  (No data exists on any subsequent decline after David Caruso’s over-dramatized turn, when its spin-off “CSI: Miami” hit the airwaves.).  However, as we noted at the Summit20 last March, there isn’t an “ER” or a “Law and Order” for architects.   Imagine for just a minute how many more people would have a better understanding of what it is an architect does, or what it takes to become one, if our profession was a weekly staple — must-see TV with plots worthy of the office watercooler.  A series like “Partners,” that referenced the architectural profession even tangentially, felt like a step in the right direction.

Our generation's Howard Roarke...?

Ted Mosby: Our generation’s Howard Roark…? (CBS Studios)

We are left with Ted Mosby as our last man standing.  The central character of CBS’ series “How I Met Your Mother” (and the former lead-in to “Partners” — lest we spread out our situational comedy architects into any other night of the week, or on any other network), who tells his future children the incredibly lengthy tale of how he came to find the love of his life, is unabashedly an architect.  Creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas must have known an architect or two in their time (or perhaps head writer Kourtney Kang — a CMU grad, she might have known a few aspiring archies — had something to do with it) — Ted is an earnest and heartfelt homage to at least one (if not several ) of them.  Ted is anal-retentive and fastidious, wearing his heart on his sleeve but labeling his belongings.  He watches the Star Wars trilogy once every three years, judging his success in life by how much he’s achieved since the last time he “tril’ed it up.”  Ted spends a great deal of time with his four best friends (note: none of which are architects — how realistic is this again?!) hanging out at the local bar, but is not above leaving it to run upstairs to grab one of his books in order to settle an argument.  A quirky but lovable dork, Ted probably very closely resembles some — if not all — of the architects you know.  From the looks I get from my wife during any typical episode, you’d think Ted was based almost entirely on me.  (For the record, I stand by my statement that any similarities are purely coincidental.)

Ted’s story, without delving too deeply into the mechanics of our profession, actually has been a quite honest portrayal of architecture.  As the series began, we find Ted working in a mid-sized architecture firm in Manhattan. The downturn in the economy leads to the loss of his job.  Ted then tries his hand at a sole proprietorship — Mosbius Designs (was I the only one who laughed at the title? I think not.), complete with intern/ receptionist — which, unfortunately, also fails (actually, that might be a good thing — Ted’s biggest commission was a new restaurant, shaped like a cowboy hat).  Ted is forced to consider a slight course correction in his career path — he takes an adjunct professorship position at a local university, teaching an introductory course on architectural history.  Teaching may be a solid gig, but practicing architecture remains his first love, and after a particulary significant lecture (on Antoni Gaudi and the Sagrada Famiglia — “unfinished” — which actually was quite inspiring), Ted takes a commission for the headquarters for a major financial institution, the fictional Goliath National Bank. 

Ted then finds himself, inexplicably, designing a new high-rise office building — in the middle of Manhattan.  Single-handedly.  Out of his apartment.  On the site of a former historic landmark building.  With nary a consultant or engineer in sight.  (Adios, realism.  Cue “The Price is Right’s” farewell music…Wah-wahhhhhhhhhhhhh…)

As the sole architect in prime-time television, I wish that Ted’s career were a little more realistically portrayed… but it’s not the focus of the show, nor is it meant to be.  (And yes, I do cringe whenever the series tries to “make” Ted an architect — such as when the contractor for the GNB Headquarters put him on the spot by asking which parabolic lamp he’d like to use in every fixture in the building — but I can’t fault them for trying.)  Maybe the details aren’t exactly correct, but the sincerity is.  Ted is a decent, hard-working, introspective guy.  He has boatloads of insecurities; in a moment of self-doubt over his ability to handle a project like the GNB Tower, he actually tells the story of the architect that designed a library, but forgot to account for the weight of the books (Cringe!! General public, stop listening now!).  Ted stressed out over that cowboy-hat restaurant, even giving up his birthday celebration in order to work toward its deadline, because he was serious about it — it was his project, and he wanted it to be the best cowboy-hat restaurant that it possibly could be.

Ted is certainly no Howard Roark, the self-righteous, unflappable heroic architect of The Fountainhead.  Ted’s career has been littered with setbacks and self-doubt, reinvention and redirection.   If Roark was the iconic architect of his generation, Ted might just be one for ours.  Roark was an symbol of individuality in the face of conformity.  Ted is an idealist, a romantic… a real human being.  Ted strives to be succesful because he wants the same things as the rest of us — a respectable career spent doing what he loves, the person of his dreams to share it with, a story worthy of boring his children to death with somewhere down the line.  As architects, we may not have many prime-time heroes, but we do have Ted.  And, for now, I’ll take it.

The Guillotine

The best jokes, to me, always have an element of truth to them.  I’ve always enjoyed this one… mostly because if I’ve decided to open my mouth, there’s a good chance you’ll find my foot in it.  It seems that there’s a time and place for everything, including problem-solving.  Maybe I read too much into things, but if nothing else, this at least gives you something you can share at your holiday parties.

During the French revolution,  three men were sentenced to die by guillotine. One was a lawyer, one was a doctor, and the third was an architect.

The lawyer was to die first. He was led to the guillotine, the attending priest blessed him, and he knelt with his head on the guillotine. The blade was released, but stopped halfway down its path. The priest, seeing an opportunity, quickly said, “Gentlemen, God has spoken and said this man is to be spared; we cannot kill him.” The executioner agreed, and the lawyer was set free.

The doctor was next. He was blessed by the priest, then knelt and placed his head down. The blade was released, and again stopped halfway down. Again the priest intervened: “Gentlemen, God has again spoken; we cannot kill this man.” The executioner agreed and the doctor was set free.

At last it was the architect’s turn. He was blessed by the priest, and knelt, but before he placed his head on the guillotine he looked up. Suddenly, he pointed upward and said, “Hey, I think I see your problem!”

Reprinted, with some liberties, from JokeBuddha: