The Thin Grey Line

Lately I’ve been noticing them as I’m getting ready for work in the morning — the first few grey hairs. They’ve started creeping in around my temples, visible only at certain angles or in certain light.  (Or maybe more visible than I think — my wife has already started clipping coupons for Just For Men and asking me if I think I’m more “Medium Brown” or “Medium Dark Brown.”)  And I know what you’re thinking… that those grey hairs make me self-conscious, feeling old. Quite the opposite, actually — I’ve found myself welcoming them. A few more of those, and the people that i deal with on a daily basis — owners, contractors, even fellow architects — are going to start taking me more seriously.

Today I celebrate my birthday, which finds me officially entrenched in my >>cough<< late-thirties >>cough<<, on the downward spiral toward the big 4-0. However, having been blessed/ cursed with a youthful appearance, I constantly have to remind people how old I am — my stock response is usually something along the lines of “older than you think.” And while everyone seems to tell me that this is a good thing, it hasn’t been much of a benefit to me in my professional career.

True story — about ten years ago, about the same time that I authored an essay on youth in architecture, I attended a series of user group meetings during design for one of my largest projects.  This level of exposure to the client, at this stage in the process, was a huge opportunity for me at that point in my career, and I took it very seriously.  One of those meetings just happened to have been scheduled on “Take Your Child to Work Day,” and one of the users looked at me, in my mid-twenties, sitting next to the 60-something project manager, and said — wait for it — “So *that’s* how you got to be here!”  Hardy har har.  Leave the jokes to the professionals, buddy.

Experience is an extremely valuable form of currency in our profession, so much so that the opposite is sometimes also true, and youth can almost be seen as a liability. I worked hard in my twenties, trying my best to learn my craft and perform well in my job. I found, though, that it often didnt matter how much research I had done, or how many hours I had spent developing that particular detail, or from how many different angles I had looked at the problem. I would make my recommendation to the owner/ contractor, and they would turn to the grey-haired gentleman sitting next to me and ask “is that right?”

Every grey hair that I find these days is another step closer to credibility… My technical ability and skill set have grown by leaps and bounds in the 14 years that I’ve been at this, and my appearance is starting to catch up to my words and thoughts.  I’ve begun to cross the Thin Grey Line, and I wear it as a badge of honor.  For now, anyway, the Just For Men can stay on the shelf .

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…