Architectures “Big Night”

Architects are often accused of being elitist and the recent departure of Michelle Kaufman Design scratched up some of the stinkiest elitist attitudes that will always keep the custom home market from engaging a broader audience.  The closure of MKD is poignant because her designs are good (if not great) her business model and “open door” were some of the most approachable yet and the press (both AP and trade) adored MKD.  How could MKD fail?

I could do ten arguments but I’ll do two. One half I’ll call- “Big Night” Syndrome.  One half I’ll call “Everybody is dumb but me.”

“Big Night” Syndrome:

In the movie “Big Night” two brothers struggle to open a “true” Italian restaurant in post war america.  It’s a beautiful movie and a wonderful lesson.  Faced with serving the food the customers want or the food the brothers know is “correct”- they choose the “correct” path (and go out of business).  To enhance the architectural parallel- down the street is a typical american-italian red sauce pasta palace that is packed to the gills nightly (Spec builders hmmm?).

Architects for centuries have yearned for mass acceptance and accolades- like lonely children that just need to be hugged-  the history books are littered with examples of beautiful- yet unloved “masterpieces.”  In architecture school a favorite professor would tell us what most architects refuse to hear.  “Give them what they want- not what they asked for.”  But too often in architecture you see architects dishing out “Give them what they don’t want and didn’t ask for.”  You don’t have to do disneyfied repro mcmansions-  but if the market doesn’t appreciate your latest and greatest fete that you think is so brilliant you have three choices: A) Find a niche that does appreciate it  (Even Pontiac sold a few Aztecs) B) Educate your client base (remember how long Rem Koolhaas WROTE before he BUILT?)  C)  Close the doors.  Sulking is not option D.  Nobody wants to hear it.

“Everybody is dumb but me.”

Here I’ll run through the top 3 excuses that always float to the surface when architecture fails.

Myth 1- The GC is stupid:  In our office we help select the GC.  It’s our job to make sure the GC is qualified, experienced, and understands our goals.  You can get (and pay for) a highly qualified professional builder or you can try to educate, hand hold, and prop up a less qualified GC- but either way it’s up to the architect to COMMUNICATE all the goals, materials, techniques, and expectations.  If the GC fails we share in the failure.  All architects should do this.  I would even say the VAST MAJORITY of GCs really WANT to do the best work possible. 

Myth 2- The bank is stupid:  Somehow it’s been lost in the details that you don’t own your house until you make that last payment.  I know it’s not polite to say but you effectively rent your house from the bank 360 months.  If you want to build what YOU want you can either work with the bank or pay for it with your own cash.  With the rate of foreclosure lately it’s easy to see why lenders don’t want to fund your latest fantasy.

Myth 3- The customers buying the mcmansions are stupid:  Architects and designers are more guilty than any other field of thinking that if they designed it- it must be good.  If you design something that nobody wants to buy- did you ever consider that maybe the design isn’t very good?  Or maybe the fact that a custom design has limited appeal is OK!  Heresy!!!  I don’t care for Mcmansions- but the Mcmansions meet the needs of the people buying them.  The Spec Builders are providing what architects either refuse to, or are incapable of providing.  That doesn’t make the customer stupid.  There’s room for Ford and there’s room for Ferrari- but the folks in Modena don’t look down on Ford drivers- they probably don’t even think of them (unless you consider the GT or the latest European Focus designed by Pininfarina).

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One Response to “Architectures “Big Night””

  1. Andrew Says:

    Great analogy with the big night – the similarities are hilariously similar. Thoroughly enjoyed this post – good points on all fronts.

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