How to Handle Your Architect’s Ego

The "I" of the Architect

Brotherhood Synagogue at 28 Gramercy Park, New York City
Brotherhood Synagogue at 28 Gramercy Park, New York City. Photo by Beyond My Ken (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We want our architects, like our surgeons and attorneys, to be self-confident, self-assured, and maybe even a little "cocky." The word ego itself is Latin for I, the self. Wishy-washy professionals can be ineffective, and who wants that when you're paying for a building project? What dynamics can we expect when dealing with architects?

Back in 2012 I toured this 1859 Quaker Meeting House, which is now the Brotherhood Synagogue near Gramercy Park in New York City.

It's not anything like the Neue Synagogue in Berlin, the Rumbach Synagogue in Budapest, or Ohel Jakob in Munich. But it's a marvelous example of loving restoration.

Originally converted in 1975 by James Stewart Polshek, FAIA—designer of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock—the Brotherhood was more recently restored in 2002 by Alan Barry Silberstang of Silberstang Lasky Architects. Mr. Silberstang showed us around, still excited about the project and proud to have honored the original design of the 19th century interior. "I tucked my ego in the back room," Silberstang told us about his approach to the renovation. To which we say "amen."

An architect's ego can be a force to be reckoned with even for the architect. One of the most famous egos in architecture belongs to Pritzker Laureate Frank Gehry.

Disney Concert Hall has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America, but it certainly didn't start out that way.

The building officially opened in downtown Los Angeles on October 23, 2003 to a chorus of criticism. Its design and construction were derided and the architect himself was personally vilified.

All water under the bridge now—or is it? In a 2009 conversation with journalist Barbara Isenberg, Gehry was reflective.

The architect of the Disney complex asked his interviewer: "Do you think after I die people will realize I was a better guy than they thought I was?" (Conversations with Frank Gehry, p. 267)

The good news is that successful architects will also be reasonable, which tempers a forceful ego. How to handle your architect's ego? Thoughtful, reflective listening and clear communication of expectations are responsibilities for both the client and the professional. Getting along is part of the cost of building.

What the Architect Says:

"Listening to people is important. And this is especially difficult for an architect. Because there is always the temptation to impose one’s own design, one’s own way of thinking or, even worse, one’s own style. I believe, instead, that a light approach is needed. Light, but without abandoning the stubbornness that enables you to put forward your own ideas whilst being permeable to the ideas of others."—Renzo Piano, 1998, Pritzker Acceptance Speech
"But it's good to listen and use what you hear, not necessarily against them, but as a way of engaging. People getting together and agreeing on things is complicated because some people feel like their contribution is bigger than the other person....I don't like to argue with people, so I try to put my conditions out quickly. That way, people understand what I'm sensitive to, and then they have something to deal with. You can also say nothing, just be a sphinx and then people don't know what you're thinking. You may win that way, but the relationships get tangled and anxiety-filled, and I try to avoid that."—Frank Gehry, 2009, Conversations with Frank Gehry, p. 164
"It is so easy to forget that we build buildings for people—people who must see them and people who must use them. It is so easy to forget that those people are individuals with a variety of needs and tastes and it is hard to remember that they are not just numbers....We should, all of us, bend our will to create a civilization in which we can live at peace with nature and each other."—Kevin Roche, 1982, Pritzker Acceptance Speech