Architects Are Not Like Chefs

Early last year, Chicago Chapter of CSI presented a chapter program during which educators and students from several local architectural schools discussed their curricula. The bulk of the presentation was myriad slides showing pretty pictures of student work. Some of the educators, realizing their audience was CSI members, paid a little lip service to the idea that construction technology (but not specifications) was at least part of what architecture students should learn. None of them spoke more than a sentence or two about the business of architecture, and the word ‘science’ was not uttered once.  

The reason this is especially worth recounting, however, was an astounding statement made by one of the faculty members: he likened the practice of architecture to that of being a chef or a fashion designer.  It’s likely that what he was thinking when he made this claim had far more nuance than I am describing, and by arguing against what I thought he meant I’ll probably be committing a straw man fallacy, but here’s what I understood his claim to be. Architects, chefs and fashion designers follow analogous creative process and their work results in the creation of something finished and suitable for its intended purpose where before was just raw materials.  All the professions require specialized knowledge, talent, and skill/experience that must be built up over the course of a career to ensure success.

Furthermore, all the professions are subject to constraints.  A fashion designer is constrained by the market that dictates what raw materials are available and what the customers can be convinced to buy.  Chefs are constrained by those same factors as well as by public health regulations pertaining to how their products are handled.

Keep in mind that this professor works with architecture students. They are encouraged to think about some of the ways that they’d be constrained by external conditions when practicing, but aren’t really exposed to realistic work conditions and can, as a result, expand their imaginations and create whatever they want.  This works in architecture school, and I suppose you can say it works for chefs and fashion designers as well.  Chefs, fashion designers, and architecture students all create what they want to create, and their output is consumable or disposable products, especially when compared to the lifespan of an actual building.

If you argue that there’s an analogy between chefs and fashion designers on one hand, and architects on the other, I suggest you’re arguing that capital-A Architecture is architects’ product.  That Architecture is what appears in architectural magazines, and just so happens to have been designed for the purpose of publication in magazines.  Those magazines are ogled and then disposed, so there’s your analogy, chef.

Architects that believe they’re like chefs or fashion designers are doing a disservice to the profession, because architects actually provide a professional service, not capital-A Architecture, not a product – let alone a disposable one.  Rather than working to enhance their portfolio on behalf of their own vanity, they are hired to responsibly manage significant sums of their clients’ money, orders of magnitude more than even the nicest restaurant supper or the best Academy Awards couture gown.  They must understand all their clients’ requirements and desires, (including, but not limited to facility purpose, schedule, and budget) then design the facilities that comport with their clients’ needs, and comply with significant technical and legal requirements along the way.  They must communicate their understanding through design documentation back to the owner and then to contractors, who are relying on the architects to have properly designed the project, coordinated all consultants, and furnished proper specifications.

States have granted architects licenses to perform this service because it is serious work, requiring significant and specialized knowledge, and resulting in significant financial risks to our clients and health & safety risks to the public.  Taking that for granted or actively undercutting it by likening ourselves to other creative but not ‘learned’ professions demonstrates that we architects don’t take our role seriously. 

Architects have a duty to protect their clients’ interests first and foremost; chefs and fashion designers have no duty to anyone.


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