In defence of the architect's ego

Amongst the recent debate around a new opt-out organ-donation law in Wales, little attention was given to a deeply serious consequence – how will we create all the storage space for deceased architects’ egos?

The mythology of the architect’s ego in the 20th and now 21st Century is almost as resilient as the towering buildings they are associated with.  Peggy Deamer, partner in Deamer Architects, and a Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, neatly captured in The New York Times what she saw as some expressions of the architect’s ego in public debates about their buildings – “ethically insensitive, competitively destructive and socially tone-deaf.”

But there’s a fabulous story of architect’s ego in the current issue of Uncube by architect Zvi Hecker. His commission in the 1960s to design a laboratory at The Technion, a science and engineering university in Haifa, lead to conflict with the faculty who objected to its completion, then led to direct action by Hecker. Firstly by surreptitiously painting “the prismatic walls in white and yellow, as specified in our plans”, on the morning of the opening ceremony, and then breaking and entering with two metal crowbars and twisting the window frames so they couldn’t be altered from his design. But the punchline at the end of his journey? 

The point is that alongside the perennial discourse around the architect’s ego, and the parallel trend for participatory design and co-creation, Hecker’s essay is a reminder that architects care, often passionately, about the value their work can bring to everyday life. It's partly because the architect’s ego is materialized all around us – unlike the accountant’s ego or the project manager’s ego or any human being’s ego – but it’s also become a useful peg on which to hang wider frustrations about the built environment.

Because passion for your work can’t be taught, clients need to see it as a premium asset they are hiring – but clients also require some skill and imagination to harness it. And as we all know, bureaucracy is kryptonite to passion and caring. Needless to say, Hecker’s actions prompted the inevitable fictional comparison: “On a personal level, I ended up with many copies of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead sent by enthusiastic students.”

John O'Reilly




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