On Building

Turning Frustrations into Creative Freedom

This article appeared in the October 2006 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

If it’s hard out there for a pimp (as we learned at the Oscars), it’s even harder for architects. Chronically working overtime for a pittance, many have to stifle the beautiful visions that initially drew them to the profession. Rather than spending time on inspired designs, they smile politely while asking clients where they’d like to place appliances.

Two summer films depicted these frustrations well. To portray a man who would want to skip over large portions of his life, the creators of Click made Adam Sandler’s character an underpaid architect. Though he slaves away at work, he fails to produce anything of merit. His boss accuses him of spending too much time with family, and his family complains that he’s always working. Maybe architects don’t stand a chance.

The Lake House ups the ante, showing three architects in varying levels of frustration. They talk about architecture nonstop, jabbing each other about professional failures but also raving about certain buildings. Their love of architecture drives the film, making architects’ suffering seem worth the price. And this passion intertwines neatly with romantic yearning; when the Keanu Reeves character helps the Sandra Bullock character see beloved Chicago buildings through his eyes, the two fall deeply in love. The eponymous lake house serves as the locus of all these desires. Perched on stilts in a lake, with a tree growing through its center and a roof that opens like a flower, this glass house seems as fragile and unattainable as architects’ fantasies.

But Hollywood rarely gets things right, so one might wonder whether real architects feel as miserable as those on-screen. One need only consider the staggering rates of attrition, divorce, alcoholism and depression in the field. Architecture is “the profession that eats its young,” according to architectural designer John Preston of Bloomington, IN. After working toward a professional degree for five to seven years, interns might be paid less than high school teachers, who generally have less education. Firms overwork new hires, “ruining their health (and certainly their social lives), then dumping them without a thought when work slows,” says Preston.

In past decades even Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter, architect Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, tried to deter anyone who told her, “I want to be an architect! Can you give me advice?” All too aware that society relentlessly rejects designs with deep principles and passion, she responded, “If you can be anything else, be it.” So says Marin County architect Dave Deppen, who worked with Ingraham in the 1970s and shared this anecdote with me.

Malcolm Wells
Malcolm Wells.

Through interviews for an as-yet-unpublished book on visionary architects, I’ve heard how the field smothers practitioners’ vitality. One such insight came from Malcolm Wells, 80, a recently retired Cape Cod architect. Although he has never lost enthusiasm for underground architecture, a concept he pioneered, he understands why few architects embrace ideals. “Every bit of their environment—school, architectural magazines, materialistic clients—tends to corrupt the idealistic dreamers they were when entering universities,” says Wells. From the moment fresh graduates take jobs, their passions fall into jeopardy: “They’re told to do nothing but stair details for the first 10 years,” so these novices “just get trampled down to nothing.”

Bringing a building into existence can further frustrate architects. Wells told me that when he first imagines a building and renders it on paper, “It’s never quite as good as the dream in my head.” The newly constructed building drags the vision “down another step.” As he explains, “One starts out by picturing the ideal, which is never possible. And then the finished thing has many other people’s interpretations in there, from building inspectors, to contractors, to everybody who puts in a little bit. So it’s all kind of blurred.”

Over the years, he could have been an irascible Frank Lloyd Wright type, fighting to keep his visions uncompromised. That was never Wells’ style, though. He notes, “I’ve avoided lots of hassles by letting draftsmen or clients win at least the little battles. But losing them is what keeps most of us run-of-the-mill architects well below the Wright level. Would Picasso let you fix up a painting of his?”

Eugene Tsui.

Oakland architect Eugene Tsui, 52, can relate to this frustration. He can’t stand to look at houses where he had to compromise his vision. “You feel demeaned if you compromise,” Tsui told me. “You’re creating a work of art, so you’ve got to fight for it. If we’re not creating something distinctive, what’s the point?”

His work is indeed distinctive, even when “compromised.” His boldly colorful buildings resemble insects, reptiles and sea creatures. As nature has the soundest design principles around, Tsui draws on these as models.

He finds, unfortunately, that the tedious architectural process cannot match the pace of his imagination. Tsui mused, “I have so many ideas that I’m in a constant state of impetuous frustration.” Laughing, he sounded pained rather than jovial. “I think I could do much more,” he said, “but it takes so much time to do things. I see people dashing a little sketch on paper, and then two years later it’s a big building.”

If Tsui comes across as a pent-up racehorse, 75-year-old Berkeley architect Dan Liebermann said as much about himself. To be precise, he said this first about his mother. Born in 1898, she earned a Johns Hopkins doctorate by 1923, long before society could accommodate brilliant women. Though she worked at a malaria institute and eventually taught medical school, Liebermann says, “I conceive of her as a racehorse that never had an opportunity to win the race, to show what it really had. She bilked most of her potential by doing what she was told to do. Her genius was not allowed to fulfill itself. And given the potential of the human spirit, how can you not regret that?”

Dan Liebermann.

Professionally speaking, Liebermann shares his mother’s frustrations. “I identify with her passionately,” he said. This is somewhat surprising. He has seen roughly 45 of his designs built, many with a trademark radial shape that reflects his philosophies about ecology, neurology, social justice and more. But those who crave artistic expression rarely feel satiated.

Fortunately, as long as their imaginations remain in working order, architects can keep their dreams alive. This is true for Wells, who holds fast to his vision of an earth-sheltered, radiantly green built environment. In his book Infra Structures he says, “It’s hard to imagine part of Newark, New Jersey, or the industrial section of Los Angeles looking clean and alive … but it will happen.” That is indeed hard to imagine, so I asked Wells, “To what degree do you truly believe this?” He replied, “I can’t state my belief in degrees, but in percentages it’s 100.”

To be sure, he has endured innumerable frustrations, because people shy away from the concept of underground buildings. Only 12 of Wells’s “earthies” have been built, though he has designed hundreds. “Since most things you design don’t get built, is it like never having the orgasm of building the building?” I asked. “No,” Wells said, “they get built instantly in my head, and that’s the important part.”

In a world that wants to play it safe when it comes to building, imagination might seem to harm the architect. If not for their wild minds, creative architects wouldn’t encounter as many disappointments. But if you took the daring out of their proposals, what would be left? Passionlessness, for starters.

Every field needs radicals and conservatives; there’s room for both. This profession needs practical thinkers as well as people who supply a creative nudge. It’s best when these strains coexist—when designs are whimsical but also achievable, out of this world but resting on firm foundations.

Most architects are well versed in practicalities. With endless regulations, how could they not be? That isn’t the part that needs encouragement. But what about the injured creative side, the side that has met with sneers or outright dismissal?

That’s the part that interests me. As a freelance writer, I’ve long ruminated about the creative process. I’ve profiled people in a variety of creative fields: architecture, symphony conducting, harpsichord building, photography, glassblowing, papermaking, mural painting, magazine and book publishing, maze drawing, kite artistry and more.

Of all these creative types, I’ve been most impressed with certain architects who have preserved their imaginations despite a society that scorns idiosyncrasy. These architects can even explain how they keep their minds wild and free. When I shared their secrets in speeches at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture and at its annual Eco Wave conference, the enthusiastic responses showed me that people thirst for such knowledge.

So in Builder/Architect over the next year, I’ll present architects’ ideas about achieving creative freedom. I hope to explore the following topics:

  • Repurposing spaces and materials;
  • Finding creative stimuli in initially frustrating restrictions;
  • Accessing intuition;
  • Using “what if?” thinking.

Stay tuned and feel free to e-mail me your thoughts. I look forward to a fruitful conversation.

Berkeley-based writer Eve Kushner has written about architects and builders for the San Francisco Chronicle and the East Bay Monthly. E-mail her at evekushner@yahoo.com, and visit her at www.evekushner.com.