Thursday, April 7, 2011


An architect who once led a preservation program received a commission for a large site that included a few historic buildings. Rather than incorporate or work around them, he wanted the maximum freedom for his design and called for their demolition, using his knowledge of architectural history to argue that they had no significance. The community, as well as his preservation colleagues objected, but he prevailed and the buildings came down.

Opportunity has a largely positive meaning in capitalistic countries. We associate it with freedom and individual initiative, with having or making a chance to profit from our efforts. In that sense, opportunity becomes both a political idea – America as the “land of opportunity” – and a personal aspiration of taking an opportunity when it comes our way. A somewhat more sinister meaning, however, attaches to the related word opportunism. We often think of an opportunist as someone who takes opportunity too far, who pursues it past the point of reason and does so heedless of the negative impact it might have on others. We like opportunity, but not opportunists.

That distinction has partly to do with intentions. When we seize an opportunity, we typically respond in an open way to the chance before us. Opportunism, in contrast, has a somewhat more malevolent cast, in which people take advantage of others or seek advantage for themselves in the process of seizing an opportunity. But we cannot judge opportunism simply on intentions alone; context and consequences also factor into what we value. We might applaud an opportunist who looks for a chance to overthrow a tyrant, to help a person in need, or to right a wrong. Taking advantage of someone evil or seeking an advantage on behalf of an underdog exemplify the good side of opportunism.

It seems hard to make that case, however, in the situation described here. This architect not only had an opportunity – a major commission on a large site – but he also became an opportunist when he used his knowledge of architectural history to argue against the preservation of historic buildings. That the community or his colleagues objected to his actions seemed not to deter him, as he sought to maximize the potential of what he had and to give himself the maximum freedom to do what he wanted, without any encumbrances. Opportunists tend to see that they have the right to pursue opportunities regardless of their effect on others.

What they rarely see is the effect this has on how others perceive them. The architect in this case may have felt justified in arguing against saving the historic buildings on his sizable site, but what he gained in terms of greater design freedom, he lost in terms of his own reputation as an advocate for preservation and even more importantly, as someone his community and colleagues can trust. Once opportunists become branded in the minds of others as people who will do or say anything to get their way, they can never retrieve their former standing, since every act of sincerity will come tainted with the suspicion that they actually lack sincerity and will say whatever seems to their advantage at the moment. Far better, when architects confront situations like this, to work with the community and colleagues who have protested, engaging them in a discussion of alternatives, and assessing with them the pros and cons of each. That still may not have led to the saving these old buildings, but it will do something just as important: saving the architect’s hard-fought reputation.

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