Saturday, January 21, 2012


A wealthy individual asks an architect to design a house that is not only not visible from the street, but also capable of complete self-containment, with all of the entertainment and exercise spaces the owner might need as well as storerooms for food, security systems for protection, and a safe room for escape from intruders.

In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the philosopher Robert Nozick asks if we would call people happy if they spent their lives floating in a tank, with electrodes on their skulls attaching them to “experience machines” that constantly simulated pleasurable thoughts and feelings. Most people would react to Nozick’s science fiction fantasy with the response that: no, such people might feel happiness because of the artificial stimulation of pleasure points in the brain, but we would not call a life spent attached to a machine as a happy one. A happy life does not mean a lack of unhappiness. Indeed, we generally conceive of a happy life as one that has overcome unexpected setbacks, achieved meaningful accomplishments, and entailed a sense of purpose – in other words, some level of unhappiness or at least a degree of challenge or hardship.

That idea has sometimes gotten lost in a consumer culture that has encouraged us to equate happiness with wealth, privacy, and having a lot of stuff. As a result, many people have grown accustomed to seeing happiness as a lack of pain, suffering, or even inconvenience, as if such a life – short of being attached to an experience machine our whole lives – were even possible. Nor is it logical. We cannot know the meaning of anything without also knowing its opposite or its lack, and so the experience of happiness depends at least to some degree on the experience of unhappiness, which serves as a measure against which we can gauge our transcendence of it.

Architects and designers often confront this illogical or unbalanced view of happiness when dealing with the wealthiest of clients. In a world where inequality has reached record proportions, with a small percentage of people controlling a huge percentage of the wealth, the capability of the super-rich to afford almost anything has become legend. This, in turn, can lead to requests such as the one made to the architect in this case, where a very wealthy client wants a house that can be completely autonomous and cut-off from the community around it. Such a house has many of the characteristics of Nozick’s “experience machine,” able to simulate almost every pleasure imaginable.

But does that constitute happiness? Design professionals – and, indeed, many people – tend to shrug off such a question. Along with our tolerance of intolerable levels of inequality has come a view of happiness as something subjective and as a result, different for each individual. If this client can afford a house like that and it makes him and his family happy, who can argue? Certainly most designers won’t, since the extent of their fees relates to the size and expense of the projects they work on. The more elaborate the requirements of clients, the most extensive the fees of the designers.

But happiness is not entirely subjective, as we see from Nozick’s “experience machine.”  Most of us can agree on the basic constituents of a happy life – one that includes good relationships with family and friends, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, a sense of health and well being, and so on. Past a certain level, having more stuff – especially if it comes at the expense of these other values – does not make us more happy; it makes us less.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


An architect, who had designed the terminal at a small, regional airport, lost the commission to a nationally known airport firm when it came time to make a major addition. Officials said the big firm offered them the greatest assurance that they would get the best results for the limited public funds available, although when the architect of the original building offered to give the new firm his drawings for them to work from, they insisted that they needed to measure and redraw the original building for what the local architect thought were exorbitant fees.

When professionals vie for commissions, the line remains a thin one between competition and collaboration. Firms can compete among each other for one job and end up collaborating on the next, and so it becomes essential that they remain on good terms despite the disappointment when they lose a commission to their professional colleagues. This represents a kind of generosity of spirit that rarely gets recognized in our intensely competitive, capitalistic culture. We tend to reward fierce competitors, without giving nearly enough acknowledgment to the occasional collaboration or cooperation among rivals that makes healthy competition possible.

Here, the local architect accepted the fact that he could not compete against a firm known nationally for doing airports. Indeed, as the number of competitors in almost every aspect of design has increased, so too has the pressure to hire those who have a lot of specialized knowledge in a particular area. That pressure has several reasons for it. Clients, as in this case, often want the benefit of a specialized firm’s experience gained from other projects, which can minimize the risk that something might go wrong. At the same time, specialists presumably have the latest knowledge and information to contribute, ensuring that the project represents a state-of-the-art effort. Finally, specialization can make a firm more efficient, reducing the time and presumably the cost required to do a project. 

Local firms rarely have the opportunity to do a lot of one kind of project and so they have a harder time specializing, but that does not mean that they have no less cause to act generously to their more focused competitors. Firms working in far-off places, for example, frequently need a local representative on a project to help with approvals and construction observation. Generosity on the part of local practitioners to a nationally known competitor can lead to opportunities not otherwise available to them.

Generosity goes both ways, however. In this case, the specialized firm did not take the generous offer of the local architect to share the original drawings of the building. While that would have saved the client a lot of money and the new firm, a lot of time, it also apparently reduced the latter’s ability to charge for additional services by doing their own measured drawings of the existing conditions. A show of generosity on the part of one party can seem like a lost opportunity on the part of another.

Accepting the generosity of others, though, is almost always the best course of action. Because the local architect remained friends with the officials who he had worked with on the airport, he had access to them and he let them know that the new firm had rejected his offer of the original drawings. The client decided to let the new firm proceed with making their own measurements, but it did alert the airport authority to the nature of the new firm and led to a heightened scrutiny of all of its work. A lack of generosity often breeds more of the same.