Architecture: The Story of Practice / by Dustin Altschul

While admittingly this book can feel quite dry at times (no surprise it is written in the format of a social science report), while also feeling a bit dated (no surprise again published in 1991), I believe this book provides clear evidence of what universal mechanics define the practice of architecture. Understanding these mechanics, or taking time to study them, I believe would do a number of architects a lot of justice. 

In my personal experience I have observed architects, who are disgruntled with their self prescribed measure of success, and blame two primary causations for their predicament. Generally speaking, they profess to not understand the formula for "success"; if they only knew the linear steps to take some how it would equate to success. And they also proclaim they have had bad luck, where other more successful architects have had good luck. Architecture: The Story of Practice, for me anyhow, dispels both of these myths. The books proves that  success in architecture is not about following some absurd formula that only a few understand, nor is any architectural project based on the premise of randomness (the essential ingredient of luck).

An early concept presented in the book that began to really pull me in, is the delineation of the two types of architecture firms that exist. This books states there is the "patronage firm" and the "service oriented firm". The patronage firm survives based on a body of clients who seek out an architect for their creative potential; similar to an art collector. The service oriented firm succeeds by providing a superb capacity to provide professional architectural services. The book provides, and in great detail, how both of these types firms require a different foundational framework for achieving continuous work. For example an architect who aspires for the patronage type of firm will need to likely spend a number of years, without steady commissions,  developing their style and generating a select following of clients.  Where a service oriented firm may have steady commissions, but will need to continuously modify in-house capabilities to match market demands. 

After reading this portion of the book, I had realized many unsatisfied architects get caught between the two types of firms that were outlined.  Therefore their success, or lack of, is a result of their absence of clarity in going through the pains of growing a patronage, or buckling down  and honing the services they offer. The danger in getting caught between these two types of firms is that there is no real commitment one way or the other, leaving no question why success fails to emerge. So one must make the decision then of which route they will follow when establishing an architectural firm. Upon doing so success becomes the result of producing work that is considered meaningful by a patronage, or value to a client due to the craft of service orientated skill that is being delivered. 

This book also hits on many other interesting topics such architectural education, firm culture, the process of becoming an architect, and client relations. What become noticeable to me is I felt many topics explored had a very personal touch to them. Discussions of firm culture were the result of field studies that consisted of sitting and observing in various architecture firms. The meticulous note taking of the various meetings made me feel as if I had been there experiencing the meetings myself. I also particularity enjoyed the one-on-one interviews with architects of diverse office rank and years of experience. It was interesting to see the scientific reporting of an architect's progression from entry level , with sections aptly named Tile Blocks and Bathroom Details and Humility in Architecture, to a senior principle of a firm. I have seen many young architects give up on the profession, a few years out of college, because they grew impatient with doing meaningless tasks or were not being recognized for their talent. But Architecture: The Story of Practice proves there is a historical right of passage that most architects go through.So if one wishes to become an architect they should not get frustrated with the same process that hundreds of thousands go through as well. 

Of additional important note, and rather damingly so, this book proves that clients are not the antithesis of success in an architectural project. But instead are actually a primary cause for success.At one point the book dissects three project case studies, in an attempt to explain how success happens on a project. While there were many different variables at play, all three projects seemed to carry a common thread with respect to the client. And is the client was viewed as an equal collaborator on the project. Or the client was a fixture of the architectural design team, opposed to just being the pursue with demands that needed to be satisfied.

It is not uncommon for architects to share an US vs. THEM mentality when speaking of clients. But after reading this book it becomes clear that sort of mentality is in no way a common attribute of successful work. Plus when a firm is clearly defined in what type of firm they are organized to be, client relations tend to be smoother. A project with a patronage type firm will normally draw clients that are more willing to leave decisions up to the architect. And with a service oriented firm it is socially agreed upon the firm is hired to resolve the clients concerns. 

I believe Architecture: The Story of Practice, can lead both the young student architect and the experienced practicing architect to informative insights of how the culture of architecture operates. But I also believe a social science report can be a hard "sell" for anyone to pick up for some casual reading.