Julien Meyrat
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Julien Meyrat

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Point/Counterpoint: Managing Ego in Practices Large and Small

For much of history, the architect worked nearly alone or in small groups, firmly controlling all aspects of the work—from first sketches to a building’s final completion. AIA Fellow Max Levy’s superbly detailed residences and other small projects demonstrate/emulate this intimate and personal style of practice in which everything seems to be imbued with a poetic sensibility that is uniquely his. In more recent years, large corporate firms that emphasize collaboration have emerged, in which credit is accorded ultimately to a brand. Gensler has over 5,000 employees in 46 offices. Ian Zapata, AIA, the design director for the Commercial Office Building Studio at Gensler Dallas, shares his thoughts about the role of ego in a large corporate practice. Max Levy, FAIA responds similarly from his point of view as a traditional sole-proprietor architect. Both architects responded thoughtfully to the questions I asked them below.

Recent romanticized depictions of architects in literature and film suggest that they are strongly driven by their ego. This is often done for dramatic effect and to make characters more interesting, but is there some truth to this? Does ego drive much of what you do in practice, both in the past and present?

IAN: I think ego plays a role, but not in the ways depicted in fiction. Large projects are complex and require the expertise and buy-in of many. No longer can a successful architect simply dictate; rather, he or she must persuade, seduce, and inspire. A visionary loner will have little success in building and completing large projects because architecture as a contemporary practice requires engaging and collaborating with many people. Architecture is not an easy profession; pursuing it, living it, requires grit and self-motivation. I think this is where a healthy ego serves us well.

MAX: Everyone loves to be applauded, myself included. But love of art is a much more powerful driver for me. As a child, when I saw Frank Lloyd Wright's Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco, it was the power of his artistry that stirred me up, not the thought that maybe I could sign my name to a stirring work someday.

Much of what inspires people to become architects is a sincere personal desire to make a difference in the world. How important is self-love, or self-esteem, in helping change a place for the better?

IAN: There is no shortage of people who have convinced themselves that they are serving society, when in fact they are only serving themselves—so in effect, the desire to simply make a difference in the world is misguided. If you have a strong moral center, you will understand that it is up to you to live life as you believe it should be lived, regardless of what others say and do. Doesn’t that sound egotistical? It’s a paradox.

MAX: I would use the term “self-respect.” To do good work, one has to respect one's own art, to stand up for a fee and a schedule that will permit your work to amount to something more than adequate. … Stand up for principles of design that you know a great deal more about than do your clients.

When presenting to clients, are you careful to use personal pronouns such as “we” and “I”? Is it important to speak as an individual or is it better to speak as a team?

IAN: I use “we” a lot. It’s a critical part of our firm’s culture. In fact, our yearly review dedicates discussion to the question of we vs. I, which is indicative of how seriously we take the concept of a collaborative, humbling, team culture.

MAX: The important thing is that the work speaks. A work's authorship pales in importance to that moment when a client kneels down, peers into a real model, and is enchanted by its miniature atmosphere, its promise of their future building.

Architecture is inherently a collaborative effort. When do you think it is acceptable to claim credit for your work on a project? Why do you think it is justified?

IAN: I cannot stress highly enough the importance of directing credit where it is due and deserved. When a key concept, idea, or solution comes from a particular person, that contribution should be celebrated rather than diluted.

MAX: In my three-person firm it is obvious who is the singer in the band. But it is important for the singer to introduce the band members and their crucial parts in the music.

Many designers will argue for a design based on its practical solutions to a given program and its sensitivity to its surroundings, implying that individual biases have little to do with it. Can good design happen without a strong ego?

IAN: Architects Mansilla + Tuñón once described the digital process they used to design the facades of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Castilla and León. They loved the fact that the “hand of the architect” was removed, thus creating a more democratic process. I admire their humility and their commitment to serving society because these are important values, but even in this act the ego is present. It can be kept in check, but I don’t believe it can—nor should—be removed.

MAX: Good design often involves advancing something a little different. Before that “something” can be put on the table, the architect must have prevailed in the inevitable inner struggle between self-doubt and self-confidence.

Should one’s own personality be infused in what one creates? Is it possible to avoid this?

IAN: A traditional way of learning oil painting is to copy the work of the masters, and to emulate their style and techniques. In effect, you are speaking with someone else’s voice. Design can be similar. You can design for your client and respond to their values and needs, crafting a voice that isn’t yours, yet many clients want your voice to tell their story.

MAX: Someone once said that any work created with feeling—be it literature, music, painting, or architecture—is always a portrait of the artist.

Is it healthy to cultivate one’s ego in the architectural profession, or is better to maintain discipline in suppressing it?

IAN: A developer jokingly told a group of us once that “Your ego is not your amigo.” I love that phrase. I think you need to have a healthy ego and be willing to put it to the service of your colleagues, friends, and clients. An ego is a central part of who we are as human beings. A strong ego can be a destructive tool in relationships with others—or it can be put in the service of others. This can easily become a discussion on morality. In this respect, the ego is necessary in our practice, and can be a powerful, positive tool.

MAX: Architects would do well to cultivate their self-respect and self-confidence so as to steel themselves for the gauntlet they must run. But they must first cultivate their inspirations. Otherwise the ego will be hollow.


Julien Meyrat, AIA is a senior designer at Gensler.