Architects: They learn their trade in public

What is your mental picture of an architect? Do you imagine a man in a bow tie, talking in a cultured accent about his design theory while standing in a stark, white room containing one or two strikingly uncomfortable pieces of furniture?

This stereotype of architects has misled us for some 40 years.

We, the public, have regarded them as if they were the Grand Poobahs of the built environment — dictatorial, out of touch with reality, interested only in furthering their pet theories.

Not only is this an unfair assessment of a group of dedicated, underpaid, hardworking and talented men and women, but it has caused us to ignore their current and potential contribution to the quality of our lives.

As a profession, architecture is every bit as demanding as law, teaching, or medicine. Legally, the only people who have the right to call themselves architects have passed a difficult set of requirements in order to become registered with the state examining board.

To become an architect and receive a license, you must have received either a five-year professional undergraduate degree or a master’s degree in architecture; completed a three-year apprentice program, and be interviewed by a state examining board of architects and building professionals.

Finally, you must pass a difficult three-day written exam covering all aspects of the profession, including building design (this one section of the test lasts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), site design, engineering, construction technology and legal issues.

After successfully surmounting these hurdles, you can look forward to working very long hours for salaries among the lowest of any profession. Judith Harvie, executive director of the Maine Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says the median annual salary for a newly graduated architecture student is $22,000, while that of a registered architect is $26,800.*

One doesn’t strike it rich upon reaching the top of the pyramid, either. in Maine, the median salary for a principal or partner of an architecture firm is $41,600.

And in times of economic downturn, architecture firms are among the first businesses to experience financial difficulties resulting in layoffs. Thus, architecture is a career only for those who are fully committed and who seek rewards other than financial compensation.

Architecture demands an unlikely combination of abilities in its practitioners. Especially in Maine, where firms typically are small and staff members must wear many hats, an architect must be able to create the design, draw it up, oversee and coordinate the work of the engineering consultants and inspect the building while under construction.

In addition, the architect must be able to work with clients, interpreting their needs and providing a buildable solution within the monetary constraints. These clients can range from a family building a new home, to a corporation building its headquarters, to a volunteer school building committee — each group with a different level of understanding about architecture and construction. Somehow, the architect must arrive at a common language with these disparate clients.

What drives some people to choose architecture as a career? Steven Theodore, who is principal (with his wife, Wiebka) of the award-winning partnership Theodore & Theodore, says he was initially attracted to the field because it blends the technical aspects with the artistic.

“The greatest reward is seeing a building grow from its initial conception to its physical execution, ” he said. “Buildings that are successful are buildings where the initial concept remains intact.”

Bill Baxley, a 25-year-old staff member at Moore/Weinrich Architects of Brunswick, will take the professional exam this summer.

“In school, the emphasis is on design and the history of architecture,” said Baxley. “When I began working in an office, I found it challenging to juggle all the different parts of the job. Feeding information to the consultants, keeping to deadlines, following building code restrictions — it’s much more complex than I originally thought it would be.”

“Architecture is problem-solving in a public forum,” said Cynthia Howard, architect and preservation planner, whose office is in Biddeford Pool. “It is a challenge to reach solutions that are both pragmatically and aesthetically pleasing.”

Howard left painting because “it is so private,” choosing instead to pursue architecture, where “you get feedback from the user.”

Writing in the journal Landscape Architecture, Laurie Olin, principal in the Philadelphia firm of Hanna/Olin Ltd., talks about the meaning of architecture:

“Whether seen from afar or up close, architecture is clearly a compositional art, and despite its practical nature, it is one of the most lasting expressions of culture and art. There is a rigor and discipline imposed by the medium and process that, when mastered, provides great freedom within structure. Architecture offers but never guarantees a profound connection to society.”

This connection can be nourished by the attention, criticism and enthusiasm of a public that follows architecture. Without a discerning public responding to developments in their field, architects may feel they are working in a void.

Yet architecture, complicated by real-world constraints to a far greater extent than any other art form, also has a stronger impact on our lives than any other art form.

Look around you. Does your building succeed as shelter? Is it physically comfortable? What messages does it convey to you about our society? What would you change about it if you could?

The more you practice this method of questioning, the more creative and perceptive you’ll become. Then, the next time you are with an architect, speak up.

[This is another in the Architecture & Design series I wrote for the Portland, Maine, Press Herald in the 1990s.]

*According to the Department of Labor, the median annual wage for an architect in 2012 was $73,090. Almost 26 percent of architecture jobs were lost between 2008 and 2011 (from 96,480 to 71,460). More recent figures are not yet available but the outlook is improving somewhat.