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I always thought that maybe the more time you spend in a field, the more comfortable you’d feel in it but it doesn’t ring true for me. I’ve been struggling with having confidence in my work ever since we started taking design courses. It’s usually because I do things differently but apparently in a “bad” way according to some. I’m assuming you may have some experience with that so any tips would be helpful.

Dear Student,

If an architect isn’t confident they can do a particular job then they shouldn’t undertake to do it. It’s a legal responsibility to not undertake work you don’t have the resources to do. But I suspect you’re talking about some sort of inner confidence about satisfying one’s own standards and this is where it begins to get tricky. When it comes to personal confidence in architecture, some people appear to have been born with it. Ricardo Bofill went straight from student to fully functioning architect. Having a property developer father and a social and artistic mother didn’t hurt. Nor did being European, where children almost seamlessly shift into adulthood without the angst or rebellion characteristic of the English-speaking cultures. Bofill just did it and it probably never crossed his mind that he couldn’t. His first built building was when he was 21. The header image is Kafka’s Castle from when he was 29. All these early buildings show a pursuit of ideas rather than invention for the sake of it. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #36: Ricard Bofill] Here’s that first house.

1960: Single family house, Ibiza, Spain
1964: El Sargazo Apartments, Barcelona, Spain
1965: Back 28 Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (14 apartments + retail)
1965: Bach 4 ~Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (12 luxury + 21 rent-controlled apartments)
1965: Nicaragua Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (shops + offices + apartments)
1966: Plexus Condominiums, Calpe, Alicante, Spain
1967: Club Mas Peo, Alicante, Spain (sports club)
1967: Phytochemical Laboratories, Lliça de Fall, Spain
1968: Gaudí District, Barcelona, Spain (500 subsidized apartments)
1968: Kafka’s Castle, Barcelona, Spain (80 apartments)

Bofill isn’t the only architect who never thought they couldn’t do something. Of the misfit architects, there’s also Tōgō Murano and the recent Luke Him Sau. They all just went and did it because they wanted to and didn’t worry receiving the approval of their peers or any wider recognition. Where are architects like this today? Far more common today are architects who are very good at creating the appearance of confidence and I suspect this is because they have little. These are the architects that never reveal any self-doubt. They’re comfortable with lecture halls and TED talks. They might like to believe they have all the answers and we might like to believe they do too. These people are confident but it’s the confidence they can convince people not so much that they can do the job but that they ought to be listened to. In other words, it’s old-fashioned arrogance, updated with a smiley face for out times.

There must have been arrogant architects before Frank Lloyd Wright but he’s the one responsible for making arrogance more acceptable than humility in the PR skillset. There must be some environmental factor working to produce arrogant architects because we’ve no lack of them. It’s probably another manifestation of the postmodern disease where the appearance of something can substitute for the real thing.

Somewhere out there are architects who have their own standards and are always questioning themselves. This is just uncertainty and it’s healthy to try to make something work better and, when time runs out (as it invariably will) accept that one could have come up with a better solution. It’s far more beneficial to analyze what you might have been able to do better as you’ll learn more from doing that than some person who never made a mistake because they simply applied the same formula that worked for them the past.

You can see all these character types at university. There are the overconfident ones for whom nothing is ever a problem. There are the ones that appear super-confident yet you’ll never see them take any risks. There are also ones who admit there’s a lot to learn and don’t pretend they already do. I’ve come to see students like this as more genuine. There will come a time when you go along with your boss to meetings and at first you’ll probably not say anything until one day someone will ask you a question and you’ll answer and you’ll see that these people are actually listening to you because they want to know what you have to say. All you need to be confident about is being able to justify your decisions in ways people can understand. The rest will follow.

I want to enter an external competition but the judging is anonymous and by drawings only. How can I explain my concept if there is no presentation or jury?

Dear Student,

The short answer is that your building should speak for itself but not in the sense of “having something to say”. Rather, it should be obvious to anyone looking at your drawings what your building is and, should it be built, what it will be. You can’t control what people will think of when they see your proposal. [When complete, The Architecture of Architectures series of posts will show that what people think is completely arbitrary but the content of those thoughts isn’t as subjective as we like to think.] People are going to react to visual cues whether or not you’re there to tell them. You’re not going to be standing outside your building telling everyone that passes what it means. True, you can promote and publish your building to make sure as many people as possible hear about your intentions but the architectural media actually have very little reach. Most people seeing your building will be supremely untroubled by not knowing what your concept was.

Perhaps I’m being unfair and your building will have some kind of inner beauty resistant to photorendering. I hope it will. If your concept derives from context, site conditions or internal organization and the possibilities your innovative configuration unlocks because of them then don’t worry. The judges will notice.

I hope you go ahead and enter this external competition. And I hope you win it but, even if you don’t, you’ll be telling everyone who looks at your CV and folio that you’re not afraid to have your proposal judged anonymously by people who know what they’re doing and what they’re looking for. This is a good simulation of how it works when there’s no instructor to guide you and tell you you’re on the right track or, if not, for you to second-guess what it is they want. The fact you entered an external competition shows you are eager to engage with the big world of architecture outside of university. Remember, being good at university just means you’re good at this thing called university. [There’s enough people willing to do exactly what their boss wants them to do and in that sense university is very exquisitely attuned to the market environment.] Rather than focus on getting the highest grades, it’s more important to indicate to people outside that you exist and are eager to participate in the world of making buildings. From what I’ve seen, I’ve concluded that it’s also a good indicator of both career satisfaction and success. Good luck.

The words, confidence, presentations and juries made me remember the Celebrity Shoot-out post telling the story of representatives of four fairly well-known architectural practices pitching their projects for the limited competition for 425 Park Avenue. All four presenters probably had very little to do with the designs for their respective projects but here they are presenting them. Foster is the most convincing because F+P’s proposal requires the least conceptual justification. What’s surprising is how uncomfortable Schumacher and Koolhaas appear. Both are used to presenting in universities to crowds of adoring students and here they are pitching for a job to a table of people there to critically judge it. Students can be forgiven for being hesitant to leave the comfort zone of universities and have their work judged by the standards of the commercial world but if these supposedly famous architects are also hesitant then it makes you wonder what their job really is. It’s only Foster who seems in his element.

Graham Stirk presenting for Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners.

Graham Stirk seems uncomfortable presenting his company’s project.

Remment Koolhaas, presenting for OMA

Rem Koolhaas said something about the site being conflicted as if it were being pulled in two directions uptown and downtown. But what does this mean other than it being something RK (perhaps) thought, and thought important enough to generate a building? Is it even true? Did anyone actually care? What did we ever do without RK to tell us what to think?

Patrik Schumacher, presenting for Zaha Hadid Architects

Patrick Schumacher is more comfortable with the written word than presenting to real potential clients. What might sound good in a lecture theatre or a media bubble appears shallow and irrelevant here. He seems aware he’s not winning the crowd. We owe Germans the word schadenfreude.

Baron Foster of Thames Bank, presenting for Foster + Partners

Foster + Partners won the job not because the presentation was good (although it was) but because it was a decent (-ish) building not trying to pretend it was anything it wasn’t. It was clever how Foster drew attention to the possibility of some gratuitous design feature at the top and downplayed how the column grid is expensively displaced to define a “sky garden” feature and then expensively displaced back to where it was to define another. If the project has a certain clarity it’s because it’s clear where the money goes. This is something that can’t be said about the others.