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Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.
Howard Aiken, American physicist and computing pioneer
Real estate developers, for the most part, treat architects like court eunuchs. Harmless hired help that’s dispensable - or at least interchangeable.
There’s a handful of “starchitects” that create enough media buzz - with the aid of dramatic eyeglasses, sweeping hand gestures, an startling designs - to even the playing field with their developer clients. But for the rest, even the most talented, life is a whipping post.
An architect pal of mine made a name for himself in the late 90s designing “town center” projects. Despite wearing the obligatory black turtleneck uniform, he didn’t quite reach starchitect status. He was prolific but, in the end, always dispensable.
His large-scale mixed-use designs all followed a similar pattern built on a traditional street grid, emanating out from a central green. Most of America’s affluent suburbs ended up with one of his signature plans - each containing a multi-screen movie theater, a giant bookstore, a few national clothing chains, and lots of restaurants serving things like Moscow mules and asiago flatbreads.
Don’t blame him that his designs became the mom jeans of mixed-use development. His ideas were genuine, even though the execution wasn’t. He envisioned bustling commercial villages of charming independent businesses, based on timeless land plans. But the harsh realities of modern finance and municipal codes watered down his vision, requiring things like fire lanes, vast parking areas, and creditworthy tenants.
But (with limited success) he fought the good fight, arguing for beauty over boring. It was when his clients, beholden to bureaucrats and money-changers, wouldn’t follow his prescribed plans and opted instead for a sequel of other projects that things tended to go off the rails.
“I always knew when I was about to get fired”, he said, “debates with the client would become less spirited, then conference calls would get postponed, then cancelled, and then at some point they’d want to come by my office.”
The last time I saw him, he was stopping through town and we made plans to meet. I picked him up from the airport and on our way to drinks he asked that we drive through one of his orphaned projects.
As we approached, he chuckled and motioned me to stop the car. He looked up at one of the buildings he designed, grinning and slowly shaking his head. We sat there for a bit, me staring at him wondering what happened and him staring at the building knowing exactly what happened.
He explained how he’d made a big stink about the design of this particular building. He wanted it taller, believing the added height would give the adjacent green space a necessary sense of enclosure. He overstepped his bounds making the case for a taller building, and soon enough, as was so often the case, his clients wanted to come by his office.
A unique feature of his operation was that his office contained a full-bore model shop where his team would craft, at great (client) expense, exacting scaled models of their multi-block projects. His models were like toy wonderlands with cars, tiny trees, lights, and little plastic people. He kept replica models of his current projects so he could continue to tinker as the developments unfolded.
Knowing he was about to be fired, he arrived at the office early to prepare. It was a last ditch effort, but he wanted to convince his clients to make the building taller, budgetary constraints be damned. He needed to show them what it would look like, but this was the Friday before a holiday weekend and the model-makers were gone. So he improvised.
He didn’t have time to create something intricate like the rest of the model, but he found a shoebox in an office closet, disassembled it, and then re-folded it best he could to fit. The addition was awkward but served the purpose of showing what the building would look like with added height. To make it obvious, he spray painted the folded shoebox battleship gray.
The meeting went as anticipated, fast and to the point.
“Gentlemen, before you go,” he said, leading them to the model room, “this is obviously just a representation, and this would need to be designed to complement the existing building, but…” and proceed to describe, with all the enthusiasm he could muster, what he wanted them to do - and why that added height was so necessary.
His (former) clients gave a dispassionate nod and left. He never spoke to them again and didn’t think anything would come from it, but felt he’d at least given it a shot. It wasn’t until years later, when he saw the finished product did he realize they did listen, just not that well:
If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in real estate.
And you know how - despite a developer’s best efforts to make a nice place - sometimes the vibes are off and that place feels sterile and fake? While other places just feel right and have a terrific energy that makes you want to spend time there?
If you want to know how wonderful places are created, and how they can increase surrounding real estate values, sign up for the Tacos & Patios Workshop - a free online gathering where we unpack the how and why behind unique mixed-use developments. Join now and get a recording of the last meeting as well as information on our epic upcoming in-person gathering.