Practice Note 10: What Patti Smith Said

— 3 minute read

I recently read Just Kids by Patti Smith, which is an incredible book from start to finish. I’m certain that the book would feature of my list of books architects should read – I wish I had read it many years ago. There is one line in it that struck me as worth having a good think about in the context of this blog:

“It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

In architecture the proportion of labor required to produce a piece of work is probably higher than with other arts that produce things. It’s just the way it is – producing a building or a piece of architecture takes a lot of leg work and inspiration and creativity must continually be applied to many parts of the process that might not, at first glance, seem like the sorts of places that creativity is required.

I received my first lesson in this aspect of the life of the architect while I was working as an architectural assistant at the office of Axel Schultes Architekten in Berlin.

We were working on a competition scheme – Schultes went in for, and won a large number of architectural competitions at that time. While drawings and models were being prepared for the competition entry, I was asked to complete a spread-sheet showing room sizes within the proposed building. I groaned and maybe even rolled my eyes. (I was quite young as architectural assistants go – it was way back in 1993.) Axel sat down next to me and delicately (perhaps even diplomatically) explained that setting out room sizes on a spread sheet is just another way of describing a building in the same way that making a model is, or drawing a section is, or writing a specification is, and if I saw it in this light, the work would make a lot more sense – and it did. It was an incredible lesson to learn and one that has stood me in good stead ever since. When ever work starts to feel like the labour is taking over from the love, I think back to that day and remind myself that these things are an integral part of the process.

I heard another architect giving this same lesson to another architectural assistant a few years later. The architect was Brendan McGreevy at Steinebach und Weber Architekten – also in Berlin. (I can’t remember who the architectural assistant was, I’m afraid.) In a very similar situation to my own as described above, Brendan frowned and explained the necessity for completing tasks that might appear at first to be tedious with these fantastic words: “you can’t always have dessert – sometimes you have to eat the sprouts first.” Nicely put.