Viewpoint (September 01, 2010)

Even as children, before any of us understood the significance or repercussions of idolizing larger-than-life architects seeking to create iconic buildings, most of us were conditioned to believe that design originality is paramount in the profession; to ascribe an individual architect’s name to a famous building is very attractive to a fledgeling ego. Many years later, as architecture students toiling away on studio projects until the wee hours of the morning, we doggedly competed with fellow classmates for the most original schemes. When the pin-up deadline arrived, we would receive praise, derision, or something in between, dependent on the fickleness–or if we were lucky, insight–of a seemingly random selection of critics. Could early experiences like this be at the root of a fundamental schism in the culture of architecture, where lauded students are given the confidence to build illustrious design practices, while the remaining students are destined to pump out working drawings, banished to the fringes of architectural discourse for the rest of their careers? Could this be the moment where the seeds of jealousy are planted in marginalized design students, triggering a lifelong quest for vindication?

Even as the memories of architecture school fade, the need to receive praise for design brilliance remains in the hearts and minds of those architects whose careers have failed to provide them with the satisfaction of building an architectural masterpiece–even if they have developed a specialization in specific areas of practice like health care or project management. For some of these architects, they will occasionally seize the opportunity to take credit for another architect’s design innovations if given the chance. Not only is this ethically questionable, but it also indicates a lack of self-respect, maturity and confidence in one’s own career trajectory and expertise. Many will appreciate this scenario, having experienced the unjust repercussions of this lamentable behaviour. But as so many projects today involve complex collaborations, it is easy to see how the temptation to take credit for another’s work can arise. There is no easy solution to this increasingly common predicament despite the fact that every professional association has adopted clear ethical standards regarding the proper attribution of credit.

The American Institute of Architects states, “Intellectual property is the most common proof in terms of talent and experience. However, the collaborative nature of contemporary practice sometimes obscures the individual contributions of each team participant.” The complexities of today’s collaborations often require legal negotiations simply to determine the extent to which a firm can take credit for a project. Even then, not all parties can resist the temptation to misrepresent themselves to clients, colleagues and the general public as to the origins of a brilliant design concept behind an innovative project.

The simple fact is that improperly attributing credit may have more to do with ruthless or reckless tactics than it does with massaging a fragile ego. But the reality is such that the culture of architecture lionizes the design architect and places her in the most privileged of positions, while a firm that has rightfully demonstrated its technocratic prowess through sophisticated and detailed construction drawings somehow feels inferior. Even though all stages of the design process are equally important, it is the name and reputation of the design architect that prevails.

It is wishful thinking to believe that the culture of architecture will reorganize itself and flatten out its hierarchy to satisfy all the notoriously inflated egos of a project’s constituent architects. In the meantime, it is not too much to ask that architects act with maturity, and respect their ethical and professional obligations by resisting the temptation to inappropriately take credit for the work of others.

Ian Chodikoff