April 12, 2011

Imperfection in Architecture?

by: Taz Loomans


Recently I read a book called The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown that extols the virtues of being imperfect. This book gives us permission to be imperfect in the face of constant pressures from society, the media, and ourselves to in fact be perfect.

Think about it, wouldn’t you love it if your life were perfect? If you had the perfect house, the perfect car, lived in the perfect city, had the perfect marriage, the perfect kids and the perfect social life? Everyone does!

Alas, no one has ever achieved any of this. But sadly we think we must, otherwise we feel we are not enough.

Brown’s book along with the countless imperfect projects I’ve done as an architect got me to thinking about imperfection as it pertains to architecture.  There is, in architecture, I believe, a very powerful drive to be perfect.

Similar to other aspects of life, the media and our own education play a big role in this drive.

The perfect photographs that show up in Dwell magazine never show the electrical panel that sits squarely in the middle of the feature wall of the project that was too expensive to move and now must just be painted over.

Architects are trained, from the beginning of their education, to pursue perfection. We are trained to drool over the perfect photographs in those architecture magazines, to strive to get our own perfect projects in those magazines.

When our projects fall short, as they invariably do, we beat ourselves up, we refuse to even look at the final product or talk of the building fondly, even if the client is happy or the end users of the building really like it.  Our stomachs continue to churn at the exposed wall that was drywalled over because of low budget, or at the specification snafu that produced those horrendous faucets instead of looking at the multitude of other aspects that actually work.

At first I thought the key to attaining the perfection I so craved as an architect was to develop my own projects. By doing this, I thought I essentially got rid of the client, the one thing I thought was the biggest obstacle to manifesting my vision perfectly.

But I realized I could never really get rid of the client. Paul and I were the clients and I couldn’t get rid of our shrinking budget or of  incompetent or unwilling workmen or the looming deadline of completing our project so we could get rent coming in to pay the mortgage.

So I sit here today humbled.

Having looked back at every single project I’ve ever worked on, be it with another firm or on my own, I now realize there was always something that stood in the way of perfection, no matter what the situation was.  And the painful but freeing conclusion that is slowly emerging out of the fog of my mind is that perhaps perfection is impossible and the pursuit of it is futile. Perhaps the perfect photographs we see in the architecture magazines are nothing but delusions meant to mislead us into thinking that perfection is possible and nothing less is good enough.

In believing the magazines and their old professors, so many practicing architects get resigned to the fact that their particular visions will never be realized as perfectly as expected so they resort to mediocrity and stop trying to do good work.  Some can’t take the heartbreak of imperfection so they leave architecture and opt for a less painful career in waitressing or accounting.

So I sit here, humbled and a little beat up, and ask: what if architects were taught to not only accept imperfection, but to embrace it, even revel in it? What if they were taught to stop resisting the multiple obstacles, snafus, uninspired clients, tight budgets, and tighter schedules that invariably come up and learn how to work with them instead?

What if our profession was about accepting the real world with all its messiness, like corners that aren’t square, clients that don’t understand minimalism, and contractors that have always done it one way? What if we used all of that as a design parameter instead of pretending that the world is made up of beautiful young wealthy families with perfectly behaved and fashionably dressed children who demand clean, modern, urban, cutting-edge design?

Perhaps we would actually have better design, more engaged architects, a true collaboration with clients, contractors and consultants and less of the aimless, lone, frustrated and out of touch pursuit of magazine perfection.

Perhaps architects would be seen as true partners in development projects instead of snooty primadonas who like to spend other people’s money in pursuit of some glossy image of perfection they’ve been brainwashed into craving.

I challenge the magazines and architecture professors to talk about the messy reality of the everyday world and its impact on architecture, not as a misfortune, but as an opportunity.  I challenge myself and other architects to fully embrace real projects with real budgets, real clients and real schedules and from that standpoint try to create something remarkable. Because I’m beginning to believe it’s possible to create something excellent (though imperfect) from a messy reality.

Photo Credit:  Photo from UnhappyHipsters.com.  Caption reads “Even the baby had to wear the mandatory checkered keffiyeh.”

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6 Responses

  1. Diane D'Angelo says:

    I think my favorite Leonard Cohen lyric might be suitable here.

    “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”


  2. Alison King says:

    I’m completely baffled why more people do not adapt the wabi sabi concept of design and lifestlye



    Quote from the book above “Admittedly, the beauty of wabi-sabi is not to everyone’s liking. But I believe it is in everyone’s interest to prevent wabi-sabi from disappearing altogether. Diversity of the cultural ecology is a desirable state of affairs, especially in opposition to the accelerating trend toward the uniform digitalization of all sensory experience, wherein an electronic “reader” stands between experience and observation, and all manifestation is encoded identically.”

  3. Diane Jacobs says:

    I agree with Alison too. Its so much easier and productive to take such a path…wabi-sabi lets the muses in.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      It is indeed a great concept Diane, and it takes some of the pressure off. I like the idea of reveling in what may seem like an imperfection, but might turn out to be an opportunity.

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