GAM 19

How to Become a Pro

Anne Femmer, Alex Lehnerer, Florian Summa

Professional athletes are paid for doing sports. They are even contractually bound to do so. And to much more. They are not permitted to play other kinds of sports that might cause an injury; they have endorsement deals, can only wear shoes of a certain brand, and must be careful how they comport themselves in public. Pros are no longer private individuals. They represent their line of occupation, corporate sponsors, their team, and a moral code. All the time. An example: the board of directors of a fairly famous soccer club recently reprimanded a fairly famous player publicly for flying to a fairly famous event in Paris on his day off, a Sunday. The words that fell were: “That’s so amateurish. Just the kind of thing I dislike … : running around somewhere the minute you have a day off.”[1]


So it’s rather dreamy to be paid for what you love to do, for something you are quite talented at. “Rather”— a word not uttered by pros. Professionals must be certain, without any latitude whatsoever. But can we be pros just sometimes only? “Sometimes.” Another one of those words to be avoided if you are a professional. No can do. It’s either/or. Hey, let’s maybe be professional amateurs! Maybe. As you can see, this is not really going to be a professional editorial. Being a professional comes with obligations, demands, and expectations placed on us.


But wouldn’t it be nice if we could decide on a case-by-case basis? Perhaps making the decision based on input from those around us? And based on what we are doing at the moment? If we’re running around Paris, then we’re basically not professionals; but if we’re running around a building site with other people, let’s say craftspeople, climbing on scaffolding at our own construction site, then we are, in fact, pros. Here, there is no “rather,” no “maybe,” no “sometimes.” Craftspeople expect us to deliver expertise, a solution-oriented approach, an overview (and figure that we will soon trip and fall from the scaffolding).


Being a professional is a relative trait, based on context. It is a mutual temporary assessment of what one can expect from, and demand of, one’s counterpart. However, highly contradictory expectations and ascriptions are commonly attributed to us as architects. To borrow the words of Sam Jacob, “we have to be Michelangelo and a plumber at once.”[2] This oscillation between boundless freedom and the demands of a 125 mm sewage pipe is both the attraction and the challenge of our work.


But the matter is not as simultaneous as Sam phrases it. Not if we organize ourselves as professionals. Le Corbusier is said to have spent time painting in the morning and drawing in the afternoon.[3] Nonetheless: as professional amateurs, we as architects practice several professions at the very same time. We are legal specialists when speaking with the building authority, craftspeople when visiting the construction site. We’re also building physicists. Artists and philosophers at the first client meeting, managers and psychologists at the second, and economists and accountants at the last. And finally, self-marketers. It is simply impossible to cover all of these areas professionally. So what to do?


Advice from professionals is not long in coming: concentrate, specialize! Narrow down your field until you have the feeling that you know what you are talking about. Once we have narrowed it down, it is possible to survey the field (now that it is nice and small), and in this field we become a pro. This gives rise to a nice, secure feeling. The boundless sense of being overwhelmed disappears. We are soon considered by others to be experts in our profession. When asked questions, we are able to answer. The only problem is that sooner or later we are not asked anything else. Then we know that the world considers us professionals. In this issue of GAM, Alexander Bartscher chronicles how this kind of specialization in the architectural image is changing the discipline and determining its discourse. On pages 37– 46, he shares with us his experience with architectural pictorial worlds in the service of professional rendering.


And in the end, as pros we are finally being paid properly. Paid fees that are unfortunately no longer universally set in stone by our expensive, loyal membership in a chamber of architects. But the chamber otherwise still takes care of our many professional concerns and allows us to use the protected title of “architect.” But what does this title actually need protection from? Well, of course from people who simply want to call themselves “architect” in order to have access to our commissions, yet without officially possessing the necessary qualifications and professional experience.


Maybe a step-by-step certification, as Peggy Deamer elucidates on pages 47 – 56, would do a better job of detailing professional suitability and also be a more open approach, as opposed to more general, exclusive licensing through a professional association. And experience, as Kurt Tucholsky well knew, is just one of those things: it is possible to do your job poorly for thirty-five years.


Luckily, being a pro is not a permanent licensed condition. Do we want to be seen only as architects anytime, anywhere? Should people at a garden party be saying: “Oh, there comes the architect!” Actually, pros do like to identify themselves as such in private. A déformation professionelle quickly changes our appearance to that of a typical lawyer, teacher, doctor, manager, or even architect on a permanent basis. So beware!


Admittedly, the public image of architecture as a profession has fundamentally changed in recent decades. This is clearly evident in the way it is processed as pop culture in movies and on television. In the 1980s, the status of architects (usually male at the time) still equated to that of the sovereign building contractor (though a bit more cool with a sportier car). Today, however, architects are increasingly being portrayed as “the modern human in all his existential separation and loneliness,” as Julian Müller and Victoria Steiner note in their contribution (pp. 26–36).


You can recognize pros by their equipment; and the prospect of becoming a professional thanks to the appropriate tools has always been the ultimate lure for us amateurs. “Working like a pro” has been internalized as an unbeatable slogan by a slew of manufacturers and equipment suppliers, regardless of industry. Here, too, the point is only indirectly a matter of differences in (product) quality. It really has to do with group exclusivity, flagged by the corresponding equipment, beyond which there are only “toys.” Professionalism equates to status.


Professionals on the construction site are recognizable thanks to their helmets. This is clearly evident in the photo series We Are Building Our Future Together (2021), made by the photographer Juergen Teller in collaboration with his wife and creative partner, Dovile Drizyte. For their wedding invitation, the couple staged humorous images in which they wear safety gear on a construction site in Napoli, thus providing an appropriate visual metaphor for their future journey together as well as their professional working relationship (pp. 81–91).


In addition to office size or building volume, the status of professional architects is analogously defined by the suitable tools, namely, the involved partners. Prevailing here is a professional, custom-tailored division of labor. The entire construction and planning process can be organized using specialized professionals, such as EMP planners, facade specialists, structural engineers, cost planners, client representatives, and external construction supervision. Even the act of organizing can be taken over by hired project management.


In fact, the design itself can also be professionalized. Generating ideas, our interns work on a large number of options in the model-making workshop; so we only need to select the most suitable one, hand it over to the project architect for further work, and off we go to the construction site with the aforementioned professionals. Even just the question of what our task actually is in this process enables us say with certainty that we are now professionals.


Unless, of course, we decide against all this, until we become what Grayson Bailey calls an “Anti-Architect” (pp. 10–15), so as to concentrate in turn on architectural matters, yet beyond architecture as an institution. From the outside.


From the inside, through the very act of building itself, Lena Unger and Jan Meier show how, in cohort with their clients, they elude this professionalism of a contemporary division of labor, thus reappropriating the task of building through reclaimed responsibilities. Such productive self-criticism of our field allows us to perceive our work as a reciprocal trust-based relationship. The job of architecture is then to serve as a steward of this trust (see also Ivica Brnić, pp. 122–127) among clients, users, planers, and executors. But this is not professional in a conventional sense. Not yet at least. The necessary step in this direction— adapting building law and the related contractual systems— is discussed by Klara Bindl on pages 16–25.


Eschewing ideologically and traditionally established professionalism, yet without squandering our own responsibility and the trust we enjoy as architects, is perhaps the dominant position of GAM 19.


It is accompanied by the question of how we can escape such professional constraints. In the case of Lena and Jan, it is clear how the process of building changes the result, and thus how doing it yourself on the construction site becomes a critical act.


Another method of deprofessionalization is identified by Andreas Lechner (pp. 92– 105) in the previously unpublished recordings of lectures by Günther Domenig: an unconditional reference to personal authority and sovereignty. As a critic or opponent of any external force, be it a canon or a professional ritual.


Yeoryia Manolopoulou (pp. 114– 121), in turn, invokes and describes a contrary motive with a similar goal. It is not radical subjectivity (as in the case of Domenig), but rather productive chance that becomes the authority in design, which enables nonhierarchical results based on dialogue, thereby questioning external conditions beyond doubt.


The relationship between architecture and society—in solving societal problems rather than in being a direct cultural force—is the professional, institutional question examined by Andri Gerber (pp. 74–80). Here it becomes clear that architecture is not an undeniably strong, steadfast discipline; rather, its discourse always also involves, self-indulgently, its own relevance and quest for meaning in the world. Architecture is a cultural practice.


Ultimately, we are all professionals, each in his or her way: pros have as a profession what others do as a hobby. Pros carry their own yardstick. Pros are taken seriously. Pros are realists: they have internalized the magic triangle of cost, quality, and time. Pros have memorized the six-digit number of every rulebook standard. Pros are members of trade associations. Pros are on time. Pros are touch typists. Pros make decisions without involving emotions. Pros separate their professional and private lives. Pros earn the amount they deserve. Pros are able to assess risks. Pros live without the word “rather.” Pros always know how to get the help they need. Pros don’t give out their private number to clients. Pros work with professionals. Pros make do without gaps (being suspicious of interstitial spaces). Pros can limit themselves; they are not generalists. Pros want to be professionals. Pros don’t make mistakes. Pros work with professional tools. Pros take notes during conversations. Pros find meaning in their own work. Pros don’t think they can do everything better. Pros are able to delegate work. Pros don’t design on their own, but instead let people design. Pros think in terms of scenarios. Pros are reliable. Pros are not creative. Pros have good manners. Pros are authoritative. Pros don’t see their job as a calling. Pros know what they are capable of. Pros follow a canon. Pros don’t second-guess their own relevance; they never doubt. Pros know everything; and if they don’t, then they know where to look. For example in this publication. ■

Translation: Dawn Michelle d’Atri

[1] Hasan Salihamidžić on Serge Gnabry after his flight to Paris Fashion Week in January 2023, cited from, dpa:230125-99-345903/2

[2] Sam Jacob in his lecture at the symposium “Professionalism,” Graz University of Technology, April 2022.

[3] Or perhaps the other way around.