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Architectural Anthropology: Your Firm as Tribe or Family

How architects organize their practice has as much in common with the way families and kinship groups work as it does with business

By Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA

The typical approach to teaching architecture students about professional practice—specifically how architects organize themselves in firms to create architecture—is to look at practice as a business model. Some firms are partnerships with just a few partners, others are broad-based partnerships with every employee sharing in the profits of the firm, and still others are organized as public companies that issue stock and have a board of directors. Architecture students can understand these structures at an abstract, business textbook level, but such descriptions tend to drain the color and personality from architectural practice.

A more engaging way to study architectural practice is from the perspective an anthropologist or sociologist might use to understand a family or a tribe: what is the shared value system, how is the tribe or family organized to sustain itself, how are the leaders chosen, what is the culture of the group? We find that our students at the University of Hartford can more easily understand different forms of practice if they view the firm as a tribe or a family that has come together for a common purpose.

End of the linear line?

According to Elizabeth Petry, AIA, who teaches a graduate-level professional practice course at the University of Hartford, since the passing of the once-widespread conventional structure of architectural practice, architects have become more creative in designing the way they organize themselves for practice. Conventional practice structure was modeled on how a job moved through the office. There was a schematic design department, a design development department, a construction documents department, a construction administration arm, etc. The practice was organized in a linear fashion, like a factory, where a new commission obtained by the principal went in one end and a finished product of working drawings came out the other. As a project moved through this organization, it would be handed off from one department to the next for final completion. Firms often employed in-house specification writers, structural engineers, and mechanical systems professionals.

Today, of course, this linear organization has made way for other methods of organizing practice, says Petry. One of the more popular structures for larger firms is the studio structure, where projects are completed by a single team that works on all phases of the project in collaboration with consultants outside the firm. This “less factory, more family” organization suggests that there are myriad ways that the creative work of the team (and the setting for work) can be accomplished.

To demonstrate this practice model, Petry takes her students on field visits to firms that have very different identities, to observe how the tribe or family of practitioners sees themselves, the value systems their members share, and the unsaid protocols that make it all work. For example, a single practitioner with a group of followers is a common structure in small architectural practices, where the tribe is organized around one leader who sets the vision and the values. This tribe might have subgroups according to expertise, akin to how different members of a pre-industrial tribe are skilled at making certain kinds of objects. Another firm, such as Centerbrook Architects and Planners (one of the firms that Petry’s class visits regularly), is organized with several different “chiefs” or “elders” sharing responsibility for the welfare of the tribe.

There are multitudes of ways these firm micro-cultures organize themselves. Each chief might have a different value system compared to the others, with both the chiefs and the tribe members gravitating towards each other based on the values they share. The firm’s value systems might cut across generations, or places where architecture was studied. Some tribal chiefs might have started their own practices because they attended the same architecture school. Or the chiefs of a new tribe might have left an older, larger tribe whose values system they no longer shared. Or the architectural family might literally be a dynasty, as the crown of leadership is passed down to successive generations.

Inside and out

How the work is accomplished and where it is accomplished has its own tribal and familiar nature. Some of the firms that Petry’s class visits are organized much like architecture schools, with projects designed and reviewed by “critics” both inside and outside the project team. Some reviews can become family rituals. In one firm, every Friday afternoon as the weekend approaches, projects are pinned up for an open review among every family member.

Some firms create office environments designed to attract the same kind of clients. One firm that the class visits, which works almost exclusively with corporate clients, has created a highly corporate environment for its practice. In such cases, the medium of the architecture office is the message that the firm uses to attract like-minded clients with shared environmental values. But students are surprised that sometimes the obverse is the case. An architecture firm producing cutting-edge design work might be housed in the most mundane strip mall.

No matter how intricate and far-flung the architecture and business worlds become, they’re unlikely ever to completely divorce themselves from the basic, fundamental unit of human organization called the family. Regardless of the context, the urge to organize in family structures seems omnipresent. As corporations of all types become larger and ever more complex, it’s refreshing to know that there’s still value in examining how they run by looking closer to home.

Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA, is chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hartford.

Image courtesy of Swati Shenoy.


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