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Behind the Curtain

One of the best scenes from the movies frames the encounter between Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz. The image of the giant godhead frightens Dorothy and her companions, and tries to intimidate and confuse them through the magic of misdirection. “Ignore that man behind the curtain,” shouts the Wizard. But the giant talking head could offer no solutions to their problems, and, instead, just made a big show of sound and light to distract them. The people of Emerald City believed that the Wizard was omnipotent because they wanted to, not because he was. In the end, the real wizard was exposed as a charlatan, but he helped them see that their own collaboration had already provided the answers they needed.

Architecture can be just as confounding. Ayn Rand’s book, Fountainhead, led a generation of modernist architects to believe that they alone possessed the talent to solve the problems of creating the places we inhabit. The myth was that one architect’s vision and ability alone was superior to all the others who seek the answers to the riddles of modern buildings and spaces: that individual wisdom was enough.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. It turns out that in order to make the kind of complex places that we live in today, a tremendous amount of collaboration among a diverse collection of many people is needed. It takes the work and ideas of many to create a truly great place: civic leaders, bankers, builders, developers, code officials, institutional investors, engineers, and, yes, architects.

Within our architectural firm, we have a diverse group of people with varied ages, backgrounds, interests and talents. Our work grows from our internal collaboration, and the interaction among us. Add to that the wonderful array of experts we engage as needed on each project, and you begin to see how this works. We love good ideas, regardless of where they come from. By listening carefully to other members of the team, then trying to weave thoughts and ideas into a coherent fabric, we become facilitators rather than fountainheads.

Some people see me standing up in front of the various boards and public meetings, and perhaps suppose that the designs I present are my own. I own them in the sense that I am accountable for them, but they come from a profound commitment to collaboration. I have opinions—and an ego, for sure—but at our studio we work together to make certain our designs meet the tests of economics, environmental responsibility, physics, construct-ability and our clients’ functional needs, as well as the aesthetics of architecture. Many times, my own ideas are secondary to better ideas from others. I invite you to meet the wonderful people who work together in our office. Maybe our next project could be yours!

I guess it would be nice to have a pair of those ruby slippers, but the next time you hear an architect telling you that he has all the answers, maybe you should first look behind the curtain.


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