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Do We Learn from our Mistakes? Essay

Architecturally speaking, I think we learn very little from our mistakes, as there are so many thousands of mistakes to make in architecture without repeating a single one.

A child may learn not to touch a hot stove, but that is because the child receives an immediate response for doing so. This is not true with the mistakes we make as architects. Sometimes years go by before we learn the results of our errors; mostly our ethical errors.

Most of the time this is because we were not making an honest effort in the first place but were looking for a short cut in our design effort. It is easier to submit to the current fad or use a concept or details from a prior project, rather than examine the unique needs of the new project before you. I believe our computer technologies are partially responsible for this; for instance, it is easy to recall a detail system that was prepared for a prior project and with the touch of a key, you can steal the details from an old design as they magically appear on your computer screen.

You may have to make minor adjustments to these details to make them applicable to your current project but this will take only a few hours rather than the many hours it took you to generate those original details. You will save time and money but you have made a devil’s bargain that will come back to haunt you in the future.

To seek truth is a painful process, fraught with stress and discouragement. I know that I have spent many hours developing a detail system for a project only to completely abandon it when I have discovered a better solution; but it was the many hours spent on the abandoned details that lead me to my new and fresh solutions.


If we don’t learn from our mistakes, what then do we learn from? I think it is from our successes, as success is much less common than a failure. Success in architecture is not possible without wisdom. Many people believe that wisdom comes with age; I believe this is not true, as I have seen many young architects gain wisdom with an honest effort to seek excellence in their designs and work long and hard hours toward this end. Some older architects, repeating dreary building after dreary building, gain little wisdom. New information channeled through the old system, delivers the same old answers, repeating mistakes in new buildings.


Young architects, trying to make an honest building, may make some errors in their first designs, but the freshness of their designs will bring them new clients who will forgive them these beginning errors. The new clients will appreciate the integrity of the young architects’ early buildings. These sensitive clients will give wings to young architects that will allow them the freedom to make new and more innovative designs. There are very few good architects in this world, but there are even fewer good clients!

Most young architects must struggle at first to make a living, and may take clients with no sensitivity to good design. These clients may bring the architect pictures of what they think their building should look like, or even a crude floor plan they have sketched. They just want the young architect to copy their bad ideas, allowing them to give drawings to their building contractor to obtain a cost estimate, or a building permit. Avoid these clients like the plague.

Beware of putting your name on anything that you are not proud of, as it will haunt you for the rest of your life, and will hang around your neck like a chain of dead fish.

Actually, turning down bad clients that only want the latest fad is ultimately the most economical thing that you can do for your practice. Once you do a bad building you will lose potentially good clients who will see your bad buildings and will not come to you to be their architect! You will have to seek clients for the rest of your life, and one client tends to be like the one before him. But if your first buildings are works of integrity, clients will seek you out; they will find you; and, they will demand your services for the rest of your life.

My wife and I struggled a little when I first opened my architectural office, but we held on until I received a contract with a good client. I have never had to seek a client nor have I been without a client over the past 55 years. Besides, it’s good to struggle a little at first; it deflates the large ego that most architects have; I know it deflated mine.

Your name is your most important asset; protect it. Your conscience is your best critic; listen to it.

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