Where have all the Cowboys Gone?

In the early days of my architectural career I was a firebrand.  I fought for what I believed in and stood up for myself to clients and city planners alike.  What I didn’t realize at the time was what an amazing boss I had.  He supported me, defended me and never made me feel that standing up for the firm or defending our actions was a bad thing.  In fact, he taught me the art of good record-keeping and documentation to facilitate just such circumstances. However, as I soon learned at my next firm, which was hierarchical, was that the Director of Design (who in my opinion was neither) made design decisions.  Period.  There was no place for any other ideas.  My attempts to collaborate or share thoughts resulted in being assigned tasks to make me feel included that once completed were cast aside, and my one attempt to pin up several concepts and have the team engage in discussion made the guy feel I had hostilely attacked him.  So he called me into a conference room to hostilely attack me.  I think he was trying to intimidate me, but back then, I knew he couldn’t fire me so I fought right back and gave no ground.  I also told our Managing Director that I never wanted to work with him again.  So did several other staff (and quite possibly some clients), and he left the firm a few months later.  However, in a firm structured that way, only those tracked as designers from day one were ever really in charge of design.  Shut your mouth and do your job was the implicit message. Stay in your track. SIGH.  My next job initially seemed to hold better prospects.  The firm was known for its design and the design came out of each project team with design direction and final approval by a Principal.  But wait- this firm believed that the client should be satisfied at any costs and routinely threw staff under the bus, even without knowing all the facts, any time a client was less than delighted.  Staff lived in fear of defending our actions to a cranky client lest said client call one of our principals to complain.  Even when I could prove to them that we were right and the client was wrong, and produce an extensive paper trail, these guys rolled over to placate the client.  They lost money on every job doing that.  The implicit message here was that there was no place for courage of conviction.  The customer was always right.  SIGH.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.  Frank Lloyd Wright was a cowboy.  LeCorbusier was a cowboy.  Hell, even Zaha Hadid is a cowboy. We need that lone figure standing unyielding on the hilltop.  Who is inspired by the current crisis of leadership at most architecture firms? There needs to be a place for those who are willing to speak up, to fight for an idea or an opportunity, to hold a client to their decisions.  It seems the cowboy has been replaced with a bunch of grovelling mealy mouth architects who are more afraid of losing their clients than losing their integrity.

I find it hard to believe that clients really respect kowtowing and employees certainly don’t.  However, we increasingly get this message: don’t rock the boat.  What implications does this have for leadership?  Clients have needs and expectations, but they also expect their architect to be in charge of the design process and to lead them through it.  In salute to the cowboy in all of us some unorthodox ideas about our practice of architecture:
Let loose with both barrels.  Before you even start, you gotta let ‘em know who they’re dealing with.  The beginning of a project is the time for establishing who you are, why you want to work on this project and what advantage you bring.  If you aren’t clear about this now, how will you assert yourself as things become challenging?  Besides, if there is a fundamental disconnect, better to realize that now and leave the project on good terms.  Yep, you read that right.  If they’re not buying what you’re selling, ride off into the sunset.  Nothing good will come of staying.

Brandish your firing iron. Clients are working through an iterative process with you.  You need to provide clear information about how the process will work, where and how interaction occurs, what players have a role at which stage of the project and how much of a time commitment each stakeholder is expected to have.  Without this kind of upfront organization of expectations, schedule, and process, the project can get away from you – fast.  Critical players can miss meetings, information meant to be shared within a department can go unseen.  You have to enforce the process, failing to have the right input at the right time or decisions made on schedule compromises the project.  No one will be happy with how things are going and they will blame you.  And if you didn’t stick to your guns and enforce the rules of engagement, it will absolutely be your fault.

Break that horse. Taming the design problem requires loving understanding but also steely determination.  You need to define the issues you will and will not address in the design instead of letting them define you.  Organize stakeholder input and benchmarking sessions to collect the data you need to prioritize with your clients about the issues.  This is the number one lesson from all those studio crits back in school: your success will be judged by how well you have solved the problem you have defined.

Herd the cattle. Design is about so much more that just architecture.  There are other players who will work on everything from engineering to cost estimating to equipment planning.  Don’t let your team roam off in separate directions.  Keep them focused and in communication with one another.  Don’t hesitate to lasso back in the wayward consultant.  Even if they don’t work directly for you, they are contributing to your process.  They need to stay with the herd.  If they aren’t interested, you need to be proactive and let your client know.  Regardless of who hired each individual, if they don’t contribute to the process, they aren’t contributing at all.  That has as much value to your owner as it does to you.  They’ll appreciate the heads up.

Being a cowboy means being willing to take a few risks and not mind if in doing that you offend some people.  Cowboys are never obnoxious, but they don’t compromise doing their job for anything or anyone.  Take control and speak you mind, establish clear rules of engagement and enforce them without compromise.  Believe in your ideas and your process and let that guide everything you do.  Above all, don’t let anything, especially fear of disapproval, hold you back.  Ye-haw!


  1. I'm loving the concept of the architect as the cowboy :) Looking forward to your tweets! Also you can check out my blogs at: sej-works.posterous.com...

  2. Thanks Shabnam! Speaking your mind and having courage of conviction is a lost art. I think we are all born with this skill, but have to resist the tendency for it to be suppressed in us. Great stuff on your blogs.

  3. Keep on pushing for creating the right spaces!

    Remember the Alamo! And do not forget Midway!

    The island was surrendered by the commander and the soldiers wanted to keep fighting.

    In the end... Giving up in order to reach a compromise can mean a worse outcome for all involved.

  4. So true Anonymous- giving up instead of going the distance and being true to yourself can lead you to a compromised life. How do you "stay true"?

  5. Angela, wish I had read your blog before posting my comment on the discussion group, but unorthodox approach to architecture caught my eye. As a Texan and Austinite (well I got here as soon as I could), I appreciate your Cowboy image. I have worked for a variety of architects, none of whom were as bad as you describe and unfortunately none were cowboys. But I can honor that image. The firms that I admire and would hire to design a project for me are all cowboys. I can remember a time when I had four people draw their solution for a project and we went with the best design out of the back room. The guy who did the best design later became president of the firm. When I founded my own firm, I established a bottom up culture. I think any firm that does not take ideas from staff at any level is wasting a valuable resource. But I don't know that a cowboy would take inspiration from the back room any more than the Director of Design would. It seems like a reall Cowboy would gather people around and ask, "Angela, what would you do here?" Then rather than shoot your idea down, teach the whole group how to develop that idea into a stronger solution. Does anyone outside of academia work in a studio that takes time for exploring, teaching and having fun?

  6. Richard,
    Unfortunately, I think the answer to your question is: Not nearly enough!

    Although many firms would like to think so, hyper attention to budgets leads to overly compressed schedules that enforce a "reuse the solution that works" mentality and hierarchies and egos lead to a profound lack of mentoring.

    I hop eto be one voice for change and welcome any others who are willing to join me for the quest to reclaim our architectural spirit.

  7. Angela,
    Maybe the mentoring, spirit and rebirth of architecture have moved to the night and the internet. I am going to sleep though. I have a feeling that I will be more inspired if I run, bike and swim tomorrow than if I contemplate cowboys any longer tonight.

  8. Wow, this is a great post! I've been through a few of the same scenarios (great support and being thrown under the bus; working with a company that had its favorite few designers that everyone else supported). I wish that firms would be equally as transparent and 'fire with both barrels' from the outset, too. To know what type of environment you're joining before accepting a job would be so beneficial. I'll definitely subscribe to your posts! Feel free to drop by my blog sometime, too. www.architangent.com/blog

  9. Brinn,
    I agree. Who hasn't interviewed with a firm that proudly showcased their open studio layout and talked about the value of collaborating? Walking the talk is another thing altogether and it's often best to interview other employees and come up with a few questions that relate to your working environment non-negotiables to get a better feel for the culture of the firm.


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