Congratulations to Mississippi State’s 2019 School of Architecture graduates!
For obvious reasons, Theodore Link, architect of Mississippi’s grand 1903 New Capitol couldn’t make it for graduation, but thankfully for us, he had his commencement address already published in the June 25, 1904 issue of The Construction News. His long-form essay, “The Way to Success as an Architect,” written in his own forceful but approachable style, gives great advice to architects both young and old, those just entering the profession and those who’ve maybe been grinding away at it for a while and need to take a step back and examine their careers.
(A note: I wrote this post in WordPress’s new Gutenberg editor, which allows pull-quotes, but I’m not convinced it’s going to publish as it looks here, so please overlook any oddities in this post–I’ll try to fix them after publication. And I won’t be using Gutenberg again if I can help it!)
The Way to Success as an Architect
By Theodore C. Link
A generation ago in this country nearly all the men calling themselves architects were self-styled, practical men, generally mechanics, a little above their fellow carpenters in achievements with pencil and triangle. The people were satisfied with their ability to furnish them a house like another house in the next street. The pioneer needs little more than shelter.
It was a small honor in those days to be an architect in America. There were no barriers to separate the educated from the uneducated. The ostentatious parade of the uneducated one as as a would-be professional man often resulted in his being himself accepted as the representative of his betters by the default of that honorable backwardness in the parade of their virtues which has ever distinguished the upper orders of the craft.
The educated one undoubtedly was tainted by the company in which he found himself, and he made pictures and told plausible lies in colored perspectives. Hence, in the fiction of those days we find the architect a sorry caricature, always with the shady sides prevailing. I regret to acknowledge that a faint and hazy impression of this picture lingers to this day in the popular fancy.
Then came the great art wave of 1876, which spread over this country with the suddenness of a Kansas zephyr. Architects delighted in calling themselves artists–fantastic dreamers, men of emotions and inspirations, steeped in an intoxication of ornamental forms from which they struggled to evolve originality. They produced Queen Annes and horseshoe windows. It was openly asserted that ability in design and capacity for business were impossible in friendly assocaition in the same brain. Architecture, it was insisted, is not a business, but an art. The public took them at their own valuation, but were are the foremost men of that day now?
All this has changed in the last twenty years. Architecture, as today practiced, is a new occupation in America. A new order has arisen to meet a new demans, and the architects of the new school, like other quick-witted men, have equipped themselves to meet this new demand.
It is of the qualifications for the man who attempts to fill this new demand that I would speak to the young men on the threshold of active life, particularly to him who is allured to architecture as his future mistress by reasons of the flattering long-distance view, which seems to him to offer the most honorable intellectual career in the whole curriculum of professional pursuits.
Truly it is a difficult task to analyze the qualities that lead to success in the practice of architecture. No doubt, it is human nature to imagine that one’s own professional involves more difficulties and more complexities than any other; and so I feel about architecture. Still, no one will deny the fact that the architect, in order to become eminent in his calling, must be at least competent in an amazing number and diversity of subjects.
To describe the ideal modern architect is to picture the acme of creative perfection. The client expects no less. This versatile intellectual giant (the architect, not the client) should know all about mathematics, physics, chemistry, decoration, mechanics, painting, electricty, applied art, sculpture, the liberal arts, all the building trades, arboiculture, landscape gardening, law, philosophy, business, ecclesiastical history, hydeia, sanitation, hydraulics, the five orders, the styles, zoology, social economy, civic improvements–in fact, all the arts, sciences and trades, with the possible exception of aerial navigation.
Mind you, I do not say that I am describing anybody within my acquaintance, nor do I draw upon history for a model. Michael Angelo was all right as far as he could go, but he knew absolutely nothing of plumbing, steam-fitting, electricity or sliding-door hangers. Pardon me, I am not frivolous.
I say in all seriousness that the modern architect is expected to know all these subjects which are of such different natures and which emanate from such different and even apparently opposite mental characteristics that it would appear, under the very superficial scrutiny with which we ordinarily examine such questions, almost an impossibility to encompass them all successfully.
Now, we may ask, why do men select a profession in which real success, or at least eminence, entails a life of constant serious study, three-fourths drudgery, no play and rarely a reward of full, unstinted appreciation? Why will men knowingly attempt the impossible?
The temptation is too great. It comes to me with the fragrance of a new thought that the real lodestone is the promise of immortal fame for which no other profession offers equal opportunities to the ambitious. Like the great poets and writers, whose works live forever, the architect can leave behind him monuments in stone and marble that will delight generations who will venerate his name and treasure his memory. To be sure, some paintings and sculptures live forever, but they are stored away in museums; they can never appeal to the masses of the people like a glorious building that stands among them as a friend will stand by you in sunshine and through storms, a close and friendly link between them and the generation of their fathers.
Therefore, so much is sure and indisputable, that a healthy ambition is one of the most important vehicles of success in architecture.
I am aware that it is a dangerous thing to disturb comfortable beliefs, but looking at the men who have been successful in architecture I find that under the existing social and economic conditions the modern architect must of necessity be a forceful business man first and an artist afterward.
The operation of building is undoubtedly the most complicated transaction in the modern business world. I know of no other business that presents the same complexity of interests and requires as much methodical detail, foresight, business tact, executive ability and eternal vigilance, with as small an organization for assistance as he is usually about to maintain. The best design badly executed, with the aftermath of legal entanglements, will affect the standing of an architect immeasurably more than will a veritable architectural monstrosity executed in a clean, business-like manner. A man can outlive a bad design (are we not, all of us, persistently avoiding certain streets?), but he can not easily recover from the reputation of having ignored every tenet of common sense and business propriety.
A clean reputation for sterling integrity is a great stronghold and absolutely essential for success in this profession. An architect has many duties almost judicial in their character, and he must enjoy the confidence of both client and contractors for justice and incorruptibility.
I have laid so much stress on the business qualifications and administrative talent necessary to conduct the routine of an architect’s office that I may be suspect of considering it merely a commercial science. I do not belittle its aspect as a fine art. I take it for granted that every architect is delighted beyond measure when once in a while he finds himself absorbed in some study of real architecture. I say, “once in a while,” for the architect’s usual month is simply thirty days of figures, specifications and plan problems. I know that most people, including some architects, have delusions on this subject. They suppose him an exalted and noble occupation all the time; he is supposed to have visions and to have his inspirations always on tap.
Architectural inspiration differs from the artistic so radically that a number of sober and solid workmen with the T square and triangle disclaim its very possibility as a spontaneous mental operation. They say that when you have to harness and discipline it to the extent that its results must fit into certain exact dimensions and limitations it loses caste and is debased into a simple process of logical deductions and adjustments within certain laws of harmony and proportion.
However, this is debatable ground. No matter which way you decide it, it is of vital importance that an architect must be an artist at least within the meaning of the modern elasticity of the term. He must have the keen appreciation and innate love of the beautiful–with the longing for the artistic ideal which he himself has carefully set far beyond his own reach, in order that it may indeed be and remain an ideal toward which he may constantly turn and which shall be to him as a religion–with all its hopes and its beliefs and its yearnings for higher and better things. As an artist he should have the creative impulse of his own individuality, together with the strong desire for achievement, working mainly for the purely intellectual satisfaction which comes with the consciousness of a task well accomplished.
Regarding the artistic temperament of which I have spoken, I do not believe that it is, in its normal exemplification, incompatible with good business management. Why can not a man express his emotional nature and still be the possessor of well-balanced judgment in things material? Are not these merely different manifestations of an idea passing through the mind in this or that manner–much as a physical fact is revealed to us through the agency of this one of that one of our senses? We find no contradiction in our senses, why should we in the process which sets forth an idea?
As in all human efforts, even in art work, concentration of thought is essential to all successful achievement.
As the architect is rarely allowed to modify conditions, let alone make them, he has always to be resourceful, ever desirous to obtain the right or the best solution to a problem. Strive to be logical. A logical mind will beget a logical building, perversity will bring forth perversity, and beware lest you reveal you true character in your buildings. It is truly said that the children of the mind will reveal the parent.
The architect must be an enthusiast over his own calling–mere assent and willingness to work for a living will count for nothing. He should commend actual work early in life–the longer his experience the better he is equipped.
Although architectural colleges are of quite recent date in this country, and although some of our successful practitioners did not enjoy the advantages of technical and artistic training in schools, the finishing of a course in an architectural school must now be laid down as an essential factor for success. The fatal “taste for drawing” and the dilettante acquaintance with art without a liberal education have brought too many recruits to the drafting rooms and kept them there–an army of disappointed and disgruntled draftsmen of the third order.
The deduction which I therefore make is that the ordinary belief of a successful modern architect’s composition as being that of a befogged dreamer is a delusion, and that business capacity under the present organization of modern society is a prerequisite to his success, because we find the number of those architects who have achieved success by artistic qualities alone, a minority so small as to become relatively a negligible quantity. The fact remains that the architectural opportunities fall to those who are pre-eminent for business rather than artistic ability.
This is not the place to debate whether this condition is beneficial to to the progress of architectural art or otherwise.
Theodore Link, The Construction News, June 25, 1904
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