Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Architecture & Medicine: What's Up Doc?

Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in West Hollywood
Frank Lloyd Wright once quipped, "The physician can bury his mistakes, the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines." (I don't know whether it was Frank or Lloyd who suggested the planting of vines at Lloyd Wright's home and studio! - see photo.) In truth, there are  connections between architecture and medicine, and between architects and physicians. This post explores some of these.

Both architects and physicians undergo rigorous education and training before they can lay claim to their professional title. Physicians typically acquire an undergraduate degree, followed by three or more years of medical school, followed by a residency of three to five years, after which they can become licensed physicians. Architects must successfully complete a professional degree program of five to six years, followed by an internship of three or more years, and then are required to pass a difficult registration exam before becoming licensed architects. Both paths are long and difficult, with participants often racking up huge debts. The debts for architects are typically less, but so is the eventual pay. Due to the rigors of education and internships/residencies, most architects and physicians typically do not obtain licensure before they reach their late 20s or early 30s. On the flip side, many will practice their crafts long after those in other vocations and professions retire.

Let's talk a little about perception and practice. In a simpler time the mention of a medical doctor conjured up the image of a wise old man with his black bag of equipment and ointments moving from house to house, treating a variety of needy patients. The architect was perceived as slaving away at his drawing board, tucked away in his Ivory Tower. While these perceptions might be romanticized, one aspect that remains true of both is that they are initially trained as generalists. A comprehensive overview is crucial to their training. As time has advanced, the well of knowledge required in both fields has deepened and broadened. The diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions has grown exponentially, as have building materials, construction methods, and codes. This has led to specialization. Physicians undergo additional formal education and residency requirements, while architects tend to obtain their specialized training "on the job." A few months ago one of my former classmates visited with me. We had the same educational background but we took different paths in the profession. I remained a generalist while he become a specialists. He now focuses on technical codes and specifications for hospitals, but not just any hospitals, only neonatal and pediatric hospitals. At the time he was explaining this, I was working on a custom residential project, a nail salon fit-out, an addition to a church, and a small garden house. The difference between generalist and specialist was stark. Likewise there are many family doctors, but also physicians that specialize in exceptionally rare areas of medicine.
Architect in his Ivory Tower
(Gropius' Chicago Tribune submission)
Rural doctor making house calls

Another similarity between architects and doctors is that neither can hone their crafts alone. They must engage with clients or patients, who have come to them, sometimes in desperation, for the problem solving skills they practice. The success of these professionals is measured by their ability to improve the life and well-being of those who engage them. The term "practice" is one that I avoided as a young architect. It seemed to me as if we were telling our clients that we really weren't very good at this architecture thing, and that we needed to practice. I've since grown to embrace the term. I think it conveys more about the profession that the professional. Architecture, like medicine, is in a constant state of development. Because of this, architecture and medicine are nearly impossible to master. To practice well is about all that one can do.

It is curious then that architects and doctors, who practice their crafts, are often characterized as arrogant. The reasons for this are bountiful and may be the subject of a future post. Perhaps this joke (in which the word "architect" could be inserted where "doctor" is mentioned) relays the popular perception:

What is the difference between God and a doctor?... God does not think he's a doctor! 

So, what can we say about the future of architecture and medicine? There is one certainty. Both are changing at a rapid pace with no foreseeable deceleration. One day architects will be planning civilizations on other planets. Perhaps medicines will be formulated which will eradicate entire classes of diseases. One of both of the scenarios will likely play out, but there is much to be accomplished between now and then. Architects must solve immediate problems of providing affordable housing and designing durable buildings able to withstand increasingly erratic weather patterns. Physicians must continue their exploration of the human body and devise methods and medications to help save lives and improve well being.

The Venus Project
Star Trek's Dr. McCoy
There is one last connection I'd like to suggest. Both physicians and architects tend to be well-traveled, although their motivations may be different. Next month, after I return from vacation, we'll look into the connection between architecture and travel in a post titled Have Sketchbook...Will Travel. 


  1. I read your article and I am unable to understand why are you comparing the architects and Physician. Both are very different things. In my opinion you can try some thing different ways to represent your thoughts to the audience.
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  2. My goal my goal is to stretch the readers mind. Obviously there are connections to architecture which are easy to grasp but I am interested in making not-so-obvious connections. While architects and physicians are very different, there are undoubtably many connections between the two.

  3. That's a really interesting comparison. Yeah, you are right! Both architects and physicians undergo rigorous education and training before they can lay claim to their professional title. Thanks for sharing this post.

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