Why don't architects ever retire?

All things elderly.
Sept. 9 2008 11:16 AM

The Oldest Profession

Why don't architects ever retire?

Read more from Slate's  Geezers Issue. 

I.M. Pei. Click image to expand.
Architect I.M. Pei 

Asked why so many architects lived long lives, Philip Johnson quipped, "Of course they live long—they have a chance to act out all their aggressions." Johnson must have had a lot of acting out left to do, for his well-publicized "retirement" at 85 turned out to be only the first of many, and he continued to design and build until his death 13 years later. I.M. Pei, more judicious in all things, was 72 when he announced his retirement from the firm he had founded 28 years before. Golf, fishing, mah-jongg? Hardly. "I want to spend whatever time I have left working," he said, and he has been doing just that—in France, Germany, Qatar, China. His most recent building, done in collaboration with his two sons' firm, Pei Partnership Architects, is the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C. At 91, Pei is the same age Frank Lloyd Wright was when he died. Wright didn't pretend to retire; he just kept drawing until the end. And what drawings! His last decade saw three great masterpieces: the Price Company Tower, the Beth Sholom Synagogue, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

What is it with architects that they don't—or can't—retire? In part, it is the nature of their profession. Architecture is a delicate balancing act between practicality and artistry, and it takes a long time to master all the necessary technical skills as well as to learn how to successfully manipulate the thousands of details that compose even a small building. Requisite skills for the successful practitioner include dealing with clients: individuals, committees, communities, boards. The architect, proposing an as-yet-unbuilt vision of the future, must be able to persuade, and it's easier to be persuasive if you have a proven track record.

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For all these reasons, architectural wunderkinds are few and far between; architects have traditionally hit their stride in late middle age. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was 62 when he started designing the Lake Shore Drive apartments, which became the model for all subsequent steel-and-glass towers; Le Corbusier was 63 when he built the marvelous chapel at Ronchamp, setting the architectural world on its ear; Louis Kahn was 64 when the Salk Institute was built; and Frank Gehry was 68 when he produced the Bilbao Guggenheim. So once you finally get really good at it, why stop?

It's not so hard for an architect to keep going. Since building is a team endeavor, the old master is surrounded by scores of assistants. For any slowing down that occurs in later years, there are plenty of younger hands and minds to pick up the pace. The younger minds propose, but the master disposes, and the big decisions still benefit from years of practice and experience. From the client's point of view, since buildings represent large investments, it is safer, by far, to know that a seasoned practitioner is overseeing the process.

In old age, painters have the choice of retreating to their studios and picking the subject that interests them. Architects don't have that luxury; they depend on clients for their work. All architects have experienced periods when the clients stopped coming, for one reason or another—when there was no work in the office and staff had to be let go, oblivion beckoning. So when clients continue to knock at the door with large, interesting commissions, it's very hard to say no. After all, who knows for how long the knocking will continue? I met Gehry when he was 73. He said that he was turning down a lot of work and speculated that he probably would not do more than a handful of projects before retiring. That was six years—and many, many buildings—ago.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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