What Does an Architect Do?

During a fundraising event I attended for the benefit of a charter school in St. Louis, benefactors, guests and students were given the opportunity to intermingle and engage in conversation.  Students were seeking to better understand the business community and opportunities for future careers.  A student introduced himself and asked what I do for a living.  I replied that I’m an architect.  Expecting a response like “Wow! I bet that’s a rewarding career!” (or something like that) I was surprised to see a quizzical look on his face and instead, the question…

“What’s an architect?”

My initial reaction was shock, and I thought “How can someone not know what an architect is?”  Architects are some of the most thoughtful and influential people on the planet and have been for centuries (I may be biased).  But then I realized that apparently not everyone knows this. It was a fair question that deserved an answer, so I replied:

“An architect is someone that designs buildings.”

The look on his face told me that my answer hadn’t entirely answered the question so I tried again:

I spread my arms and extended an invitation “Take a look around.  See the walls and ceiling and floor?  They enclose a space.  If we went outside, we could see a form that encloses this space.  A building, right?”

“I build buildings like this, but not in the real world.  I build buildings in here” (point to my head).  “I imagine what a building will be before it is actually there.”

“Then I devise a strategy for communicating or conveying to other people what it would be like to see that building, to be in that building, to experience that building.”

“Then, after people understand what the building will be like and agree with me that that is what the building should be like, I devise a form of communication that conveys to the people that will build the building what’s to be built.”

“That’s what an architect does.”

Just then an announcement was made that the main program was about to start and a request was made for everyone to find their seat.  The student and I went separate ways, so I never got a chance to inquire what interests the young man had.  I hope he found my profession interesting, because my recent experience would indicate that other people in other professions are starting to latch onto the idea that what architects do in relation to buildings is what their position is to their job or profession, or what their firm or profession is to their business or industry.

I was encouraged to think along these lines by a couple of things that happened to me recently.  I was driving on the highway one day when I noticed the slogan on back of a truck: "We are Architects of packaging solutions”.  Hmm…  interesting.


Then my buddy Rob tells me that his job description changed he and now calls himself an Architect.  I was taken aback. I blurted out “Wait a minute. For me to be able to call myself an Architect I had to graduate from an accredited architecture school, work in an architect’s office for a minimum of four years before I could even be eligible to take a rigorous 2-day examination that would allow me the privilege of being able to call myself an Architect, in accordance with the rules and regulations of the State of Missouri. And that it was illegal by such rules and regulations to call yourself an architect unless registered and licensed by the State to do so.”

He did have a fair point that no one was going to mistake designing buildings for designing computer systems.  We discussed it a bit and I realized that we both create a plan for something before it comes into existence.  That’s what I do with buildings.  That’s what he does with computer systems.

“To architect” something has become a verb.

And finally, I knew I was in good company when I read a sign out in front of a church that read: “God is the Architect of the Universe”.  While God is the only architect that could create the Universe, creating architecture is the realm of the mere mortal architect.  An architect engages in a process that yields architecture, but others have found that engaging in this same process yields the desired results that they are seeking in their line of work.

When the student asked me “What’s an architect?” instead of replying “An architect is someone who designs buildings” I could have said "An architect is someone that helps us decide what form the world we live in should take.”