If you want some perspective on your own problems, how about contemplating a genius’ lifelong struggle with rejection at the hands of a confederacy of dunces?
You can always tell when you’ve entered a sticky patch. When the phone finally rings, it’s not a prospective client. It’s not even one of your builders trying to make sense of a drawing. No. It’s somebody who wants to speak to “the person in charge of your cleaning”. Now, we’re not quite at a stage where that person would be me, but there is a general feeling of when is whatever happens next going to happen?
And you can tell when a sticky patch has turned to quicksand when builders ring up to find out if you’ve heard any more from that chap you were talking to at the gallery opening. The only thing worse than being too busy is having nothing to do. And the only thing worse than nothing to do is being frantically busy but knowing that you’re not going to get paid.
When anyone in construction thinks they are having a hard time of it, they could do worse than go into their local video store and find a recently released DVD of My Architect, a documentary made by the youngest illegitimate son of Louis Khan. It’s about his search for his father.
Louis Khan was the last of the heroic American architects of the 1960s. Like Antonio Gaudí, who was mistaken for a vagrant after being run over by a tram in Barcelona, Khan’s body remained unclaimed for two days after he died of a heart attack in Penn Station in New York in 1974.
He built only a handful of buildings. The most celebrated of his works is probably the extraordinarily powerful parliament buildings for Bangladesh, but he also managed to build a number of academic and gallery buildings in the USA.
His was a constant struggle with rejection. The role of the true artist, no doubt. There is a most dispiriting interview in the film where Nathaniel tracks down the chief planning officer in Khan’s home town, Philadelphia. To say that this man disliked Khan is
like saying that Osama Bin Laden has reservations about Las Vegas. Vitriol was still flowing through his 90-year-old veins – perhaps it was what was keeping him alive – as he told triumphant story after story about he managed to see to it that none of the “modernist nonsense” that Khan designed ever got built. And there were drawings of all these marvellous projects. Tranquil libraries, heroic theatre buildings, brooding synagogues, inspiring concert halls. And in the background, in every direction, you can see all the second-rate commercial American schlock that this civic worthy did allow, tearing the heart out of the 19th-century city in the process.
We told him, ‘Hell, no. We’ve got to get it finished’. It was like trying to build something with your wife
There was also the interview with the two Texan contractors who built Khan’s Kemble Galley in Fort Worth. ”Sure, Louis used to come down every week to take a look. Real nice guy. But he had this idea he could just wave some drawings at us and we would change what we’d agreed. We told him, ‘Hell, no. This is our building now. We’ve got to get it finished.’ It was like trying to build something with your wife.”
So the building sailed through and not only is it delicious, tranquil and beautifully put together, it was the only job on which Khan made a decent profit.
His other claim to fame was that despite his 90-hour weeks and his pockmarked face, he managed to run three families simultaneously. One was with his wife, who originally set him up in business, one was with a former assistant, by whom he had a daughter, and one with a landscape architect with whom he had a son. The son, having seen so very little of his father during his life (Khan was nearly 60 when Nathaniel was born) decided he’d make the film to find out a bit more about his old man. Most of Khan’s clients couldn’t praise him highly enough; the dignitaries in the Indian city of Ahmedabad were in tears as they recalled the efforts Dad had made to provide them with a management institute.
So the next time one of your clients decides he’s not going to build something of yours quite as you’d like it, or decides to knock you for the last 5% of your fee to remind you who’s in charge, saunter over to your local Blockbuster, and, avoiding for once the Chuck Norris and Vixen Lust shelves, treat yourself to an hour and a half with My Architect just to remind yourself what is possible in this maddening business of ours.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London