Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Six Degrees

It's all about who you know. People try to deny it, but it is one of life's ultimate truths. Especially in this profession.

Photo by Doug Kanter from The New York Times

This article, in the New York Times, seems to reinforce the unspoken truth. Imagine, by answering an email, you'd be given the opportunity to design a large villa in an exotic locale, unconstrained by anything other than your own imagination? A young designer's dream project, with the added bonus of international exposure and the guarantee that the project will be built. Why can't we all be so lucky?

We can, apparently, as long as we work for the celebrities of our profession, in this case the dymanic team of Herzog and de Meuron. Their reputation brought them a commission which they magnanimously bestowed on 100 firms. They spread the wealth to those they trusted, admired, knew. And why not? If they at one time employed these designers, they must certainly have some faith in their abilities.

This "six degrees" concept was something I thought long and hard about when choosing to go to graduate school. I took a risk, attending a school whose program that, I felt, offered more in terms of personal growth and intellectual exploration. I turned down a school whose faculty and reputation attracted an international list of big names for critiques and reviews. In the end, I spent three months looking for job. My friends at the other school? Picked up by starchitect firms before they even left.

I remember visiting some friends attending the "other school" for a summer abroad. One of their classmates was obsessed with getting big name firms on her resume, even though she had at least three years before graduating. She had her summer internships all planned out. As a California native, she would apply to Gehry or Moss or Morphosis first. Then, after her third year, she'd look for a big East Coast name, like Holl or Eisneman. And after fourth year, she'd look at an international firm, like OMA. With such a resume, she was certain that, come her fifth year, she'd be accepted to any Ivy League grad school, which would, of course, lead to a permanent job at some star firm. That would, inevitably, lead to her own success later on.

At that time, my friends and I pondered the logic. Weren't other things important? Like the size of firm you worked for? Or how the firm practiced? Maybe the firm's business model? How about the potential exposure to different projects and building types?

But, after my rounds of graduate school applications, my first bout in the arena that is the job hunt game, I understand her perspective. She was younger than me, but much less naive to the realities of the world that we operate in. She realized the fundamentals. Relationships mean something. Connections mean something. Not everything, but definitely something. Name-dropping, when the relationship is significant, greases wheels, opens doors. And if your goal is to be as famous as those you currently idolize, it just might be the fastest way to get there. So let's just acknowledge it: in the design world, incest is best.


Blogger flanthrower said...

I think a lot of what you said can be applied to the legal world too. I had friends like the gal you describe in law school and while they may not be the happiest (or most interesting for that matter) people in the world, they're sitting comfortably at their big firm desk making at least 150K a year.

I'm about a year out of law school now and really wonder about all the decisions (big and small that got me here). I wish I'd "seen the light" a little earlier and figured things out a little faster. Maybe then I wouldn't be sitting here wondering how I ended up at a big firm doing what many of my friends essentially do but doing it without any of the sweet office, benefits or salaries of my smarter friends.

12:44 AM  
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