From the Government Studio, General

Their Hubris is Stunning

By Jim Nielson, AIA, Senior Principal and Director of CRSA’s Government Studio

If I have the self-confidence to lead a design team into a newly imagined world no one has ever visited before, that confidence can be the catalyst for creation. But with it I can also lead followers astray. If I am proud of my achievements, that pride may motivate me to accomplish great things—unless I am so proud I become arrogant and start thinking of myself as invincible. Transformative architecture depends to no small degree on self-confidence and pride. Yet unrestrained, pride becomes hubris, also known as arrogance.

Milwaukee Art Museum

The Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava. (Photo by Michael Hicks)

I recently closed a conversation with the president of an Applied Technology College by thanking him for helping take the pretense out of higher education. But after saying that, I thought that being a bit pretentious may help students develop the proper attitude for studying Immanuel Kant and René Descartes. And as we become better educated, we do develop increased self-confidence. Some might call it pride. And some may say our path leads too easily from there to overconfidence and hubris.

In September 2000, the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington invited the heads of major motion picture studios on short notice to talk to the committee about whether they were marketing violent and provocative material to young children. Chairman John McCain described the failure of most of the invitees to even appear before the committee this way: “Their hubris is stunning.” I thought the statement ironic, coming from Senator McCain as it did. If anyone knows hubris firsthand, I suspect he does. Perhaps because I’m an architect and am also well acquainted with the trait, those words have stayed with me ever since.

If you have architects among your acquaintances and professional associates, you are probably aware that we, like senators, tend to be imbued with an outsized sense of confidence. Several years ago my wife Marilyn was preparing a beautiful Bach piece to play as an organ solo in church. When I heard her working on it, she sighed and said, “I wish it didn’t have such a showy ending.” She thought her solo should finish with a more reverent feel.

“Change it!” I suggested. She was well trained and gifted enough; there was no doubt she could have done it fabulously.

“Change Bach?” she recoiled. She wouldn’t even think of doing that.

Listen to Ken Cowan play Bach on the Pipe Organ. Ken recently performed for the Eccles Organ Festival at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.


In contrast, I know quite a few architects that wouldn’t think twice about borrowing a design concept from Gehry or Calatrava (or Wright in his day), if the opportunity presented itself, and then presume to improve on it. I’m guessing most would attempt such a thing and think nothing of it. Perhaps that is why I so readily encouraged Marilyn to tamper with an organ solo by Bach. You’ll recall that when a group headed up by Carl Sagan was considering including the music of Bach on the Voyager 1 space probe to share something about our planet with any aliens it encountered, a member of the committee is said to have objected, “That would be showing off.” A scientist or a musician might tend to show this sort of reverence, but for good or for ill, we architects tend to be less easily impressed.

Does our pride or even hubris serve us as architects? Does it serve our clients and the public at large? I once heard an architect speak in disbelief about a convention of lawyers where some complained about the “God complex” of architects.  And that observation came from attorneys!

In my experience, even medical doctors–another profession known for holding itself in high esteem–have nothing on architects when it comes to gold-plated self-concepts. Their preparation and practice teach them to follow detailed, specific recommendations with precision in many aspects of their practice. We’ve probably all had personal experiences with medical doctors deferring to specific protocols for diagnostic, testing and treatment approaches to specific illness.

Architects on the other hand, particularly those that focus on design, don’t often think in terms of protocols. We may study great architects past and present, along with their built precedents; however, we feel not so much bound by any one approach to solving a problem as by an awareness of selected approaches and features we might possibly expropriate and put to good use in our latest project.

Likewise, we don’t always think in terms of the client’s feedback. For example, when Herbert Johnson hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Johnson Wax Building, their relationship started out the way you’d expect: Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Herbert Johnson. Mr. Johnson said later, however, that by midway through the process, they were equal team members, and by the time the project was nearing completion, it seemed as if he, Mr. Johnson, worked for Frank Lloyd Wright.

Johnson Wax Headquarters

Johnson Wax Headquarters by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Photo by Jeff Dean)

So what or whom do architects revere? Most of us respond to the wishes of the client, although that may not always be obvious. And we tend to design based on our understanding of what will be most beneficial to the environment and to building occupants. Staying on budget? Getting done on time? These things matter to our clients, so they should be and are priorities for most of us too. There are a few architects, however, that seem to march not so much to a different drummer, as it were, but to—say—the oboe section.

Architects may well be prone to hubris, but if we are so afflicted, it is a natural response to the challenge of designing one-of-a-kind solutions to complicated processes—a challenge we face on so many of our projects. The confidence to strike out into the unknown and develop an original design approach for a one-of-a-kind need is not very far removed from arrogance. But without this accentuated self-confidence, so typical of architects, our designs would rarely reach beyond the timid. We would be lacking the bold strokes necessary to reach past the mundane and to craft innovative advances in our built environment that improve the performance and even the lives of building occupants.

Hubris is a potent thing. In years gone by, it destroyed the great heroes of literature and energized military zeal in improbable causes—some of which succeeded. Today, it makes people brash and confident, and yes, hard to live with.

And although during difficult projects, the hubris of the design leader may strain relations with clients and project team members, that same hubris gives self-willed, devoted architects the inspiration and the ability to design great and memorable places, places we love, places that sustain us, places that satisfy our demands, and places born out of challenging circumstances—even though most will never know of the struggles along the way that inevitably engender great architecture.