Column: “The least romantic thing of being a self-employed architect”

Or how I look back on my first 5 years as an architectural entrepreneur

Following my course at university, I read Deyan Sudjic’s book The Edifice Complex (Ned: De Macht
van het Bouwen). This book is quite good when it comes to explaining what is so fascinating about
architecture, while also being critical of the cynical reality in which architecture is practiced. At
university, I learned about the fact that architectural highlights like the Renaissance or Dutch
Classicism cannot be seen as separate from the prosperous economy they were built in – a given that
is true for most highs (and lows) in architecture. Money and architecture are intertwined. Or “No
money, no details” as the architect Rem Koolhaas commented on less successful projects. All this was
no more than an echo of what to expect as an architectural entrepreneur. Unfortunately not much
was written about this.

Unlike the heroic stories you so often read about as a student, an architectural firm is above all just a
normal company which needs to make profits for its existence – with all the things that come with it.
Apart from the contemplation beforehand, starting a company is relatively easy. Buying things for
your company is the easy thing – just like 6,400 other architectural companies (and a lot of sort-of-
architectural companies which practically do the same). From a statistical point of view, however, it
is not most architects’ favourite thing to do. From my own experience I can say that finding clients
isn’t the easiest thing to do either – especially during an economic crisis. Finding the interesting
projects is even harder.

Although a necessary thing to do, for most entrepreneurs it is hard to get used to finding new clients
or projects. The thing you love doing the most is working as an architect, but, before you can do that,
you need to sell yourself to people all the time. And you need to value yourself. Ultimately, the
whole thing depends on whether people go along with your vision and the image of yourself that you
have put forward. Chances are your offer will be rejected, no matter how much work you have put
into it. As an entrepreneur you need to cope with setbacks and ongoing uncertainty. It has taken a
while to internalise this within my daily life. For many others it is the most important reason to stop
being self-employed.

Next to finding new clients and projects, it is equally important to find the right ones. New
companies in particular are very vulnerable to dubious clients. You can recognize these ‘clients’ when
they use phrases such as ‘offering you a chance’ or to ‘get some experience’. Without any financial
compensation of course. These ‘clients’ come in all sorts of forms, from ‘sympathetic’ men or women
to professional competitions. All they want is your work for free. No matter how tempting it may be,
don’t ever work for these kinds of clients who do not want to pay for your work. Especially refuse
when you have to pay for doing work. Nothing is valued less then unpaid work.

When you have found your first projects, it is time to reflect on your ambitions. Ask yourself the
question whether you are still doing what you want to do. Especially in the beginning, it is hard to
refuse work, but it might not be the work you want to do. And it is hard to have a comprehensive
vision which answers contemporary questions, if you are forced to do something you do not want to
do. A critical self-inquiry from time to time and developing a vision helps the vague ideas you had
about architecture to become more concrete. And it helps you to make good decisions.This might
also involve saying no to work that doesn’t fit your ambitions. As far as I can see this is an ongoing
and necessary process if you want to stay relevant – except if you have to pay for it.
Entrepreneurship was more difficult than I expected when I started my business 5 years ago. But
slowly you learn from all the frustrations, failures, bad decisions, dubious clients, dubious

competitions and most of all the repeating questions whether you are doing the right thing. The
legitimate question is whether it was such a good idea to start an architectural firm in the first place.
A question I have asked myself repeatedly.

The reason why I am still a self-employed architect is first and foremost that I experience designing
buildings as something extraordinary. And as an architectural entrepreneur you are the centrifugal
power of that process. The few times when all opposing forces come together in a coherent design
gives enormous satisfaction. It is comparable with a writer writing a book. Or any other artist making
art. In architecture, entrepreneurship gives you simply more freedom and it is that freedom I think I
need to perform well. I don’t think there are many reasons for it other than that.

P.S. Luckily my friends and relatives looked at it in the same way. They have supported me
throughout my journey and continue to do so. Without their incredible support it might have been a
totally different story given the enormous emotional and financial pressure you face as a young
P.P.S. I would like to thank the editorial board of Chepos for giving me the opportunity to write about
the things I wanted to write about for the last 5 years.

Pagina uit Chepos 57
Pagina uit Chepos 57

Dit artikel is gepubliceerd in de Chepos 57 (juni 2017). Zie: